Don Was Channels Sir Paul McCartney

July 9, 2014
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THE EVENTS SET IN MOTION BY THE Beatles’ U.S. television debut on the Ed Sullivan Show, on February 9, 1964, changed this nation’s musical and social landscape from the ground up. For bassists, of course, that’s a literal reference, as Paul McCartney—via his Höfner 500/1 Violin Bass, and later his Rickenbacker 4001S-LH—forged the template for rock and pop bass playing. Among the time-honored devices and concepts Macca innovated or adapted and refined (and thus passed on to the rest of us) include the bass line as a counter-melody, or sub-hook (“Come Together” being the ultimate example); theuse of non-root tones (3rds, 5ths, 7ths) as the root (creating “slash chords”); the use of chromatic and passing tones for both voice-leading and intentional dissonance; singing and playing independent vocal and bass lines; upper-register fills; tasteful use of space; double-tracking and overdubbing bass parts; doubling piano and guitar lines; pick-playing; utilizing dead and ghost notes; and placing the feel in various parts of the pocket. That’s not to mention his innate ability to see the instrument as a composer and arranger, as well as a rhythm section member. Or as Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover summed up in his Bass Player cover story [October ’13], “Paul has the lyrical sensibility to say something profound on the bass that doesn’t get in the way of anything else in the song.”

With the 50th Anniversary of the Fab Four’s first foray stateside upon us, what more relevant way to celebrate than via a televised tribute show? Filmed at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, site of the 56th Annual Grammy Awards the previous day, The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute To The Beatles featured more than a dozen artists covering 21 Beatles songs, including honorees McCartney and Ringo Starr. Musical directing the affair was über-producer, Blue Note Records President, and bassist Don Was, who selected and led a house band that boasted drummer Kenny Aronoff, guitarists Steve Lukather and Peter Frampton, keyboardists Greg Phillinganes, Chris Caswell, and Rami Jaffe, percussionist Lenny Castro, three backing vocalists, and three horns. While Was handled the bulk of the bass work, the bottom was also held down by Mickey Madden with Maroon 5, Ben McKee with Imagine Dragons, Michael Bradford with the Eurythmics, Brian Ray with McCartney’s band, and, yes, Paul himself, plucking his Höfner. We asked Was to reflect upon the event; from learning Beatles bass lines and performing the songs to interacting with Sir Paul, the greatest of them all.

How were you hired for the show and what was your role?

Ken Ehrlich, who’s one of the all-time great producer/directors of music television shows, called and offered me the gig. He’s produced the Grammys since 1980 and is an expert at pulling off these very complex, multi-artist shows. Ken and his organization chose the performers and worked out the song selection. I was responsible for making sure that each artist was ready for CBS Prime Time TV at the end of their 30 minute rehearsal—by whatever means necessary! The most important part of the job was casting the right musicians: They had to be amazing players who could be totally countedon to respect the songs and inspire the singers. They had to be positive cats who were graceful and cool under pressure, who loved The Beatles, and who’d show up on a cold soundstage at 8am and—without complaining—plug-in and play the heck out of those songs every single time we ran them down. Everyone in that band was stellar and I was very honored to play alongside them.

Let’s talk about your gear.

I played a P-Bass that Nate White had specially prepared for me at the Fender Custom Shop. It’s basically a relic of a 1964 Precision with old vintage electronics, and I have La Bella Deep Talkin’ flatwounds on it. They used some really sweet wood and, as fate would have it, the bass came out sounding just about as good as any of my vintage models—yet, I can take it anywhere without having to hire an armed guard to keep an eye on it! I plugged into an Ampeg SVT; if it’s a newer head, I usually like the truck to take the direct signal off the back of the amp, but that wasn’t an option on this show. I brought an Acme Wolf Box DI that John McBride from Blackbird Studios in Nashville gave me as a gift; they’re made by the legendary Detroit engineer, Dr. Ed Wolfrum, and employ the same transformer and components that were utilized in the ’60s for the DIs that he built for the original Motown Studios. My buddy Al Schmidt mixed the TV broadcast, and I was very pleased with the bass sound he got.

My string bass was made in Mexico; I picked it up at Stein On Vine in 1993. We know nothing about its origin. It was beat up when I got it, and it’s in worse shape now. I mean, actually held together by duct tape in a few spots! I played it at the Bass Player LIVE! concert, and I’ve used it on a whole lotta records. It records quite well; very rich low end with a nice point bubbling on the top of each note.

What was your approach to playing Paul McCartney’s bass lines, and how did you prepare?

