“Just what we need—another damn bass player from Detroit!” That friendly chide from Detroit bassist Eddie Watkins to fellow Motown thumper Ben Adkins about Allen McGrier, who had just arrived to live at Adkins’ Los Angeles pad, begins the tale of McGrier’s successful move west. The results would be a slew of great bass work, as well as songwriting and production with Teena Marie, Rick James, and many others. Like a lot of young bassists, McGrier grew up in the shadows of Motown and the Jamerson family in particular. Born on July 24, 1957, McGrier was surrounded by the Motown sound, with a little rock radio mixed in. He began playing trumpet at age 12 but always felt bass in his soul. After transferring to a new junior high school, he met James Jamerson Jr. and began hanging at the family’s home. “I had refrigerator privileges,” he smiles. When James Jamerson Sr. played at a school talent show and “tore the place up,” that clinched it. Equipped with an Epiphone semi-hollow bass his dad bought him in time for his first year of high school, McGrier made the switch from trumpet, applying the influences of Jamerson, Billy Cox, John Paul Jones, and Rocco Prestia.
Following high school, McGrier, like family members before him, began working for Ford Motors while playing in a local band. A successful audition for the Dells led to regional touring, for which he took medical leave from his day gig. Eventually, the toil and risks of melting iron while balancing his playing career led him to leave the Ford foundry. “My family was stunned, but I never wanted to make a car—I wanted to make music. James Jr. had moved to L.A. and was telling me to come out, so I bought a supersaver ticket and hopped a plane. But when I got there, Junior was on the road, so I moved in with Ben Adkins, who was the first bassist in the Jacksons after Jermaine quit.”
Soon after the 1979 move, McGrier got a break when Adkins recommended him for a Teena Marie audition. He landed the gig and went on tour with Marie, opening for Prince and Rick James. He also did some demos for Marie’s second album, but with bills to pay, he hit the road with the Jones Girls. For Marie’s third record, McGrier and his buddies from the Motown band Ozone (keyboardist Jimmy Stewart and drummer Paul Hines) told the singer they would share their ideas with her, so that her music wouldn’t sound like everything else on the radio. The unit tightened up her songs and did the rhythm and horn arrangements, and 1980’s Irons in the Fire [Motown] still stands as Marie’s most critically acclaimed album.
Among the ear-grabbing bass tracks is the ballad “Young Love,” with its arpeggiated subhook. The session for the song took place at Motown’s Hitsville Recording Studios in Hollywood in spring 1980, with Marie on scratch vocal, Stewart on piano, Hines on drums, Greg Hargrove and Wali Ali on guitar, and McGrier on his ’77 Music Man StingRay (strung with Dean Markley roundwounds and recorded direct). The unit did a couple of takes; McGrier remembers coming back in to clean up a few spots. “I had James Jr. come down to overdub acoustic bass on the track ‘Tune In Tomorrow.’ Pops [James Sr.] came with him to hang, and they brought his famous Motown upright. Pops asked me if I wrote the ‘Young Love’ bass line, and he was mad at me for not getting a co-writing credit.”
The track begins with a drum fill into the intro, which follows what later become the chorus changes. McGrier explains: “Teena’s original version of the song had a I–IV–V chord movement. I changed it to I–bVII–IVm–I and came up with the bass line, and she loved it.” The line blends McGrier’s creativity, as he reaches for the 10th in bars 2 and 4 (don’t linger too long on the G in the hammered trill), with his heavy Jamerson influence in bars 5–7: chromatic movement, open strings, and a drop down to the 3rd of the chord. Bar 9 is a band unison lick. Letter A is the first verse, staying within the same harmonic framework. McGrier continues his subhook and adds a killer fill in bar 24, coming out of the band accents at the end of 23. Letter B is the first chorus, reprising the intro form, but with Marie’s vocal. Letters C and D, the second verse and chorus, mirror A and B.
The mood alters for the bridge at E, which drops to the relative minor. “I thought it was a bit harsh for the track’s vibe, but Teena insisted.” McGrier turns up the funk, adding high-B slide-offs that almost sound overdubbed in-between the written line, and then tossing in measure-ending fills in bars 60–63 (including the hard plucks or pops in bar 62). The last four bridge bars return to the original D major tonality to set up the final chorus at G. Eight bars later, at bar 77, an outro begins, in which Marie improvises some final vocal thoughts. McGrier marks the shift by plugging in his Jamerson-esque drop-to-the-3rd figure in the first bar of the four-bar phrase. For the final four measures, he gets a bit looser over the C chords. Finally, with a very slight ritardando at the back of the second-to-last measure, he ends on a 10th, adding some color tones before stating it again on beat four. Of the overall bass line, he advises, “Lay back, and don’t get caught up in the notes. Let the part sing with the vocal.”
As a bonus, Examples 1 and 2 contain two more of McGrier’s StingRay subhooks. Ex. 1 summons the opening and main verse bass line of Teena Marie’s “I Need Your Lovin’” [from Irons in the Fire]. Dig the muted fills that pop out in-between the written line, at the end of both measures. “I used my left hand to mute the ghosted notes. Give all of the short notes some space, as well.” Ex. 2 taps the opening and main bass line of Teena Marie’s “Square Biz” [from It Must Be Magic], co-written with McGrier and titled after his Detroitborn saying. After the first measure, the downbeat shifts over by a 16th, as shown in bar 5. For the G vibrato on bar 2’s fourth downbeat, McGrier bent the E string up and down slightly. “The feel is pushed because the bass drives the track.”
Over the last ten years, McGrier (who proudly contributed “It’s a Shame” to Allan Slutsky’s book Standing in the Shadows of Motown, 1989, Hal Leonard) has been living off his royalties, thanks to his songs being sampled by the Fugees, Missy Elliott, Snoop Dogg, and others. He has also played with the late Rick James’ Stone City Band and a Teena Marie tribute band. “I’ve been extremely blessed in all facets of my music career, but I guess you can say playing bass is still my first young love.”
10 Other Great Allen McGrier Tracks
(* = co-wrote)
1 “I Need Your Lovin’” [Teena Marie, Irons in the Fire, 1980, Motown]
2 “Irons in the Fire” [Teena Marie, Irons in the Fire, 1980, Motown]
3 “You Make Love Like Springtime” [Teena Marie, Irons in the Fire, 1980, Motown]
4 “Square Biz”* [Teena Marie, It Must Be Magic, 1981, Motown]
5 “365” [It Must Be Magic, 1981, Motown]
6 “All Night Long” [Mary Jane Girls, Mary Jane Girls, 1981, Motown]
7 “Shake It Up Tonight” [Cheryl Lynn, 12" single, 1981, Columbia]
8 “Lovergirl” [Teena Marie, Starchild, 1984, Epic]
9 “Out on a Limb” [Teena Marie, Starchild, 1984, Epic]
10 “Ooo La La La”* [Teena Marie, Naked to the World, 1987, Epic]