One of the most enduring bass riffs in R&B history is the intro and instrumental break in Archie Bell & the Drells’ monster hit, “Tighten Up.” The song itself is nothing more than a musical introduction to the Drells, hailing from Houston, Texas, claiming that they can “dance as good as they can walk.” Recorded in Houston in October 1967, “Tighten Up” got picked up by Atlantic Records and hit #1 on the Billboard U.S. Hot 100 and U.S. R&B charts in the summer of ’68. Archie Bell & the Drells’ chart success garnered them a deal with Gamble & Huff’s Philadelphia International Records, and even though the Drells never charted quite as high with subsequent hits like “I Can’t Stop Dancing,” “Do the Choo Choo,” and “There’s Gonna Be a Showdown,” the strategic move of announcing their name during the “Tighten Up” intro cemented their place in the history of R&B Gold. While the band’s name may live on, lesser known is the group that wrote and actually performed “Tighten Up” behind Bell.
“Tighten Up” originated as an instrumental groove played by another Houston band, the TSU Toronadoes. Formed in 1965 at Texas Southern University, the bandmembers cut their teeth performing that summer in Las Vegas backing up artists like Etta James and Marva Whitney. In a 2007 interview, drummer Dwight Burns said of the song, “That was our riff, our theme song. Any time we wanted people to dance, we’d play that.” The Toronadoes were one of Houston’s most popular club acts, and under the management of well-connected DJ Skipper Lee Frazier, they signed with Olvide Records, acting as the house band for many of Olvide’s early releases. It was there that the Toronadoes (named after the Oldsmobile two-door) were put together with the Drells. In an interview with Amy Gold, bassist Jerry Jenkins describes the sessions as being separate events: “The Toronados and Skip [Frazier] went to the studio, and in one night we recorded the instrumental version of ‘Tighten Up,’ including all of the rhythm section, and on the second night Archie & the Drells were brought in to do their parts.” Although the instrumental was created by the TSU Toronadoes, Archie Bell and Drell Billy Butler are credited as authors of the song. Jenkins recounted an all-too-familiar tale: “At the time of the recording, we were teenagers and didn’t have much knowledge of the business part, or the administration, or the mechanicals, so since Skipper Lee knew more, we sold the rights. We just got paid as the studio musicians.”
Example 1 shows the main motif of Jerry Jenkins’ iconic bass line for “Tighten Up.” While the timing is a little rushed during the solo intro, he settles into the groove quickly and keeps it locked in when he takes the line up an octave for the bass break (Ex. 2). I had to decide whether to notate this in the key of Gb or F# major. I figured the choice between six flats or six sharps was a losing game anyway, so I picked Gb, as I’m personally more comfortable in flat keys. You’ll notice that in the higher-octave version of the line (Ex. 2), there is an extra 16th-note in beat three of bar 1, and beat four of bar 2 is anticipated by a 16th. These slight rhythmic variations occur throughout the track, and they seem more a product of a rushed feel than a deliberate decision.
While it seems that the TSU Toronadoes were the losers in this common show-biz scenario, their work on the Drells record caught the attention of Atlantic Records, which released their single “Getting the Corners.” It hit the R&B Top 40, as did the sides “What Good Am I” and “The Goose.” While Bell soon put together his own band to back up the Drells, the subsequent work by the Toronadoes shows us where the funk was. Jenkins’ line on “Getting the Corners” is tight, fat, and super funky. His syncopated part bubbles with electricity, while firmly gluing all the pieces of the groove in place. The part is rhythmically consistent, but he does randomly change from a descending box shape to an ascending pattern throughout the track, as shown in Examples 3a and 3b.
Example 4 is an approximation of Jenkins’ line on “Got to Get Through to You,” a slightly slower groove that allows for some nice Jamerson-inspired embellishment, while on the flip-side we have “The Goose,” another groovy tune based on the I–IIm progression that the Toronadoes used to death. While still eminently funky, Jenkins plays that one (Ex. 5) with a relaxed, flowing feel; I can imagine someone told him to play it “loosey-goosey.”
And so ends another episode of R&B Gold, where we dig beneath the crust and blow off the dust from unexplored nuggets of soul—always in search of the real deal with the killer feel, and a bass line that will make you feel fine, all the time!
Ed Friedland of Tucson, Arizona, is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks.