In April 2022, a select group of orchestral session musicians received an offer to work on a Paul McCartney recording. It was short notice, with the session booked for May 1 at Capitol Records Studio A. The musicians who could make it said yes promptly. One was Caroline Buckman, a violist with a big, warm personality and eclectic music tastes. In her 20-odd years as a session musician, she’d performed on more than 100 recordings for Christina Aguilera, John Cale, and Harry Styles, among others. Over the years, Joe Jonas had become a good friend. She was accustomed to marquee recording sessions; but she was especially excited to record with a Beatle.
Due to the elusive nature of the session, though, the musicians were sworn to secrecy. All they knew was that they’d be playing on a composition called “Give & Take” and the only writing on the sheet was, “Strings arranged by Paul McCartney, Giles Martin & Ben Foster.”
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They were especially surprised when they found out McCartney would not only be attending the session — an unusual feat for an A-list musician — but that he would be sitting in the room with them, listening to them play. When the three-hour session concluded, he regaled them with stories, posed for photos, and signed the musicians’ sheet music. It was a special day that they could treasure in secrecy until “Give & Take” came out — that is, if “Give & Take” came out.
About a year and a half later, the song finally got its release, and it wasn’t what any of the musicians thought it would be. An acquaintance of violinist Songa Lee, who played on the session and was a close friend of Buckman’s, told Lee about it in a confusing way: “Did you know you are in a documentary? You played on the Beatles’ song.” When Lee looked into it, she was surprised to find out that “Give & Take” was now known as “Now and Then” — a final, supremely emotional recording by the Beatles, which McCartney co-wrote and co-produced. The strings mount around John Lennon’s voice on the recording and play off McCartney’s bass, swelling as the emotion builds. Lee was so surprised and emotional that she texted Buckman’s family to share the news.
Buckman herself, sadly, could not share in the joy. A few years earlier, doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer. On March 5, she died of the disease in Los Angeles at the age of 48, having no idea she performed on the final Beatles song. Her family created a foundation, the Caroline E. Buckman Memorial Scholarship, to help young violists in her name. Lee and others say that while playing on a McCartney song already meant the world to Buckman, she would have loved to have known she’d contributed to a Beatles song.
“She definitely would have cried knowing that,” Lee says. “It would have meant the world to anybody, but for her in particular, of all the musicians I know and work with, this probably would have been the most astounding and fantastic thing.”
“She would have been delirious [with joy] about it,” her mother, Erika Buckman, told the CBC, who first reported news of Buckman’s story, adding, “I’m very proud.”
Lee describes the personality of Buckman, who was born to Erika and John Buckman in Charlottesville, Virginia, on June 5, 1974, as vibrant. “She was just very warm and loving and generous,” Lee says. “She was always thinking about what she could do to help her friends. She really loved being a good friend.”
“She was just a really warm soul,” says cellist Mia Barcia-Colombo, who knew her from recording sessions. “She had a great sense of humor. She was always smiling and always having a good time. She was always surrounded by a close-knit group of friends. She was just a great, friendly presence at work.”
Buckman, who got into college on a swim scholarship, was also incredibly active. She and Lee took long hikes when Lee was pregnant, and when the pandemic changed their lives, she convinced Lee to start playing tennis. “She would take an aerobics class followed by a dance class followed by a hip-hop thing and then play tennis and then go for a walk,” the violinist says. “She was always on the go, always wanting to do more.
“I think the greatest impact she had — she would want it to be viola — but the greatest impact she had was on the people, her friends,” Lee continues. “She always had time for them.”
Viola, however, was her passion. Her mother, who introduced her to the Beatles’ music, told the CBC that her first instrument was the piano followed by cello (her mother discouraged the latter because it wouldn’t fit in their family car). By the time she graduated Charlottesville High School in 1992, she was first chair, according to an obituary. She studied viola performance at Arizona State University, obtaining a master’s degree from the Hochschule für Musik Carl Maria von Weber in Dresden, Germany, in 2001. After moving to L.A. in 2002, she started playing with regional ensembles and started session work.
“She was beloved,” Lee says. “There are different sects of musicians in L.A. You have the hip, rocker type, and the very serious classical performers and the symphony and studio musicians. She did the whole gamut of everything.”
The McCartney session itself was special to her. Buckman’s boyfriend, Mitch Brown, told the CBC that she was “super thrilled” to have recorded with McCartney and had even asked him for his autograph. “She said, ‘I played with Paul McCartney today,'” he recalled. “In her entire career, she’d never asked a colleague [for an autograph].” (In addition to Brown and Erika Buckman, Caroline is survived by her brother, Daniel, and sister, Simone.)
Because Buckman was living with cancer at the time, Lee recalls her arriving to the session punctually and leaving when it was done, as others spoke with McCartney and posed for photos. “She just was not feeling great, so I know it was a struggle at that point,” the violinist says. “Sadly, that was a tough day. She tried to time things so she would not be overly tired.”
But Buckman didn’t let it show. “I found out she had been diagnosed years ago, but then I would see her at work, and it was as if nothing had changed,” Barcia-Colombo says. “For someone to have that energy when they’re delivered tragic, unfortunate, and really unfair news when they’re so young, that’s a testament to her character.”
What matters to Lee is that Buckman was present for a unique, and now historical, occasion. “Paul wanted to be in the room, listening,” she says. “He had some tweaks, like, ‘Do more of this or that.’ He knows what he wants but he’s not controlling. He’s a perfect musician that you’d want to work with.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever done a recording session for someone who actually sits in the live room with the musicians,” Barcia-Colombo says. “Usually, they want to sit in the booth and hear the mix. I remember him [telling Giles Martin], ‘This is where the magic happens. I want to sit here and enjoy it.'”
“The highlight of this experience was being a part of that day,” Barcia-Colombo says. “It’s certainly exciting that it’s for a Beatles song, and we’re thrilled about that now. But I feel like that day was the main event.”
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