Henry Skipper Franklin: Prime Mover

September 20, 2013

HENRY FRANKLIN KICKED OFF HIS CAREER by playing with Roy Ayers in high school, eventually spending a year with Willie Bobo in New York while gigging with Archie Shepp and Roswell Rudd on the side. Next, a nearly four-year stint with Hugh Masekela culminated in a blazing performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and a No. 1 hit, “Grazing in the Grass,” in ’68. He’s been ridiculously busy ever since, working with a mile-long list of luminaries that includes Count Basie, Pharoah Sanders, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Bobbi Humphrey, Al Jarreau, and Stevie Wonder, who called him to play on 1979’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. Just as impressive is Franklin’s 20-album discography as a leader; he released his most recent outing, this year’s June Night, on his own SP Records label. We caught up with the Los Angeles native between gigs with a quartet led by saxophonist Azar Lawrence and comprised of Franklin, pianist Theo Saunders, and legendary drummer Alphonse Mouzon.

You’ve been working with Azar Lawrence quite a bit lately.

We’ve been playing three nights a week for eight months now, and the quartet is just so tight. It gives me that Coltraneish feeling.

How’d you start playing bass?

I jumped on upright at a jam session in high school. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I fell in love. I was 17.

You’re principally an upright player, but didn’t you play electric for a while, too?

When I was with Masekela, Fender gave me some pre-CBS Precisions, and I loved them. Freddie Hubbard didn’t want to pay airfare for my upright, so I played electric on the road with him. But as soon as I got finished with Freddie, I said, No more electric bass. There was too much Paul Chambers in me.

What’s one of the biggest changes you’ve seen in your career?

When I was coming up, bass players didn’t really focus on soloing, and that’s really changed. I love it, because the bass is a solo instrument.

What are your priorities on the bandstand?

I keep time and I stay in the lower register, where I can provide something for everyone else to play off and make them sound better.

What’s your take on the young bassists you’ve heard around town?

A lot of these guys are playing notes, but the notes don’t mean anything. Playing lots of notes is fine, but the main job of the bass is to make it swing.

What advice would you give them?

I’d tell ’em to give me a call and come on over so we could do some woodshedding!



Henry Franklin, June Night [SP Records, 2013]


Bass Circa-1940 3/4- size Hoyer upright with an Underwood pickup
Rig Acoustic Image combo


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