IN MARCH, CHUCK RAINEY LIFTED HIS bass with his left hand, strapped it on, and fretted some notes. For the Godfather of the Groove it was a pivotal moment—the first time he had held a bass since suffering a stroke on November 4, 2011 that paralyzed the left side of his body. As of today, the 71-year-old Rainey’s recovery continues at a remarkable rate. “I could do a country gig right now,” he laughs. And he fully intends to join bandmates Harvey Mason, David T. Walker, and Larry Nash for their yearly tour of Japan backing pop/jazz vocalist Marlena Shaw in August.
The journey back from what Chuck slyly calls his “little bump in the road” was indeed arduous. After his family noticed him slurring his speech and he found himself bumping into everything on that November night, Rainey made the right call by heading to the emergency room instead of the bedroom. “Had I gone to sleep, my doctor said I would have either died or been totally paralyzed.” Admitted to the I.C.U., by the next morning he had lost feeling in his left side due to a blood clot in the right-front part of his brain. “The culprit was me ignoring my high blood pressure for 20 years,” he admits. Rainey remained in I.C.U. for a week and then a rehab hospital for a month, and he checked out bound to a wheelchair. “That was the darkest period for me. Ralph McDonald passed away during that time, which made me cry a lot. Plus we were coming off losing Cornell Dupree [in May], and my friend [Doobie Brothers bassist] Skylark had suffered a stroke. I kept thinking, Is it over for me? Will I ever be able to play again?”
Fortunately for Chuck, the two months of daily outpatient work that followed led to rapid improvement, through physical therapy on his leg, arm, and hand, speech therapy, acupuncture, and electrical brain stimulation. He now walks without a cane, has something of a stiff shoulder, and has the slightest of speech impediments. All of those will be but a memory when his rehab concludes in mid June. “The smartest thing I ever did was get good health coverage early on,” he stresses. “All of my doctors have been great. My neurologist is very happy and proud of me; he said most patients my age don’t ever come back from this kind of major stroke.” More importantly to Rainey, he can use his left hand—his “thinking hand”—to play bass again. He also credits the love and support from his family and friends, fellow musicians, and countless fans worldwide. “Hearing from my peers, like Will Lee, Lee Sklar, Jerry Jemmott, and Freddie Washington, was especially uplifting.”
The summer will be busy for Rainey. Though he will miss his first Victor Wooten camp in May, he plans on mastering his new solo CD in June, in time to release it in Japan for the Shaw tour, followed by a U.S. release. Chuck, who now plucks 4-, 5-, and 6-string Xotic Basses, describes the disc: “It’s called Interpretations of a Groove, and I’m singing on nine of the eleven tracks. I’m more of a stylist than a vocalist, but my voice has character to it.” That’s something fans well know from his spoken roles in the audio version of Wooten’s book, The Music Lesson.
Reflecting on his ordeal, Rainey is thankful. “The universe has always taken good care of me; if it wants me to keep going, I know it will help and protect me. I’m so grateful for the outpouring of love and support I’ve received from everyone. My advice in return, particularly to musicians, is make sure you put aside money to have health insurance during your career. And don’t be foolish or macho; get regular check-ups. If you’re diagnosed with high blood pressure or any other condition, get it treated.” Words of wisdom from a man whose choices on the fingerboard have influenced generations of bassists and whose path in life serves as an inspiration to all of us. To contribute to the Chuck Rainey Well Health Fund, visit chuckrainey.com.