My inspiration this month came while listening to some old R&B tracks with my wife playing DJ. She was digging on some old Wilson Pickett, a track called “Deborah,” which features Jerry Jemmott on bass. Jerry told me this was one of the first big sessions he got called for in New York, and when the tempo kicked in, he laid down something so funky, his phone was ringing from that day on. But then she scrolled over “Mustang Sally,” saying, “I won’t make you listen to that!”
Married to a musician, she is keenly aware of the song’s ability to make eyes roll. But in my May 2017 column, I suggested this is mostly a result of how often the song is butchered by bar bands. Don’t fault Tommy Cogbill’s legendary performance on bass, the Muscle Shoals groove, or Pickett’s incendiary vocals—the track remains brilliant after 50 years. So let’s examine what’s really going on down there, and why this ubiquitous song rarely gets played correctly.
I’ve played “Mustang Sally” hundreds of times, and Ex. 1 is what I’ve used as the basic pattern for this 24-bar blues form; never once has anyone complained. It makes perfect sense, as it uses the scale and chord tones you would play on a C7 chord. Rhythmically, it anchors the beat, hits the important syncopations, and sounds right. But throwing the track under the microscope revealed something else. When transcribing a bass line buried beneath an ancient mix, my trick is to play it pitch-shifted up an octave. This makes all those ghosted, sometimes-inaudible bass notes pop out like a guitar part. Slow it down, and you can hear every nuance clear as day. Listening to Tommy Cogbill’s original line on “Mustang Sally” this way, I had several WTF moments. First was the realization that I, too, have been playing it fundamentally wrong for 40 years. The second surprise was how Cogbill consistently plays the major 7th of the scale on beat one instead of the root—a strange choice, as the chord calls for a b7. Between the mix, natural pitch inaccuracies of old flatwound strings, and some bacon grease, the 7 slides up into the root on the “and” of beat one—resulting in much backbone slippage over the years. Cogbill lays into the b5 on the “and” of two, which continues the rhythmic and melodic tension in the bar. The rhythm itself is a standard syncopated pattern used in other songs like “Knock on Wood,” but Cogbill’s melodic displacement gives it a “snake eating its own tail” kind of effect. In the context of the stellar section work of Roger Hawkins, Spooner Oldham, Chips Moman, and Jimmy Johnson, the atypical pattern makes the groove happen, but it’s easy to see why legions of us have played it wrong all these years.
As shown in Ex. 2, The pattern repeats seven times, followed by a syncopated chromatic run to the IV chord, where the line is transposed to F. Continuing with the expanded blues form, the pattern returns to the I chord then heads up to the V, hitting a hard stop on the return of the IV chord. After the break, Tommy slips in a delicious fill to bring it back to the main groove. I asked David Hood, who sat alongside Cogbill in sessions, what might have inspired his choices, and he offered: “Jerry Wexler produced that cut, and he always talked about the brilliance of Tommy’s line with the use of that b5. I’m afraid I don’t know how or why he came up with it, but to me, it makes the ‘authentic groove’ of what is a pretty simple song.”
Now that you have the real line in front of you, next time someone drops a soggy fiver in the tip jar and screams “Mustang Sally,” instead of rolling your eyes, why not play it right for the first time?
Ed Friedland of Tucson, Arizona, is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks.