AS THE ONE OF THE LONGEST-RUNNING BASSISTS ON BROADWAY, LUICO HOPPER has earned the trust of the Great White Way’s musical directors, who give him the green light to inject his wisdom and personality into his parts. That makes him the perfect choice to tackle James Jamerson’s highly creative, song-prominent bass lines for Broadway’s year-old hit Motown the Musical. Surrounded by three basses, Hopper is the energy hub of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre pit, ripping through such Jamerson staples as the four-string drop in the chorus of Gladys Knight’s “Grapevine” on his flatwound-strung ’66 P-Bass. He also plucks and bows his upright on ’40s standards, and he picks, slaps, and thumb-and-palm-mutes his 5-string through later Motown hits by Rick James and the Commodores.
First taking up bass in college, in his native Virginia, Luico taught himself by playing to records anchored by Anthony Jackson, Ron Baker, Billy Cox, and Willie Weeks. He moved to New York City in 1976, on the advice of Charles Mingus drummer Danny Richmond, and was soon compiling gigs and recordings with Gato Barbieri, Phyllis Hyman, Bryan Ferry, Diana Ross, Earl Klugh, Ashford & Simpson, and others. Jingles and Broadway also beckoned, including Dreamgirls, Five Guys Named Moe, The Lion King, and Shrek the Musical, where musical director Tim Wiel moved on to Motown and brought along his ace in the hole.
How did you prepare to play over 60 songs, most with James Jamerson’s bass lines?
Ethan Popp, who did our charts, was given access to the Motown vault, and he was able to isolate the bass to transcribe my parts. But I didn’t get the music until right before the initial showcases, so I went out and bought Standing in the Shadows of Motown [Hal Leonard] and prepared with that. Some of the song keys have been changed, and a number of the songs are faster because we’re using the TV special Motown 25 [NBC, 1983] as a tempo guide.
Do you have favorites to play?
The songs rotate somewhat, so three of my favorites are not in the show right now: “For Once in My Life,” “I Was Made to Love Her,” and “Tears of a Clown,” which is Bob Babbitt. I considered myself a big Jamerson fan going in, but having to play his lines has inspired me to dig deeper into his catalogue. A great track I discovered is the Diana Ross/Marvin Gaye duet “My Mistake (Was to Love You)” [Diana & Marvin, Motown, 1973]. Jamerson was a genius who revolutionized the bass guitar and influenced everyone who followed.
What’s your approach to his parts, and what insight have you gained?
I’m not trying to be Jamerson—no one can. His parts are so great, I just want to bring my own spirit to them. I came along in the era of roundwound strings, where you would almost never play an open string, so it’s incredible to see up close how Jamerson, with his La Bella flats, utilized ghost-notes and open strings in flat keys. And I understand why he plucked with one finger—the consistency you get. I use one and two fingers, but some of his busiest parts are easier to play with one finger. I also wonder if he was influenced by Oscar Pettiford. Certain ideas he uses remind me of Pettiford adapted to bass guitar.
What’s the nightly challenge and reward?
The challenge is to consistently play at a high level on all three basses, a much more achievable goal when you have a great drummer like Buddy Williams. It’s an honor to have been chosen to play Jamerson’s and other Motown bassists’ lines; you wouldn’t believe how many bass players come to see the show and lean over to say hi to me in the pit, afterwards. They know these parts cold, so I need to play them accurately and soulfully. Beyond that, the reward is the feeling I get from the music.
Original Broadway Cast Recording, Motown the Musical [UMe, 2013];
Luico Hopper, Reflections [Orchard, 2001], Lessons of Light [Believe, 1995]
Basses ’66 P-Bass with La Bella Flatwounds; ’06 Fender Jazz Bass V with DR roundwounds; ’06 Romanian e upright bass (with D’Addario Zyex strings, Frenchstyle bow, and Fishman Full Circle pickup)
Signal Chain Basses through a Radial Bigshot ABY Switch Pedal to REDDI Tube Direct Box to house (mic on upright, as well)
Other UltraPhones headphones; Dunlop Big Stubby picks; Snark Clip-On Tuner