Bobby's Bassment: The Sounds of America

Bobby Vega is a world-class collector and vintage bass freak of the first order.

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 am blessed and lucky to have been born and raised in San Francisco in the late ’60s, the ’70s, and the ’80s. Once I started to play music, I began to notice something: The bands in the different neighborhoods each had a sound, but they all had something in common—the signature sound of San Francisco.

After a while, though, I began to understand that it wasn’t just San Francisco. The Bay Area as a whole—I’m talking about the East Bay (Oakland and Berkeley), the North Bay (Sausalito, Mill Valley, and San Rafael), and the South Bay (San Mateo, Redwood City, Palo Alto, and San Jose)—had its own sound!

I grew up in and got to be a part of one greatest music scenes of the world.

I learned my art by playing music and hanging out with folks like the Jefferson Airplane, the Youngbloods, Big Brother & the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Santana, Etta James, Sly & the Family Stone, Cold Blood, Tower Of Power, the Sons Of Champlin, the Electric Flag, Moby Grape, and the Tubes—great people who happen to be musicians. And those are just the bands that made it; every Bay Area city had great neighborhood bands that never made it to the Big Time, groups like Granny Goose & the Soul Chips, the Violations, H.P Riot, Grand Theft, Sapo, Promatics, South Park, and the Quick Grits Soul Band. Yes, I missed a bunch, but you get the picture.

After a while, I started to zero in on how great rhythm sections affected the feeling, the movement, and the sound of the music that spoke to me. Sly & the Family Stone’s “Stand!” with Larry Graham on bass and Gregg Errico on drums, exemplified the San Francisco sound. Rocco Prestia and David Garibaldi of Tower Of Power were the Oakland sound just as much as Cold Blood, with bass player Rod Ellicott and drummer Sandy McKee—check out Cold Blood’s “Sisyphus.”

I began to see that all over the country, each area had a style and groove all its own. In Southern California, for example, Los Angeles had War, where bass man B.B Dickerson and drummer Harold Brown rocked “All Day Music,” as well as Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, with Melvin Dunlap on bass and James Gadson on drums.

In the middle of the country, Chicago had a few different sounds: Joseph “Lucky” Scott and drummer Morris Jennings with Curtis Mayfield, Peter Cetera and drummer Danny Seraphine of Chicago Transit Authority, and Earth, Wind & Fire’s Verdine White with drummer Fred White. In Detroit, James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt teamed up with Benny Benjamin, Richard Allen, and Uriel Jones to create the Motown sound made famous by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Marvelettes, the Temptations, and so many others. And out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, came pianist Leon Russell, right alongside the Gap Band, powered by Robert Wilson and drummer Roscoe Smith.

Down south, the New Orleans sound was the Meters, with George Porter Jr. and drummer Zigaboo Modeliste putting the fire under legends like Fats Domino and Little Richard. Straight out of Augusta, Georgia, James Brown and his rhythm sections—Bootsy and Jabo Starks on “Sex Machine,” “Sweet” Charles Sherrell and Clyde Stubblefield on “Say it Loud,” Tim Drummond and Stubblefield on “Lickin’ Stick”—set the standard. In Muscle Shoals, Alabama, David Hood and Roger Hawkins lent their unique talents to the Staple Singers, Bob Seger, and Paul Simon. That Memphis sound was all about Booker T. & the MG’s, as well as Hi Records monsters Leroy Hodges and Howard Grimes underneath Al Green, Ann Peebles, and others.

On the East Coast, Ronnie Baker and drummer Earl Young put the bottom on the Philly sound for groups like Archie Bell & the Drells, the Delfonics, the Spinners, Patti LaBelle, and the O’Jays. New York had a whole bunch going on: those great Aretha Franklin grooves, courtesy of Chuck Rainey and Bernard Purdie; Brooklyn’s Mandrill, who hit a peak in 1973 with its Composite Truth record, with Fudgie Kae Solomon on bass and Neftali Santiago on drums; and Stuff, with Gordon Edwards and drummer Steve Gadd.

These are just a few of the people who influenced my life with their music. There are so many more, including, of course, Jimi Hendrix and all the great British Invasion bands. I will get to them, though. This is the short version of a long, long story—just the beginning, not the end.