After our recent R&B vacation in Miami, let’s once again search the genre for early bass lines that eschewed the familiar walking patterns of jump/swing in favor of Latin-based rhythms. From a bass playing perspective, these lines are important reference points for a wellversed rhythmic vocabulary, and the tunes themselves are cornerstones of the early repertoire. The songs that captured my attention this month were produced in my hometown of New York City during the 1950s, mostly from the classic Atlantic Records catalog. In those early days of R&B and rock & roll, the New York session scene was built around arrangements that required musical skill to perform, and drew from a well-stocked pool of jazz musicians who could swing, play Latin rhythms, and cut the charts quickly.
While I was researching tunes for this month, Lloyd Trotman kept appearing on tracks that interested me, and it’s no surprise that he perfectly fit the profile of a top-shelf jazz player with classical training who could swing, read, and play rhythms. Born in 1923, the Boston native’s father ran a music school where he learned piano, harmony, reading, and solfege. While he showed promise on the piano, Trotman was mesmerized by the upright bass player in his father’s orchestra, which inspired him to join his high school orchestra to get his hands on one. Trotman got valuable early experience playing local gigs around Boston, and in the mid 1940s he moved to New York, where he began to play with the cream of the jazz scene. As a self-professed disciple of the great Jimmy Blanton, his style was a perfect match for a stint with Duke Ellington. While only in the band for four months, he recorded a remarkable trio album with Duke on piano and jazz-bass legend Oscar Pettiford playing melodies on cello. He performed with other jazz greats such as Billie Holiday, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman—but the 1950s brought about the R&B/rock & roll era, a time Trotman referred to as “the most productive and lucrative part of my New York career.” In addition to this month’s examples, Trotman played on quite a few important recordings, including Ray Charles’ “Mess Around,” Big Joe Turner’s original “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” The Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me,” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You,” the Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me,” Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem,” and the Isley Brothers’ “Shout Pt. 1 & 2.”
Example 1 is the basic pattern behind the 1953 hit by Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters’ “Money Honey.” The tune is a 16-bar blues progression that starts with whole-note downbeats on the I chord (sometimes referred to as “diamonds”), which releases to an almost walking bass line on the IV chord with the first three beats outlining the triad, followed by two swung eighth-notes on beat four. The musical profile is almost the same as the classic “Blueberry Hill” pattern, but the first three quarter-notes create a smoother groove that perfectly fits this swinging track. Example 2 is the framework for another McPhatter/Drifters number called “Honey Love,” a 1954 recording with a rumba feel. Trotman’s bass line once again emphasizes the triad, but it stays firmly on the beat with a half-note followed by two quarters. This rhythm is a common building block in Latin music for son tradicional, bolero, mambo, cumbia, guaracha tradicional, rumba tradicional, and several other styles. Example 3 is reminiscent of the part Trotman played behind the Drifters on their 1956 hit “Such a Night” (not to be confused with the Dr. John song of the same name). The rhythm is effectively the same as the previous example, with the attacks on beats one, three, and four, but the first note is played short to allow space for the drums to hit the anticipated backbeat on the “and” of beat one, and the whole track swings. The I–V progression also employs the “II over the V chord” trick. This comingling of Latin bass rhythms with swinging drums created the laboratory conditions for many modern rhythmic developments like funk and hip-hop.
Example 4 is similar to Trotman’s part on the classic 1958 Jackie Wilson hit “Lonely Teardrops,” written and produced by a pre-Motown Berry Gordy Jr. The track opens with a typical swinging ’50s rock feel, but it quickly changes into a straight-eighth-note rumba feel. The bass part once again works with the triad, but also brings in the 6th of the chord on beat four, which makes for an interesting Dorian texture when the C major chord becomes C minor. Example 5 is a close approximation of what could be Trotman’s most famous bass line. Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” hit #122 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list, and is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable songs of the last 50 years. It opens with Trotman playing a baion rhythm through the I–VI–IV–V chord progression, accompanied by light percussion. You may have noticed this intro before, but give it a close listen to hear the perfect intonation, in-the-pocket feel, and clear tone.
Lloyd Trotman described his approach to tone in an interview: “I developed a control over my sound to corral the sounds without spread, thus recording the pure sound. It is sort of like peeling the outer leaves off a cabbage, leaving a neat little compact ball. The recording engineers loved my bass sound because they did not have to corral my sound to capture it. It got me lots of calls for dates because the engineers let the record companies know about how my sound was so easy to record, a valuable time saver on studio time.”
There were many other upright bassists at work in the New York studios during the burgeoning R&B/rock & roll era, including Milt Hinton, Paul West (R&B Gold, March 2016), and George Duvivier, to name a few. But a look through the liner notes of the Atlantic Rhythm and Blues box set seems to indicate that no one dominated the 1950s scene more than the relatively obscure Lloyd Trotman—and now you know.
Ed Friedland is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks, and living outside of Nashville, Tennessee. edfriedland.com