Nathan Watts On Stevie Wonder's 'Do I Do'

LIKE HIT SONGS, BASS ANTHEMS come in all varieties. There are the solo album features, such as Stanley Clarke’s “School Days” and Marcus Miller’s “Panther”; group-set gems like Jaco’s “Teen Town,” with Weather Report, and Paul McCartney’s “Come Together,” via the Beatles; and sideman shoutouts such as Willie Weeks on Donny Hathaway’s “Everything Is Everything.” And then there’s “Do I Do.”

Like hit songs, bass anthems come in all varieties. There are the solo album features, such as Stanley Clarke’s “School Days” and Marcus Miller’s “Panther”; group-set gems like Jaco’s “Teen Town,” with Weather Report, and Paul McCartney’s “Come Together,” via the Beatles; and sideman shoutouts such as Willie Weeks on Donny Hathaway’s “Everything Is Everything.” And then there’s “Do I Do.” When you consider the song is an over-ten-minute album track added to a compilation by Stevie Wonder, whose left hand had spun its own bass masterpiece (“Boogie on Reggae Woman,” transcribed in December ’07), but played no part in this recording, the trail would seem to run cold. In truth, almost thirty years after its creation, “Do I Do” stands as arguably the most under-heralded bass anthem of all, and one of the singularly great James Jamerson-inspired performances by a second-generation Detroit bass guitarist, Mr. Nathan Lamar Watts. “Pops taught me well,” laughs Nate, who could barely believe his own eyes and ears when revisiting the track while looking at the almost 300-bar transcription.

The Background

Born in Detroit on March 25th, 1954, Nathan Watts started on trumpet and switched to electric bass in high school, at the urging of childhood pals Ollie Brown and Ray Parker, Jr. Inspired by Jamerson and the rest of the Funk Brothers (who he watched through the basement window at Motown’s Hitsville Studios), as well as the rock and roll of Jimi Hendrix and Rare Earth, he worked his way through local bands. In 1974, via Parker, Jr’s recommendation, Watts got a call from Stevie Wonder’s office. Making a good debut showing at a large concert in Memphis and acing an L.A. audition, Nate was firmly in place for the recording of Wonder’s 1976 smash, Songs in the Key of Life. Following two more studio records (Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants and Hotter Than July), Wonder released the double-album compilation Original Musiquarium I, in 1982. It included four new songs (one at the end of each side): “Front Line,” “Ribbon in the Sky,” “That Girl,” and “Do I Do.” In the post-disco, but still dancecrazy era, an edited-down, five-minute version of the feel-good song—a cooing love ode to a girl—was released as a 7- inch single. It reached #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart (and #10 in the U.K.). The tune has since been covered by Gerald Veasley on his 2001 CD, On the Fast Track [Heads Up], and sampled by Ja Rule for his song “Livin’ It Up” [from Pain is Love, Def Jam, 2001]. Watts, who has served as Wonder’s musical director for the past 16 years, notes that Stevie still performs the tune regularly in concert (with Nate on his half-step-downtuned Alleva-Coppolo 5-string).

Setting The Scene

The late-spring of 1981 session for “Do I Do” took place at Wonderland Studios, on Western and 7th, in L.A.’s Koreatown. The studio didn’t have a control room and board yet, so a rented Record Plant remote truck parked outside served that function. Having played the song for his band at a gig soundcheck, Wonder taught it to them, section by section (no charts), that afternoon. Recording, however, wouldn’t occur until 3AM the next morning. Tracking in the main room were Watts, on his ’79 MusicMan Stingray [see Grit & Growl, page 34], drummer Dennis Davis, guitarists Ben Bridges and Rick Zunigar, percussionist Earl DeRouen, and Isaiah Sanders on Fender Rhodes. Wonder was in an iso booth with his grand piano and a mic. Fifteen horn players (reading Wonder’s horn arrangement), four backup vocalists, Paul Riser-arranged strings, Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet solo, and Stevie’s lead vocal and harmonica solo would all be overdubbed later. Wonder didn’t provide a scratch vocal, instead, he used the mic to call out sections of the song as it went along, some of which can be heard on the track. Mic trouble on the drums or percussion during the first verse stalled the first take, but the second take went all the way through and is what is appears on the album. Watts recalls, “We had been together a while and were a heck of a band at that time, so everyone picked up Stevie’s directions instantly. We were sounding so good and Steve kept adding sections; I got the feeling he just didn’t want to stop!”


Count Off & Intro

Before diving into “Do I Do,” it’s highly recommended that you tune your bass down a half-step, as Nate Watts always has (since being inspired to do so after first hearing Jimi Hendrix). This will essentially allow you to play the part in the key of C, giving you access to the pivotal open string moves Nate employed. He used his three-finger (index, middle, and third) plucking technique, except for a quick bit of slapping at the end.