I felt it was imperative to capture the essence of Paul’s bass parts. His bass playing is so innovative and influential; he is the rock and roll equivalent of James Jamerson—weaving incredible melodic lead lines, holding down the low end, and functioning as a percussionist with complex syncopation. It would’ve been disrespectful to play those songs in front of him and cavalierly toss-off a “light” version of his work. We all owe so much to those guys and this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to express my humble gratitude through deed rather than words. So I really put my heart into it. We got the multi-tracks, isolated the bass, and I went to school on McCartney. We also did music-minus-one mixes without his bass, and I sat in my bedroom and practiced all night with the Beatles—just like when I was 14! In addition, I checked out recent videos of Paul and his band on YouTube to see how he or Brian [Ray] currently play the songs, so we could determine which elements stood the test of time for him. It was a lot of fun and very inspiring. My ultimate conclusion: Paul is a total bass genius.

Did you do anything tone or technique-wise to cover Paul’s Beatle Bass sound on a P-Bass?

There’s only one Paul; nobody plays like him or sounds like him—even with the same gear. Strapping on a Höfner and trying to mimic his tone would’ve been a losing proposition—the musical equivalent of wearing a Beatle wig for the broadcast! I just tried to distill the essence of his parts and then play them as best as I could. Paul plays those songs better than anyone ever will. He was awesome during his set. I watched him play “I Saw Her Standing There” while singing the syncopated melody, without missing a single 8th-note in the bass part. It blew my mind. How does anyone develop that kind of independence and pull off both parts so brilliantly?

You really got inside of “Something.” What was your process and take-away?

I played it over and over and over until the part was burned indelibly into my soul! Certain sections of the part are sacred and nobody should mess with them. But there are also portions that were clearly of-the-moment, and lend themselves to interpretation. Paul’s choice of notes is staggering. Check out the first bar: It’s got kind of a rhythmic 16th-note feel, jumping the octave. But he switches up at the end of the measure with this ascending line up to the fifth against the C major 7 chord on the downbeat of the second measure, followed by a melodic response to the vocal—it’s so wistful and heart-wrenching. The whole first section of the verse is this crazy ride of alternating rhythm and ingenious melodicism. Then you get to the “Don’t want to leave her now…” section, and the bass goes into this amazing melodic counterpoint line that really is right out of Mozart’s bag of tricks. It’s so deep; how does that combination of notes and rhythm just fly off of someone’s fingers? You’ve got to be humbled by that kind of musicianship [Note: You can find a complete bass transcription of “Something” in the April ’06 issue of BP.]

You cited “Hey Bulldog” as the hardest part to get a handle on. How did you arrive at the bass line you played?

I kind of rose to the level of my incompetence on that one! Paul’s performance on the studio version is totally adrenalized, uninhibited, and driven by an almost manic power. I was able to find the position on the neck where the shapes made sense, but I was unable to make those notes simultaneously drive the song like he did. Being from Detroit, I opted for groove mode and decided to sort of sit on the tonic and slam out 8th notes, knowing full well that whatever intensity may have been lacking in the bass would be compensated for by Dave Grohl’s incredible energy on the drums. He digs in so deep it’s almost frightening; the only other musician I’ve played with who has that kind of startling intensity is Iggy Pop. It’s like having someone throw a molotov cocktail through your bedroom window at 4AM! Dave and Iggy embody the primordial essence of rock and roll! [Note: You'll find a complete bass transcription of “Hey Bulldog” in the August ’09 issue.]

Did you do the same kind of listening research to play James Jamerson’s bass part on Stevie’s 1970 cover of “We Can Work It Out”?

Well, it was a very big deal for a Detroit boy to be playing Jamerson’s bass part with Stevie Wonder! It was a little intimidating with him sitting five feet away from my amp, knowing he could hear every freaking note! But I got over that in rehearsal and was able to enjoy the moment. Jamerson is my hero. We’ve all sat with our ears up to the speakers trying to figure out what he was playing. Over the years, I’ve found it way more rewarding to internalize the spirit and framework of his parts and then find my own way to walk the song’s path rather than to simply regurgitate Jamerson’s notes verbatim. Greg Phillinganes spent years playing live with Stevie and he really helped our band get the arrangement right. Even so, I spent considerable time playing along with the record (and a bunch of live YouTube performances) to reach the point where I felt comfortable getting up and interpreting a Jamerson part with Stevie Wonder. To be honest, it was one of the greatest thrills of my life.

What led you to play upright on “Yesterday”?

