Last month, we looked at some famous bass intros from the early years of R&B, but there are many more gems to be found. As I pointed out, advances in recording and playback technology brought the bass to the front of the mix, and producers learned that one route to a hit record was to feature a poppin’ bass line. As music technology has advanced greatly, some popular music has become bass-heavy to what some might consider extreme degrees. The hyper-extended bass of dubstep, house, electronica, rap, and hip-hop traces its origins back to those early days of R&B—and whether originating from a keyboard or a Fender Jazz, it’s still the bass that makes the kiddies dance.
Let’s jump ahead a few years and look at some more great moments in R&B bass, with a decided slant toward the funky side of things. We will at some point explore the evolution of R&B into soul/funk in more depth, but for now, let’s just agree that it did evolve in this way, and it was groovy!
When it comes to funky bass intros, Larry Graham is the man who showed us all how it was done. His earliest work with the legendary Sly & the Family Stone was groundbreaking both for his use of multiple effects on bass, and the introduction of thumbstyle slapping—a once-radical technique that later became as ubiquitous as ketchup. Graham had been using this technique for many years, but the great moment really happened when the 1969 track “Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin” hit the airwaves. Those first four bars became the funk-shot heard around the world, and bass playing was forever changed. The line itself is technically simple compared to Larry’s later work with Graham Central Station, but trying to capture the sound and feel has kept bass players busy for decades. Example 1 is a close approximation of that iconic line, notated for slap technique. If you are unfamiliar with this technique, or want to improve your chops, check out my DVD Slap Bass: The Ultimate Guide [Hal Leonard].
Another great moment in 1969 was the release of the eponymous debut album by the Meters, a pride of New Orleans cats that brought a distinct flavor of grease to R&B music. The rhythm section of George Porter Jr. on bass and cousin Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste on drums created epic grooves that blended swing, blues, and funk, and laid the perfect foundation for Leo Nocentelli’s singular guitar work, and the cohesive organ style of Art Neville. Porter is covered more fully in my book The R&B Masters [Backbeat Books], but we will be revisiting him in the future. Example 2 is along the lines of Porter’s intro to “Cardova,” a classic Meters track that has become an anthem of New Orleans funk, and was sampled to death by NWA in the salacious track “She Swallowed It.”
One year later in 1970, the Temptations track “Ball of Confusion” opened up with four bars of Motown heavyweight Bob Babbitt’s punchy Fender Precision Bass that left no confusion as to where the groove was. Babbitt started his Motown career as understudy to James Jamerson, but soon he became a commodity in his own right for his muscular feel and willingness to let it all hang out. (His solo on Dennis Coffey’s 1971 instrumental “Scorpio” is a must-listen for all ’70s funk freaks.) Example 3 is a reasonable facsimile of Babbitt’s “unconfusing” intro.
In 1972 the movie Superfly was making waves, and it became a huge success in the burgeoning “Blaxplotation” film genre, no doubt due largely to the killer soundtrack supplied by ex-Impressions singer Curtis Mayfield. Joseph “Lucky” Scott provided the bass for this now-cult-classic soundtrack, and one of his great moments was the intro to the title track. There is not much info available on Scott, but he can be seen on early-’70s live video with Mayfield playing a Fender Jazz. The recorded tone tells me he used flatwound strings, and his aggressive right-hand plucking technique created a percussive attack that at times sounds pick-like. This exposed intro lets you hear the complexity of his tone, and it also illustrates the rustic charm of old-school flatwound strings and their tendency to play out of tune on the E string. Example 4 is similar to Lucky Scott’s intro on “Superfly,” but to hear another mega-classic bass break from the same album, go to the 2:42 mark on “Freddie’s Dead” and be prepared to have your mind blown.
In 1975, the Ohio Players released their fifth album, Skin Tight, whose title track featured one of the coolest and most enigmatic bass intros in R&B, played by founding member Marshall “Rock” Jones. My earliest recollection of this lick was hearing it played by my compadres in the bass section of the High School of Music and Art senior orchestra. While I had been studying classical music, and would warm up with excerpts of the Marcello Sonata, these guys were primarily “Fender” (i.e., electric) players, and they got their fingers moving playing licks like “Skin Tight” and “Fire,” the title track of the Ohio Players’ subsequent album that hit #1 on the U.S. Pop and R&B charts. I can remember being a little confused until I figured out that the lick begins on beat two, and takes a few repeats until the downbeat of one becomes clear. This purposeful obscuring of the one is a clever way to mess with dancers, but when the drums finally bring it home, they are slaves to the rhythm.
I feel compelled to point out there are also many great moments in R&B that don’t center on what the bass player is doing, but that’s not what we’re about. Singers, guitarists, songwriters, and even producers get plenty of love, so it’s time to focus on what really makes the world go ’round—and you know what I mean!
Ed Friedland is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks, and living outside of Nashville, Tennessee. edfriedland.com