R&B Gold: Mustang Sally Redux

In October, we took a closer look at the perennial party anthem and certified R&B Gold classic “Mustang Sally.”
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In October, we took a closer look at the perennial party anthem and certified R&B Gold classic “Mustang Sally.” In the process, I discovered that while my own approach to the song always seemed satisfactory, it was quite different from the line Tommy Cogbill played on the seminal Wilson Pickett version. This month, due to my touring schedule starting up in a big way, I found myself searching for a column idea at the last minute when I got a call back from my pal and top-shelf Nashville bass cat, David Roe. Although he didn’t know of an Ampeg Baby Bass I could rent for a session, he did supply me with the inspiration for this month’s column. Dave said he had just finished reading my piece on “Mustang Sally,” and it got him thinking about the origin of the bass line and arrangement that everyone unconsciously agrees on. He told me to check out the 1966 version by the Young Rascals, as he thought it was the origin of the stops and rhythmic hits in the last two bars of the form, when it hits the V chord turnaround. Recognizing that this discussion was my “sign,” I once more willingly stare into the abyss looking for details and dirt about that most ubiquitous of butt-shakers, “Mustang Sally.”

Felix Cavaliere of the Young Rascals has claimed they recorded the song (as well as “Land Of 1,000 Dances”) before Pickett, and that Atlantic Records “copped” the songs from them and “gave them” to Pickett. While I’m fairly familiar with the Rascals’ output, their version of “Sally” somehow escaped my awareness. The Pickett version is certainly definitive, but a search through a discography of Atlantic singles confirms that the Young Rascals released “Mustang Sally” on February 15, 1966, catalog number 45-2321, while Pickett released his single on July 4 of the same year, catalog number 45-2365. The Rascals version (the band would later drop “Young” from the name) is considerably slower, and delivered with a laid-back vibe that is the polar opposite of Pickett’s uptight, outta-sight performance. The Rascals performed as a four-piece combo with Cavaliere handling the bass duty on his Hammond B3 organ, though they often used bass players in the studio to lay down hitmaking grooves. While bass royalty like Chuck Rainey and Jerry Jemmott have bolstered Rascals hits, the band’s guitarist, Gene Cornish, is credited as playing bass (as well as singing lead) on this track. Example 1a shows you the main idea of the verse groove, while Ex. 1b is the pattern that lets the verses settle into a rocking groove. Interestingly enough, there is a version by the Kingsmen (of “Louie Louie” fame) that is almost identical to the Rascals take, but the rustic factor is multiplied by ten. The drumming is laughably bad, giving the song that “too drunk to play this frat party” kind of vibe—a hallmark of the band. The Kingsmen also released their version in 1966, but not being able to find the exact date, my guess is that they copied the Rascals and not the opposite.

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Next to Pickett’s version, certainly the most well-known take on “Sally” is from the movie The Commitments. Featuring the Irish R&B band of the same name, the movie spurred a resurgence of interest in classic soul and R&B, and got everyone singing “Ride, Sally, Ride” all over again. The Commitments version also utilizes the Rascals arrangement, further cementing it in the collective consciousness. Example 2 shows what bassist Paul Bushnell laid down—a part that echoes Cogbill’s original melodic idea, but with the root firmly on the downbeat. It’s a solid approach that works great with the overall groove.

In 1983, Chicago bluesman Magic Slim released a version with a slightly different feel on his Raw Magic album. Nick Holt plays a tight bass line, rocking back and forth between the root and 5th, with a little bump of 16th-note activity to make it funky (Ex. 3). This line is the most distinctive of the versions I’ve examined—maybe not the best choice to throw out on a pickup gig.

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If you need further proof of the ubiquity of “Mustang Sally,” try to imagine another song that might be cut by both Buddy Guy and Ronnie Milsap and still sound right. Buddy Guy’s 1991 album Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues features a killer version with a little help from British guitar icon Jeff Beck. Greg Rzab lays down a fat bass line that firmly establishes the groove, sticking fairly close to the tune’s original concept, but as the track progresses, he escapes the box and adds more activity—even busting out a little slap. Example 4 is the basic idea Rzab plays for the verse. Ronnie Milsap is known mostly as a country artist, but as country shares many influences, artists, and repertoire with R&B, it’s not a stretch for him to record this bar-band classic. The bass line on that version (Ex. 5) is similar to the Buddy Guy version, but it adds a chromatic passing tone that keeps the root on the downbeat instead of anticipating it on the “and” of beat four like Rzab.

Example 6 is from a recording by Australian R&B artist Jimmy Barnes. While he’s not well known in the U.S., the bass line on his version (from 2016’s Soul Searchin’) features the only line I’ve found besides Cogbill’s that puts the 7th on beat one. However, while Cogbill plays the natural 7th (B) on the downbeat as a chromatic approach to the root, the Barnes version puts a flatted 7th (Bb) on the downbeat. It works as a chord tone, and it gives the same basic feeling as Cogbill’s displaced line, but in a slightly different way.

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Next time someone calls “Mustang Sally” on a gig, you’ll have even more lines to consider. Which is the “right” one? Whichever one sounds the best with the people you are playing with. It’s easy to get dogmatic about playing everything just like the record, but when there are so many versions of a song, who gets to be right? Bottom line about this bottom line is: If you’re listening to the band, playing the changes, and making it groove, you’re playing the right line.



Ed Friedland of Tucson, Arizona, is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks.