Rickey Minor Tackles The Tonight Show

The art of bassist bandleading has a rich but jagged history built on diversity and determination.
By Chris Jisi ,


Heeeere's Rickey!

The art of bassist bandleading has a rich but jagged history built on diversity and determination. Mingus, Cachao, Stanley Clarke, Bootsy, Jack Bruce, Sting, Meshell—they all helped pave the way for today’s pluckers to freely front ensembles in record numbers. But if you’re seeking the blueprint, you need look no further than Rickey Minor. A hard-grooving bassist with session-level proficiency and savvy, Minor has combined acquired skills such as composing, arranging, orchestrating, conducting, and producing with the gift of leadership, communication, creativity, and commitment to excellence to forge one of the most singular careers beneath a bass strap. Television, not the studio, is Rickey’s domain, his friendly smile and easy style familiar to viewers of American Idol, the Grammys, VH1 Divas, and countless other music-driven programs. In short, Minor has worked with everyone; and with the A-level talent in pop, R&B, rock, and country well aware of his ability to not only make them look good, but often push them to the next level, the 52-year-old musical director is one in-demand dude. And with Rickey recently accepting his first featured role leading the Tonight Show band, his time will be even more valuable.

Born in Monroe, Louisiana, on September 6, 1959, Rickey Minor moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1968, right about the time he got bit by the stage bug after winning a talent show dancing to Edwin Starr’s “25 Miles.” At 13 he started a singing group imitating the Jackson 5, while taking the only instrument left in the school music program, the flute. He laughs, “I hated it—I joined the marching band, and you couldn’t hear it over the drums.” Advised by his uncle that the members of his vocal group all needed to learn an instrument, Rickey chose the bass because he was singing Jermaine Jackson’s parts—“I thought, if he can do both, so can I.” Minor moved from a $50 Kay bass to a red Vox to a ’76 Fender PBass, as his mom saw he was serious about the instrument and taking lessons where he could. Rickey’s main learning tool was the radio, off of which he’d learn songs by bands like the Ohio Players, Kool & the Gang, and Earth, Wind & Fire, and make a list of the ones he knew in a notebook. When he reached 100 songs, he approached his uncle to manage a band he was starting. Dubbed Potential, the unit became all the rage at local proms, weddings, bar mitzvahs, and military-base dances throughout L.A.

When the band proved to be less serious about taking it to the next level, Minor quit to focus on his first term at UCLA. Although he “had it made” as a kid from Watts who was a math and computer science major with a full scholarship and housing, Rickey left school in his junior year to pursue his true passion: playing music. He began going down to the musician’s union, doing six rehearsal bands a day for no money. His work ethic also led him to seek out bootleg recordings of favorite artists shows, which he would learn in their entirety, in case the need for a sub ever arose. The vast networking paid off, as he met session drummer Ndugu—resulting in his first recording date—and subsequently session bass aces “Ready” Freddie Washington and Nathan East, who would invite him to their studio dates, where he would study their every move. On the recommendation of East, Gladys Knight hired Rickey for her road band, from 1979 to 1983. He followed that up with the bass chair in the L.A. production of Dreamgirls, and then Lou Rawls’s touring band.

Minor continued his tireless work ethic in his time off the road, which included putting together a local showcase for musical director John Simmons, who had a young church vocalist seeking a record deal. The singer was Whitney Houston, who remembered Rickey’s efforts and asked him to join her band when she went from opening to headlining status in 1986. When Simmons passed away, Minor became Houston’s M.D. in 1989, remaining until 1999. Along the way, Rickey’s ambitious eight-minute, fullorchestra medleys for Houston on shows like the BillboardAwards and the American Music Awards earned him a stellar reputation with TV producers and network executives. This led to an assortment of assignments for the newly formed Minor Productions, most notably his six seasons at American Idol. But it has taken a later time slot for Rickey to finally feel front and center. Following BASS PLAYER LIVE! in West Hollywood, we headed northeast to Burbank to watch Minor in action at the Tonight Show and discuss his unique musical path.