The song begins with a three-note pickup from the guitar, the last of which Nate catches with his B pickup note. This track-long rhythmic phrase (the last 16th of beat three and the second and last 16ths of beat four) is key, as it was the master rhythm that Stevie Wonder gave Watts to construct his bass line around. Offers Nate, “I just filled in the notes between that rhythm.” What he came up with is visible in bars 1–4 and 5–8, which sets up some important parameters: First, note how Nate always anticipates the downbeat by a 16thnote and uses hammer-on slurs for smoother phrasing where applicable. Second, dig his use of the 6th in the I and IV chords, and the general B and E pentatonic flavor throughout the section. And third, catch his willingness to use chromatic movement (bars 2, 3, and 7) and his preference for filling over the V chord—usually with a B pentatonic tonality (first seen in bar 8). Watts’s bouncy part works well with Davis’s two-bar kick drum phrase, which has quarter- note downbeats on one and three, and two eighth-notes on the downbeat of the second bar of the phrase. Allows Nate, “Dennis’s simple playing gave me a lot of room to stretch.”

Verse, Chorus & More

The first verse at A continues like the intro, with a cool V-chord fill in bar 12. Says Nate, “I’m not sure why I filled so much in those spots, I guess there was space and it helped cap each phrase; I wasn’t thinking that deeply, though, I was just playing and reacting, and hoping Steve dug it.” He adds, “Inspiration-wise, I’m just drawing from my three main influences—Jamerson, Chuck Rainey, and [Curtis Mayfield bassist] Joseph ‘Lucky’ Scott—while trying to apply my own take on their use of chromatics, pickups, anticipations, and delayed downbeats.” The first chorus, at B, is actually set up by the two chords at end of bar 16. This leads to the pentatonic band unison riff (a la “Sir Duke”) in 17, 19, and 21, and Stevie’s eargrabbing altered dominant chords in 22. The section concludes with one 4-bar verse phrase and a subtle variation: Nate plays two eighth-notes on beat three, as opposed to the more syncopated beat three he played in the intro and verse. The second verse and chorus, at Letters C and D, mirror A and B until bar 40, where Nate lets out a trademark upper-register trill. From there, Wonder introduces passing chords in 42 and 44. These chords will come to identify the pre-bridge section, first heard at E (dig Nate’s nice open-string drop in 49).

A Bridge Too Far

As if he hadn’t already rallied the band behind him, Watts really makes the track his own at Letter F’s first bridge. Setting up a call and response pattern, he plays ascending root-5th-9th-type figures in 53, 55, and 57, answering them with staggering, freeflowing, descending, lyrical runs in 54, 56, and 58 (which nicely fill the gap in Wonder’s vocal). He admits, laughing, “I was pretty amazed when l heard it after all these years; I played that? Really?” He adds, “I was taught that on the bridge you have to make your part different from the rest of the song, to get that contrast; so I went back to my Jamerson/Rainey/Lucky bag.” With the first of his Stevie-cued bass breaks coming at Letter G, Nate keeps it basic but interesting in 59 and 60. He remains fairly simple for the break, as well, save for tagging it by starting on a high B, and his fresh, flurrying fill in 64. “Steve always reminds us to keep something simple the first time around, so you have somewhere to build to.” For the third verse and chorus (Letters H and I) and the second pre-bridge (J), Watts stays close to previous form, with his ever present subtle development and variation. The second bridge, at K, is another sizzling stepout, recalling the framework of the first bridge while delivering new crossing points (lean into the ringing 10th, at 92). Offers Nate, “Again, my goal was to play more melodically here, and make the bass sing.” Letter L’s second bass breakdown is actually a band breakdown, building towards the solos, as guitar and Rhodes re-enter at 107 and 115. Of interest are Nate’s growling syncopation in 106, and his return to a syncopated beat three when the Rhodes resumes (115).

Blow, Dizzy, Blow!

Although Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet solo at Mwas overdubbed later, Watts’s upperregister grab in 126 sounds like a live reaction to it. Wonder has Dizzy blow through the chorus before responding with his own harmonica solo at Oand P. Note that Nate gets a little sticky-fingered on the unison riff in 151 and 153 (also 77). He smiles, “I offered to fix those, but Stevie liked the way they felt and kept them.” Letter Q is the third pre-bridge and it boasts one of track’s less obvious, but steller moments: Watts’s range-leaping fill in 162. Meanwhile, his third bridge, at R, is a little more subdued, so as not to detract from his third and most striking bass break, coming at S. Explains Nate, “Something I’ve learned over the years is you’ve got to sign a track in some way; In ‘I Wish,’ I did it with the high slides at the end. This is me signing the song. I was actually thinking of taking it ‘out’ by playing beats three and four (of 175) up a half-step, but I kept it ‘in.’” Letters T and U contain the fourth verse and chorus, with Nate pumping along as powerfully as ever, “although Dennis, Isaiah, and I were looking at each other thinking, how much longer can it go?”

