Bobby Vega is a world-class collector and vintage bass freak of the first order. The gear is real. The stories are true. The dates are foggy. And the names of the innocent have been changed to protect their identities… and save Bobby’s ass!
I’ve played detroit four or five times throughout the years, and every time I’ve been there, I’ve never gotten to see the city. I’d leave soundcheck to go to the store or get some air, and someone would stop me, ask where I was going, and then bring me whatever it was I needed. I thought it was weird, but I figured it was for my own good. This time I got out, and I’ve come back to tell y’all about my adventure. I realized how much of the city’s heart and soul I had missed because I’d only seen it on the surface.
It all started last year when I saw a picture of the Detroit Bass Players group with their basses, standing in front of the Motown Museum. Look at all those bass players, I thought. Wow, that’s cool! And then I discovered their BASSmint videos on YouTube. I knew there was something special happening. I had to visit.
I was at work one day when a guy named René Santiago called about an EMG P pickup. After I helped him choose the right one, I asked where he was from. When René said that he lived in Detroit, I told him I wanted to play his city. Long story short, he made some calls, I made some calls, and next thing I knew, my new friend and bass brother René was picking me up at DTW. From there, it was nonstop: After dropping my bags and brushing my teeth, I went straight to meet the musicians and hit soundcheck at the historic United Sound System Studios, the venue for Detroit Bass Day 2014— which was billed as a tribute to the funk.
(from left): Nate Watts, Lonnie Motley, and Bobby Vega As soon as we got out of the car, that sound was in the air. We knocked on the door, a security guard welcomed us in, and the band was already playing. The low end was thumping, and Nick Epifani’s presence—and his amps— made a huge difference. Lonnie Motley was on bass, making that sound, and I knew I was in the right place. Then Nate Watts walks in, says hey to the band, plugs in his bass, and bang—there’s that sound. What sound, you ask? The sound that’s been part of my life forever: that “Detroit feel.” That’s when I remembered that every city and state, every neighborhood, has a ((( SoUnD ))).
I looked around and realized this was no trade show like NAMM or Bass Player Live!, with clinics and product demos. This was a day full of performances by 20 different bass players, each playing songs with a backing band that consisted of a percussionist, four singers, two keyboard players, three guitarists, and a great drummer who called himself Rain Man. Everyone had the spirit, and since it was a celebration of funk, we tore into “Hair” by Larry Graham—and people were surprised when we hit the intro. Bass players were starting to show up with their basses on, walking around the parking lot smiling and saying hi to one another. I’ve never seen anything like it— it was surreal! Craig Skoney, who started the Detroit Bass Players Facebook group way back in 2010, was running around with his wife Debbie, taking care of people. Before long, it was time to pose for the annual picture in the front of United Sound Systems Studio. Man, it was cool!
It was great to be around all these bass players and the bass community of Detroit: folks like Nate Watts, Ralph Armstrong, Tony Green, Brandon Rose, Larry Lee, Big Ive Williams, Brad Russell, Michael K. Fredricks, Craig and Debbie Skoney, Terry Washington, William Pope II, “Goldie” Glenn, Emily Rogers, Vic Robinson, Wendell Lucas, Lonnie Motley, Mike Knolton, Reginald Canty, René Santiago, and Kern Brantley. Now I know why Detroit sounds like it does: y’all got soul! No matter what style of music they play— R&B, funk, soul, jazz, blues, rap—Detroit musicians have a unique flavor all their own, and I’m glad I finally got to experience it.
May the groove be with you.