How did you get the Tonight Show gig?

I had heard about Kevin Eubanks leaving in February, and the thought crossed my mind, but I felt it was something I’d be more interested in down the road. Then my old agent from William Morris called expressing a desire to work with me again, and to say they had a job interview in mind that would offer stability and focus for my production company. My understanding was the Tonight Show had already seen a good number of people for the position. I met with them on a Friday, and by Monday I had an offer. What appealed to me, coming off Idol, was the opportunity for me to be featured—deciding on the musical direction of the band and implementing my own ideas, such as theme nights and having artists sit in. I wanted to create a fresh start, so I e-mailed the entire staff for song suggestions and I got over 800 responses!

Are there specific challenges to playing bass on the show?

It’s always a challenge to go live and have countdowns and cues in your ear while trying to keep the music moving and grooving, but it’s not really different from a live studio recording or concert; you have to be excellent every time. That said, the other night Jay bid goodbye to Martha Stewart and I wasn’t paying attention, so by the time I picked up my bass we were a few measures into the song. Fortunately, after the show I’m able to go in and make fixes using Pro Tools.

Generally, how are you able to focus on your bass playing while also musical directing?

It’s multi-tasking, for sure. As a bandleader you’re concerned with tempo, how everyone else is playing, the sounds they’re getting, and your own playing, which in my case often means reading a chart. I liken it to being a coach: you prepare your team the best you can, and then you just let them play. So sure, sometimes I catch myself listening to others when I should be focusing on my part—and don’t think the other six or seven projects I’m working on don’t race through my mind, as well! Ultimately, what I try to do is be in the moment and enjoy the music. That’s when all the years of training, discipline, and intuition you develop on bass kick in naturally.

How are you able to play so many styles authentically, and what has that done for your playing?

It starts with respect. A lot of musicians don’t play other styles well because they don’t respect them. I have the same respect for the Who as I do for Con Funk Shun or Eddie Palmieri. Then you need the passion to want to get it right. You have to always remain a student and learn the nuances: the attack, weight, and duration of the notes; the space and breath between them; how the line works with the other parts; the tone and vibe of the bass track. Every Friday I pick the 25 songs for the following week— five per show—and I make CDs for the band, so if I’m not on the phone, or while I’m driving, that’s all I’m listening to.

As for my playing, I think what really opened me up was six years of doing Idol, and the 85 cover tracks we recorded. Up to that point, there was music I loved but never got to play extensively, like the Beatles and Paul McCartney’s amazing bass lines. The process has certainly given me a greater sense of all the ways the pocket can be shaded, created subtle additions to my tone and technique, and opened up my mind harmonically; you become a better overall musician.

What do you think of other late night bands, past and present?

Obviously, the bar has been set very high in different eras, from Doc Severinsen’s big band with Johnny Carson to the original Letterman band, which is a personal favorite. The Roots with Jimmy Fallon, Conan’s band, Jimmy Kimmel’s band, George Lopez’s band, they each have their own style and approach that works for them, so I don’t really compare. We all face the same challenge of entertaining the audience and keeping the energy up in the building during commercials.

Would you say your Tonight Show band has a style yet?

Ours is more a sound than a style at this point, and that sound is wide. I think what defines us is our ability to play anything or back anyone with authenticity. Of course, a lot of my guys have been with me for years, so there’s the sound of me and drummer Teddy Campbell, and guitarist Paul Jackson Jr. with us, and keyboardist Dave Delhomme, and so on. We have a rhythm and a flow and really know how to play together. These guys are pound for pound the best at what they do; they all know their roles, anticipate and help each other out with parts and backing vocals, offer helpful suggestions to me, and add just the right amount of themselves to the music.

How do you assess your career path as a musical director?