Extensions, Breakdowns & Thumb Thunder

Letter V’s extended pre-bridge is unexpected but supercharged, via Wonder’s looser, rougher vocals and some nice Watts moments. These include starting on the 5th in 193 and 197; the cool rhythmic variation in 201–202; the screaming high B in 209; the super-effective contrasting move to quarter-notes in 213–214; the rhythm-shifting fill in 220; and the movement in 226 that Wonder magically matches with his vocal. At W, Wonder calls for all except percussionist DeRouen to stop. He then begins his “rap,” which is answered by those musicians with mikes (not Nate, who adds a few slapped plucks). Next comes Wonder’s call out, “Nate,” at X (bar 255). Watts responds with an edgy looseness that takes him to yet more variation, while Wonder has a good time scatting (“I know the record’s about to end, but we just gonna play and play until it goes away.”) towards what will ultimately become wordless vocals. Highpoints include Nate’s jazzy turn in 259–260, hinting at a passing F chord; his octave abandon of 267; his F# yell-outs in 270; his climb from the open string 3rd of the chord in 272; and his flashy 5ths to start 278. Hearing Wonder’s call that “Earl is playing by himself,” Watts plays half figures on 279 and 280 before dropping out. “At that point,” he reveals, “it dawned on me that I hadn’t slapped on the track, so I let loose with that pickup and two-bar fill (282–284), never thinking Steve would keep it; I was shocked when it remained on there!” Like Bakithi Kumalo’s similar slapped lick on Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al,” of which this is a potent predecessor, Nate instinctively goes to the relative minor (G# minor) to give his outburst a dominant, bluesy tonality. Wonder reaffirms that Earl is playing by himself for the next four bars, before declaring, “Dennis is playing by himself,” for the last eight bars. Following six of those bars, Wonder begins a half-note countdown: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1—with Wonder and Watts ending on the final downbeat of 297, and Davis guessing wrong by anticipating his hit a 16thnote early.


Upon reflection, probably the two most impressive elements of the “Do I Do” bass part are how massively Watts drives the groove and supports the song, while enjoying his forward role; and how much theme and development and minimal repetition is going on, note to note, bar to bar, phrase to phrase, section to section. As an example, visually compare the over 50 bars of V chords and notice how few times he plays the same figure and how subtly creative his variations are. Observes Nate, “That’s from the Jamerson ethic of consistently creating and evolving a bass line, which he did whether it was a simple part like ‘Uptight’ or a masterpiece like ‘What’s Going On.’ From when I first picked up a bass, I’ve never liked playing the same thing over and over, I was always changing it up and wanting to do it my own way. Hearing my heroes function in that manner gave me confidence.” He continues, “I consider myself to be so very fortunate. There I was, 28 years old, playing with Stevie Wonder, a musical genius, and he puts no restrictions on me and makes the song almost a bass feature! I was surprised at the freedom he gave me, but he was jumping up and down listening to it.” Watts admits he uses the same approach when playing the song these days, but with less notes, “because some of the stuff I did is just crazy!” While the song and bass part remain mostly under the radar in the music world, Nate has heard praise from countless bass players the world over about his performance. His advice for navigating the part? “First, tune down a half-step. Then, take it section by section, like Stevie called it out to us. Look at the music, get your fingerings together, listen to the track, play along, and proceed forward.” He points out, “The feel sits squarely in the pocket, but I play it aggressively. Attack the pocket, but be sure to give all the notes their full value; don’t rush the fills, which can tend to happen, especially because of how often the downbeat root of the chord occurs a 16th-note early.” With regard to staying focused for over ten minutes, he concludes, “Get into the groove, have fun with it, and go along for the ride.”

In Other Words

Stevie Wonder, Victor Wooten & Rickey Minor On Nate

“Nate Watts is someone I’ve had the privilege of knowing since 1974; he’s kind of a jokester and just an all-around good person. He’s serious about his bass playing, yet he doesn’t take it so seriously that it becomes a stumbling block. I think that’s why he and I have such a long relationship, because he’s consistent with his personality and consistent with his great musicianship. There’s a fine lineage of top bassists who have come from Detroit and a lot of it has to do with how James Jamerson did his thing, which has led to an incredible connection between the way Detroit bassists play, and Nate is no exception; you can hear it in his approach, especially on ‘Do I Do.’

“As for the song, I wrote it in Jamaica on a Sunday, I remember that clearly. I was having a good time in Jamaica, I was in my hotel room and I imagined hearing a lot of musicians and horns on it, and the excitement that would create. For those reasons, when we got to Wonderland, I decided to cut the song live with the core band, and the energy was just right. The feel Nate got going and the fun he had with it made the other musicians click together, and it all fit like a hand in a glove—it was an amazing situation. I was mindful of the long dance tracks of the era, and we had such a great groove happening, plus I knew I wanted to feature Dizzy Gillespie on it, to educate people about artists in other genres of music, and to make that connection to jazz. With this kind of tempo, and with the drummer keeping it simple, bass can play an important role; and musically, the song benefited from the kind of freedom of expression Nate applied. Everything everyone else played all seemed to lean towards the bass, so this was definitely one where we said, Let the bass do it’s thing; let’s let Nate be great.” —Stevie Wonder

“First of all, Nate is a Genius, and listening to ‘Do I Do’ makes it obvious. Current and future musicians should listen to and study his playing just as we do with more popular bassists. On ‘Do I Do,’ not only does Nate display amazing technical ability through his use of fast-grooving 16th-note passages, but he makes the whole song bounce. What really knocks me out is the way he constructs and reconstructs each section as the song progresses. That is worth a second and third listen. As the sections repeat throughout the song, Nate adds a different flavor each time, just to spice it up and make the song build. The full album version is nearly ten and a half minutes long, and Nate not only keeps his part interesting, but also keeps changing it in a way that never deviates from his original part. This is a wonderful display of pure artistry and is more difficult than it may seem. I could go on and on: How he chooses the higher octave to start the bass breakdowns (brilliant); his melodic fills during each bridge (ear-opening); the fills during the long vamp at the end; the use of space while occasionally thumbing and plucking during Stevie’s rap (funky); the signature glissandos (pure Nate!)—there’s so much to talk about, but I’d rather listen. I suggest you do the same. Nathan Watts, thanks for the lessons.” —Victor Wooten

“Nate is synonymous with Stevie Wonder to the point where I don’t want to hear anyone else play bass with him, including myself! If Stevie is performing on a project I’m doing, I’d rather call in Nate and conduct. I’ve heard a lot of bassists play Stevie songs and try to emulate Nate’s nasty, greasy, fatback, downhome Detroit feel, but it can’t be done. On bass or keyboard bass, Nate has Stevie’s spirit all through his veins. He’s also a great, no-ego guy with a huge level of respect for all the players before him and all the ones coming up. As for ‘Do I Do,’ it’s an amazing, joyous song that features Dizzy Gillespie, but the core of it is Nate; what he plays is so right and so grooving! His bass is a little distorted and he digs in like crazy. He sounds almost like someone who’d been deprived of playing for years, and they finally grab a bass and just break loose. When he gets to the bridges and plays with such rhythmic and melodic sensibilty and harmonic context, wow! Who does that but James Jamerson? And like Jamerson, he never plays anything the same way twice during the song, he’s constantly developing the part. His mind is always so free when he plays. ‘Do I Do’ will go down as an all-time bass classic. If I ever need a little inspiration I just put that song on and I’m good.” —Rickey Minor

Nate & Vic Duet Do

At the 2010 NAMM show in Anaheim, California, Hartke presented Nathan Watts with their 2010 International Bassist Award. The star-studded evening included performances by Stevie Wonder and Marcus Miller, and concluded with a rousing run through “Do I Do,” featuring Watts and Victor Wooten. Check out the video at

Grit & Growl

The sound of Nate Watts’s bass on “Do I Do”—slightly distorted, tinged with string noise and rattle, and chock full of attitude—holds as much of the magic and aura as his well-chosen notes and blinding fills. Nate used his maple neck ’79 MusicMan Stingray—as always, tuned down a half-step—with month-old Rotosound roundswounds, and heard his bass through headphones. According to Gary O. Adante, who has worked with Wonder since Innervisions, and who engineered and mixed “Do I Do,” Watts plugged into a Countryman DI and an Alembic F-2B tube preamp set to slightly overdrive his signal (something Adante first suggested Nate try on “I Wish,” in 1976). Says Adante, “There was one track of bass, although it sounds like more.” He continues, “In the mix session, all I did to the bass was use a Teletronix LA-2A limiter on it. The slight distortion had an advantage of enabling the bass to cut through the track more easily—even one as dense as this. As for panning, back in the vinyl days you ran into trouble keeping the needle in the groove if you had a lot of bass and tried to do too much wide panning. The whole vinyl disc procedure has a way of driving bass frequencies towards the center of the groove anyway, so we didn’t fight it.”


1 “I Wish” Stevie Wonder
2 “Sir Duke” Stevie Wonder
3 “As” Stevie Wonder
4 “Contusion” Steve Wonder
5 “Master Blaster” Stevie Wonder
6 “Say, Say, Say” Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson
7 “I’m So Excited” The Pointer Sisters
8 “Waters of March” Sergio Mendes
9 “Muscles” Diana Ross
10 “This Place Hotel” The Jacksons


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