Great Moments in Rhythm and Blues Bass

This month, let’s look at some great moments in R&B—made great simply because they are intros where all you hear is bass!
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This month, let’s look at some great moments in R&B—made great simply because they are intros where all you hear is bass! Last month’s excursion to New York City found us examining the upright work of Lloyd Trotman, who for all his accomplishments in jazz, is best known as the guy that played the intro to “Stand By Me.” It made me think about why those four bars of music stood out amidst Trotman’s exceptional, if not low-profile, career. If you’re reading this, you have undoubtedly experienced the power of the bass—when it grabs you, you know it. Those of us who make it our life path are incurably drawn to that energy, leaving us no alternative but to boogie, oogie, oogie ’til we just can’t boogie no more. The average listener understands this power in a more subliminal way—dancing is an obvious response, but head bobs, toe taps, and finger snaps also count. But every now and then, the clouds of record production clear to create a shining moment where everything chills—and they “lis-ten to the bass-man.” Whether an intro or a breakdown, those fleeting measures of bass pushed to the front, playing the song’s groove, hit the listener square in the gut, with a roundhouse punch to the head. They may have been feeling it before, but now that they can actually hear the bass line, you own them. So in the spirit of Mr. Trotman’s most famous lick, let’s look at some other classic bass breaks in R&B. The practical applications are clear—if you have to start the tune, you’d better know the lick!

About 32 years ago I was hired to back up the Drifters on an “oldies” package show that included the Marvelettes, and Gary Puckett & the Union Gap. While I thought I was familiar with the music, at one point during rehearsal, singer Charlie Thomas looked over and told me to kick off “Under the Boardwalk.” As nothing specific was written on the chart (not unusual), I followed my instinct and played something like Ex. 1. It fit the feel of the tune, so I thought everything was cool. He let me play for four bars, and then he stopped the rehearsal and said: “Now, that’s a perfectly fine intro if you were playing “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” but we’re playing “Under the Boardwalk,” and it goes like this!” He sang the lick shown in Ex. 2. I recognized and switched to it immediately—but I should have known it before walking in the door. I’m grateful he handled me kindly; you don’t always get off the hook that easily.

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“Dock of the Bay” was originally played by the great lion of R&B/soul music, Donald “Duck” Dunn. While known by civilians as the pipe-smoking guy from The Blues Brothers, Dunn was one of the pillars of early electric bass playing, a man whose work I’ve discussed in my previous BP column Blues You Can Use [June ’14] as well as in my book, The R&B Masters [Backbeat Books]. We will revisit his work more fully in a future installment. The info I could find for “Under The Boardwalk” lists jazz upright legend Milt Hinton on bass, but the intro is clearly played on electric bass (with a pick). The liner notes also list Bob Bushnell on guitar. While the Philly native did indeed play guitar professionally, he was also known for playing bass lines on a Fender Bass VI (not to be confused with the modern 6-string bass). Doubling an upright bass part with a Bass VI played pickstyle became a defining production technique of the ’50s and ’60s, sometimes called “tic tac” bass. The staccato pick attack over the thump of the upright made the bass line stick out, and as mentioned earlier—that’s how we get ’em. We will examine the “tic tac” phenomenon, as well as Mr. Bushnell, in later columns.

Another master of the bass to be explored further is the legendary James Jamerson. His contribution to our world is so all-encompassing that it is no exaggeration to call him the father of all modern electric bass playing. Whether you’re a head-banger or jazz snob, his influence has reached you. Jamerson is also featured in The R&B Masters, but for a full look at the man and his music, check out Alan “Dr. Licks” Slutsky’s seminal work, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which is not only a book/audio package, but also a feature-length film. If I were in charge of writing laws for bass players, one of them would make reading this book, and viewing the film, mandatory. But for now, let’s check out some of the most famous bass intros in history, courtesy of Mr. Jamerson. Example 3 is as simple as it gets: two notes, but you only have to play them once before everyone knows what tune is going to happen. When some bassists play the Temptations hit “My Girl,” they often mistakenly play the guitar line, the iconic ascending major pentatonic run—don’t. Example 4 is another lesson in simplicity from the man who could play more notes with one finger than most of us can with two (or three). Although the Supremes song says “You Can’t Hurry Love,” many bass players have a hard time not hurrying the groove of its deceptive intro, which also is the basis of the entire groove. The swing-shuffle feel is particularly challenging at this tempo, and yet James makes it sound relaxed and in the pocket. Example 5 is similar to another Jamerson classic, the Temptations’ “Get Ready.” The bass is tripled with piano and low brass to make the tune an undeniable ass-grabber.

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Once technology advanced to the point where real low end could be captured and reproduced, music changed, as producers began looking for ways to harness the energy and momentum of a great bass part to make hit records. This strategy has played out countless times, in every style of music—but for now, let’s stick with R&B Gold.



Ed Friedland is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks, and living outside of Nashville, Tennessee.