Looking back, it all makes perfect sense. Early on, I realized I had leadership skills; I could set out a plan, write the charts, make a rehearsal schedule, hire the musicians, and motivate them to work and focus. Even as a sideman I always believed you should add value, so I would help the musical director on gigs—not trying to take over, just to contribute something extra. Eventually, I realized I also had good communication skills; I could put together a concept and convey it to the artist in a way that was palatable and earned their trust. I learned how to pace a show and develop creative ideas for the artists. The other key realization was that bass is the ideal instrument for an M.D. because we dictate and manage the groove and the harmony; we’re always looking at the overall concept of the music. Initially, I thought an M.D. had to be proficient at everything. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is the client doesn’t really care how it gets done—just get it done. So you have to put your ego aside and call in the people who are great at something you’re not, because all the client wants is results. At the end of the day I just want my product to sound great.

Who are some of your bass favorites?

Just go along the timeline; Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Chuck Rainey, Larry Graham, Bootsy Collins, Jaco, Anthony Jackson. My peers, like Marcus Miller, John Patitucci, Nathan East, and Ready Freddie. Younger players I work with, like Alex Al and Reggie Hamilton. Female newcomers like Tal Wilkenfeld and Esperanza Spalding. There’s a kid in Chicago named Derrick “Swoll” Ray whose feel I really like. But it was James Jamerson who reached deepest inside of me; I studied his every nuance, phrase, and ghost-note. To me, he’s arguably the most influential bassist and the most influential musician of our time. He not only shaped bass playing, he shaped popular music with how he moved and percolated on the low end, due to the sophistication of his rhythmic and harmonic genius. All of the other bass guitarists I mentioned are a descendent of Jamerson in some way.

What impresses Rickey Minor when he sees a young bassist?

It comes down to three things: good time, a good sound, and especially a good feel. Unless I’m watching a featured bassist bandleader, like a Richard Bona, I’m always thinking less is more. Your job as a sideman is to provide the bass function, play the pocket. If you keep stepping out of that to play flashy and impress other musicians, then you’re just playing for yourself and not the team. If you want to work, focus on consistency and discipline; don’t disturb the groove. That’s what moves me and catches my ear.

What are your thoughts on the state of music and where it might be headed?

That’s the million-dollar question; it’s hard to know where it’s going. I think if anyone knew, then the record companies would still be viable instead of struggling. For me, I just have to do my part—keep playing a lot of different styles of music live to expose it all to young audiences, and try to mentor young players and get them to understand the importance of learning their craft. I was studying everything from pop, funk, and bebop to Debussy, Ravel, and Vivaldi when I was their age. I’m not blaming them; they’re just not taught that way now. If we can get music in the hands of educated students it’s going to not only change the music business, but it will have a positive impact on society. Being involved in any of the creative arts—writing, painting, dancing, acting—is enriching and provides a deeper perspective on life.

Any other musical goals?

I’m working on my debut CD; it’ll be like a Quincy Jones record, with a crosssection of guests, not a bass solo disc. It will be mostly originals with a few covers. I’m also working on a soul music festival for the summer. I want to get more instruments in the hands of young kids, and get more music programs going in schools; those are my main focuses right now.


Tonight Show Timeline: Show #3918

10AM Rickey arrives at NBC Studio II in Burbank, immediately begins meetings and phone calls in his office—part of his lavish dressing room, furnished in the style of his home and equipped with surround-sound stereo, Pro Tools and keyboard setup.

11AM Tonight Show band (guitarist Paul Jackson Jr., drummer Teddy Campbell, vocalist Dorian Holley, keyboardist/guitarist Dave Delhomme, keyboardist Wayne Linsey, tenor saxophonist Miguel Gandelman, alto saxophonist Randy Ellis, trumpeter Ray Monteiro, trombonist Garrett Smith, and percussionist Kevin Ricard) assembles in the rehearsal room to go over the day’s five cue songs and guest intros, and rehearse with any artist they may be backing or have invited to sit in with the band. Engineer Lenny Wee mans the control room, able to record any incidental music, if scheduled, while Dave Hanson serves as House Band Tech. Music Librarian Mike Sauer provides charts for the day’s music from Arranger Diane Louie and 14 other staff arrangers, resulting in a computer archive that has already swelled to over 300 songs.

