R&B Gold: The "Blueberry Hill" Pattern

This month we’ll examine another classic bass pattern from the early years of R&B—one that has no particular name, but is perhaps best recognized from its use in Fats Domino’s 1956 classic “Blueberry Hill.”
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This month we’ll examine another classic bass pattern from the early years of R&B—one that has no particular name, but is perhaps best recognized from its use in Fats Domino’s 1956 classic “Blueberry Hill.” Like the bass patterns we looked at last month, this lick is also built from the major triad, and closely resembles the tresillo rhythm, but with a little more activity. The title of this month’s column contains the names of three classic songs that feature this line. The earliest recording is the 1951 side “Don’t You Know I Love You” by the Clovers, a Washington D.C. doo-wop vocal group formed in 1946. This song was the group’s debut single, and the first of three that would occupy the #1 slot on the R&B charts (the second and third are 1951’s ���Fool, Fool, Fool” and ’52’s “Ting-a-Ling”). The intro features a brief solo on what sounds like an electric guitar being played in the bass register. Throughout the track, the instrument plays a strictly bass role, being fortified by the left hand of the piano part—but right at the very end of the track, you can hear a major 7 chord on guitar for the first time, giving away the bass instrument’s true identity. Despite its high-strung nature, the EQ and miking gives the guitar a perfectly functional texture to anchor the track, and the line has become a classic (Ex. 1).

The next line (Ex. 2) is from the 1956 Fats Domino track “Blueberry Hill,” certainly the most familiar of our three subjects. Produced and arranged by New Orleans trumpeter and bandleader Dave Bartholomew, the song is just one of many hits that shaped the sub-genre known as New Orleans R&B, and its crossover appeal made it a cornerstone of rock & roll. The bass line is essentially unchanged, except for the different key, and the repeated root on beats one and two. However, “Don’t You Know I Love You” is played over a swinging 4/4 beat, while “Blueberry Hill” has the stately 12/8 feel that became known as “the Stroll,” after the 1958 dance craze triggered by the hit of the same name by the Diamonds. Pay attention to the subtle shifts in articulation the different feels bring out; bass players are required to make these adjustments on a daily basis. “Blueberry Hill” was first recorded in 1940 by several artists, including the Sammy Kaye Orchestra, Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller, Kay Kyser, and Gene Autry—as well as a 1949 version by Louis Armstrong. But the Fats version was the first to use the Stroll feel, and has become the default reference for this tune. There are several mixes of the original floating around; some of them are in the key of Bb, while others have been sped up a half-step to B, presumably to make Fats sound younger and more “rock & roll.”

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Example 3 is from the 1957 Don & Dewey hit “I’m Leaving It All Up to You,” another 12/8 Stroll (this one notated in 12/8 time) that has become a staple of the R&B repertoire. “Don” ably handled the guitar work on their recordings with his roughhewn, bluesy style, but in later years he went on to a successful career as Don “Sugarcane” Harris, a pioneer of rock/blues electric violin who recorded with many notables including John Mayall and Frank Zappa (that’s Sugarcane sawing away through Zappa’s “Willie the Pimp” from his Hot Rats LP). A feature unique to the Don & Dewey version is a bar of 5/4 between the bridge and last chorus. Whether intentional or not, the drummer waited an extra beat before the two snare hits that set up the vocal line, and the pause is a delicious “gotcha” for a crowded dancefloor. If asked to play this tune, be prepared for the possibility of the extra beat. The song has been covered by artists as wide ranging as Dale & Grace, Linda Ronstadt, and Donny & Marie Osmond (am I the only one creeped out by their sugarysweet performance of this love song?). But in Texas, the go-to version is the 1978 recording from Freddy Fender’s Swamp Gold album. Fender belonged to a select group of Texas musicians that includes Doug Sahm, Flaco Jimenez, Augie Meyers, Louie Ortega, Speedy Sparks, and Ernie Durawa that blended Louisiana swamp-pop with Texas twang, R&B, and percolating conjunto rhythms to create what we now call Tex-Mex music. It was perhaps this Texas connection that inspired my compadres in the Mavericks to record the tune on a recent visit to San Antonio’s Blue Cat studios. It has become a regular feature of our live shows, and drummer Paul Deakin stretches that extra beat into a grand pause, creating perhaps the world’s most economical (and tasteful) drum solo.

This bass pattern is just one of the many recycled lines that form the framework of classic R&B, and a little research on your part will turn up several other tunes built from it. Having a large repertoire of songs at your command is a highly desirable trait for bass players in any genre, and while it is not possible to know every single tune ever recorded, learning these iconic patterns goes a long way toward expanding your repertoire.



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