Katy Perry had staged a huge production one night earlier on the Grammys and wanted to change things up about 180 degrees. To her credit, she understood that the Beatles show was about music, not spectacle, and she was determined to keep it as intimate and unaffected as possible. When we rehearsed, she wanted to run it without the PA just to make sure that mere volume would not be mistaken for emotional energy. The upright has the warmth and natural wood vibration that seemed to suit the mood, so I picked it up and she dug it. in fact, we were striving for such intimacy that even whole notes on the low end seemed overpowering and I ended up laying-out for two-thirds of the song. I give Katy a whole lotta props for that performance. Tackling “Yesterday” was a risky proposition. She was fearless and cut through to the emotional core of the song. I was standing less than a foot away from her and was moved by her interpretation; she’s a great singer.

Did anything stand out to you having to learn and play the bass lines for “Don’t Let Me Down,” “Here Comes the Sun,” “As My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Yellow Submarine”?

Right before we played “Dont Let Me Down” on the show, they projected a film clip of the Beatles performing it at their rooftop farewell concert in London. Paul played an entirely different groove than the one he played on the record, which has a reggae-like feel. On the spot, I shifted up to the rooftop groove to maintain continuity. It kept me on my toes and in the moment, which is always good for the music. John [Mayer] and Keith’s [Urban] extended soloing on the end presented an opportunity to build and improvise on McCartney’s rhythms. At the first rehearsal, we jammed on the ending for about 25 minutes and it was transcendental; those guys are amazing musicians and they play really well together. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was full of surprises when I isolated the bass track. I had no idea that Paul was strumming two-note chords— fifths—all the way through the verse section. Then he breaks into that brilliant counter melody in the “I don’t know how…” bridge. He also doubled that bridge bass line an octave up on what sounds like a Rickenbacker 12-string; it’s amazing.

You played “Photograph” with Ringo for the Grammy Awards; did you check out that track beforehand, too?

Ringo asked me to be the MD for his Grammy performance, so about two weeks before the show it seemed prudent to give a listen to the original recording of “Photograph.” I was blown away! It’s a great record; I think it’s Richard Perry’s greatest production. We had to perform up to the level of that track and, the more you listen to it, the more you realize how complex and intricate the arrangement is. I believe Jack Nitzsche was responsible for the orchestration. If you saw the show, you may have noticed that we had a whole lotta folks up on stage and, were it not for Chris Caswell’s unique ability to perform several parts at once on his keyboards, there could have been twice as many hands on deck. In the end I think we got it just right. Klaus Voorman’s original bass part is sublime. I found no need to deviate from it. The Grammy Awards are an interesting event: Although it’s watched by like 80 million people, it feels kind of small and intimate when you’re there; it’s like a high school talent show. You’re seated among a whole bunch of people you know and then someone comes to take you around to the back of the stage and you play your little song and go back and sit down again! it’s quite relaxed and I was able to savor the moment and dig the whole scene.

Did Paul say anything to you bass-related during the whole process?

We got to hang out a bit and had a couple of really nice conversations. We talked a lot about bass and I hope I didn’t gush too much over his brilliance. I did get the distinct sense that he is not as impressed with his own musicianship as we are, which is a refreshing and admirable quality. While he is certainly aware of the global impact of his music, his perspective has, of course, been tinted by the mundane reality of having actually lived in the eye of the hurricane. And in the end, his humility through all of the hoopla is as inspirational as his musical accomplishments.

Don’t Let Him Down

As if playing Paul McCartney’s brilliant bass parts in front of him wasn’t daunting enough, Don Was also had to tackle a James Jamerson gem, all while maintaining his musical director role. Ex. 1a approximates 4 bars of McCartney’s chorus bass line from the Beatles’ January 30, 1969 live performance of “Don’t Let Me Down” on the roof of Apple Records in London. Using his Höfner, Macca played a busier bass line than the studio version, and the band (including Billy Preston on electric piano) played the song about four clicks faster. Lay back in the pocket and make those notes fat. Ex. 1b recalls the first four bars of the second verse, where Macca doubles George Harrison’s outstanding counterpoint guitar part (the notes in brackets are played by Harrison only).

Ex. 2a approaches James Jamerson’s typical three-bar verse figure on Stevie Wonder’s 1970 cover of “We Can Work It Out.” Keep the drive of the straight-16ths while also minding the swinging lilt of the overall feel. Ex. 2b begins with a pickup to the second half of the bridge (six bars in). Dig Jamerson’s signature syncopation and his ear-grabbing use of the dominant 7th in the Ab chord and the bluesy flatted 3rd (Bb) against the G7 chord. Finally, Ex. 3a resembles McCartney’s typical eight-bar A-section figure on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Dig Paul’s overdriven fifths, widely believed to have been played with a pick on a ’66 Fender Jazz Bass. Ex. 3b recalls the first 4 bars of the bridge, speculated to be doubled by Paul or George on a Fender Bass VI. Be mindful of all the scoops and slides into notes and don’t rush.

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