Noon Lunch break at NBC commissary

1PM Rehearsal and camera blocking on the band set (or guest music stage, if backing an artist)

2PM More meetings and phone calls for Rickey in his office, who on our show also spot-composes and records a Halloween cue at his keyboard, with lighting instructions, and then puts it in his computer drop box to get orchestrated and charted

3PM Wardrobe and makeup

3:45PM Jay Leno greets the audience, followed by warm-up comic Don Reed, who introduces the assembled band and then brings out Rickey; the band plays a warm-up number (Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4” for our show)

4PM Taping starts with the count-off of Rickey’s new Tonight Show theme [see music lesson]. On our show, the musical guest (Jamey Johnson) is self-contained, but the band rocks out on commercials, playing The Time’s “Jungle Love,” Jason Aldean’s “Crazy Town,” J. Geils Band’s “Freeze Frame,” Doxology’s cover of “Eleanor Rigby,” and “Our House,” by Madness.

5PM Show ends with Rickey-composed closing theme. After some meet-and-greats in the band lounge, Rickey heads home by 6 PM.


Rickey Riffs

At the heart of Rickey Minor the music mogul remains Rickey the bassist, as witness by two of his theme songs over the years. Example 1 shows his bass line from his theme for the 1998 TV series Motown Live. Be sure to swing those 16ths and try some of your own fills in bar 4.

Example 2 is from Rickey’s new Tonight Showtheme. Pulling out his iPhone, he proudly plays a recording in which he sang the melody, groove, and horn parts while jogging one morning last April. “The whole tune and arrangement just came to me on the spot,” he laughs. Example 2a contains the opening and closing riff. The stem-down notes are Rickey’s bass line, while the stem-up notes show the unison horn/guitar melody written in bass clef. Don’t forget the 5/4 bar. Example 2b has the main one-bar groove of the theme’s A section, as well as the two bars leading to the B section. At this tempo and with pushed notes, lay back a bit to sit right in the pocket.

Finally, Ex. 2c is some of what Rickey typically plays in the B section. The next time the show comes on, check out his fill over the D11 chord at about the 0:40 mark, a version of which can be seen here in bar 5.


Gear

Basses Two Sadowsky vintage-style J basses, one standard-style J bass, and one 5-string J bass (all with maple boards and Sadowsky hum-cancelling pickups and preamp); Sadowsky aged P bass with Brazilian board and Sadowsky pickup and preamp; Kolstein upright
Strings Sadowsky Blue or Black Label stainless steel roundwounds (.045, .065, .085., 105, .130)
Keyboard Basses Moog Voyager, Nord Lead 2X, Roland Juno 2, Roland V-Synth
Amps Two Aguilar DB 751 heads (second is a backup only), two Aguilar DB 410 Chocolate Thunder cabinets
In Ears/Monitors Ultimate Ears (keeps only one in so he can also hear the room sound), Clair Bros. wedge with 12" speaker, Clair Bros. sub with two 18s
Signal Chain Up to three basses into Lehle ABC box, to Ernie Ball 6165 volume pedal (with an out to Korg DTR rackmount tuner), to house via A Designs REDDI tube D.I., to Mackie 1202-VLZ3 Mixer (to run both bass and synth bass), to input of Aguilar DB 751


Minor’s Major Credits

The Tonight Show; American Idol; Grammy Awards; Super Bowl; VH-1 Divas; NAACP Image Awards; BET 25th Anniversary; UNCF Tributes to Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones; VH-1 Save the Music; Genius: A Night for Ray Charles; Emmy Awards; Academy Awards; TV Land Awards; Don’t Forget the Lyrics; Motown Live (TV series); The Next Great American Band; Motown 45
In printThere’s No Traffic on the Extra Mile, Gotham, 2009