A dozen of the best bass session hands
By Gary Graff
June 15, 2018
When Morgan Neville made his acclaimed documentary about backup singers, he called it 20 Feet From Stardom. But bass players stand a little closer to the action.
They may labor in the obscurity of album credits, but scores of bottom-dwellers have made careers and much-loved names for themselves in the studio as guns for hire for some of music’s best-known artists and landmark albums. The best combine their own distinctive styles with a knack for doing what’s best for the songs.
As noted, there are scores of these folks, all worth spotlighting and celebrating. We’re starting with this dozen, and keep your eyes on this space in the future as we shout out even more of ’em in the future…
Hailing from Pittsburgh, Babbitt (who passed away during 2012 at the age of 74) was both a Funk Brother at Motown and part of Philadelphia International’s MFSB. Alternating at Hitsville with James Jamerson, Babbitt played on key hits from the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Edwin Starr and more. Babbitt’s recording resume also includes backing the Spinners, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Alice Cooper, Frank Sinatra, Barry Manilow, Jim Croce, Del Shannon and Phil Collins. He also was part of the band Scorpion during the late ‘60s.
See our FBPO interview with Bob here.
As part of Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Dunn was to Stax-Volt what James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt were to Motown. The Fender Precision player provided the bottom during the label’s golden era, laying down hits with Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas, Eddie Floyd, Albert King and many others. He also did time with Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart and more and was part of the Blues Brothers band, appearing in both films. Dunn passed away during 2012 at the age of 70, after playing at the Blue Note in Tokyo.
Soul Fingers: The Music & Life of Legendary Bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, is available here.
As part of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section — aka the Swampers — Hood was on call for a parade of some of music’s biggest names who came to Alabama for some musical voodoo, including Paul Simon, Traffic, Bob Seger, Boz Scaggs, Cat Stevens, Etta James, John Hiatt and a list that goes on and on — up to and including Bugs Bunny. Hood also toured with Traffic during the early ‘70s and in recent worked closely with the Waterboys, in the studio and on the road. He also gave the world Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers.
Pause in reverent silence…Few have defined four-string greatness in the studio like this original Motown Funk Brother, who played on 30 No. 1 Billboard 100 chart hits and more than 70 No. 1 R&B hits. Those who list Jamerson as an influence are…well, everybody who’s picked up a bass, really, and you can hear echoes of Jamerson’s style everywhere in pop, R&B, funk and rap. He left us in 1983 at the age of 47, but Jamerson left a legacy that’s nothing less than legendary — as well as some great stories, like being too drunk to stand up during sessions for Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which Jamerson wound up laying down while lying flat on the floor.
Standing In the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson, is available here.
The Grand Dame of the session bass work. If Kaye had only played on the Beach Boys’ landmark Pet Sounds, she’d be immortal. But as a member of Phil Spector’s Wrecking Crew, and in other situations, she has a credits list (on both guitar and bass) longer than a Rickenbacker neck — 10,000 recordings, by some estimates — and the list of who she hasn’t worked with is likely shorter than who she has.
See our FBPO interview with Carol here.
The Mexican-born bassist has recorded on an estimated 4,000 projects, including soundtracks, with a genre-spanning who’s-who resume that runs from Humperdinck to Hanson. Laboriel has also released three solo albums and founded the bands Koinonia and Friendship, and his namesake son plays drums for Paul McCartney.
See our FBPO interview with Abe here.
Hailing from mound, La., Osborn worked in a variety of bands, including Ricky Nelson, before heading to Los Angeles in 1964 and becoming part of the famed Wrecking Crew corps of session musicians; Osborn, drummer Hal Blaine and keyboardist Larry Knetchel became known as the Hollywood Golden Trio, playing on everything from pop songs to film scores to TV ads. His resume boats hits with Neil Diamond, Simon & Garfunkel, the Mamas & the Papas, the Grass Roots, the 5th Dimension, Johnny Rivers, Nancy Sinatra and many others, and a 1974 move to Nashville put Osborn in the studio with the likes of Kenny Rogers, Hank Williams Jr., Mel Tillis and more. He’s now semi-retired and living back in Louisiana.
Coming out of Cleveland as a violin, piano, trumpet and baritone horn player, Rainey switched to bass during his 20s and settled into a prolific studio career in New York during the mid-60s. His jazz and pop pursuits included work with Steely Dan, Laura Nyro, George Benson, Al Kooper, Hubert Laws, Roberta Flack, Yusef Lateef, the Crusaders, Mose Allison, Aretha Franklin, Rickie Lee Jones and many more. Rainey also released four solo albums between 1972-98 and, as a member of the King Curtis All-Stars, toured with the Beatles in the U.S.
See our latest FBPO interview with Chuck here.
The Colorado-born Scheff is best known as a member of Elvis Presley’s TCB band, starting in 1969 and continuing, with some breaks, until Presley’s death. Away from The King, Scheff built a kingdom of his own, working with Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, the Monkees, Nancy Sinatra, the Everly Brothers, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and many more. Scheff also played bass on the Doors’ 1971 release L.A. Woman, the group’s last with frontman Jim Morrison. He published a memoir, Way Down…, in 2012, and his son Jason Scheff was with Chicago from 1985-2016.
See our FBPO interview with Jason Scheff here.
As part of The Section, the famed southern California quartet that backed so many artists, Sklar recorded with the likes of Carole King, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Diamond, Donovan, Warren Zevon and scores of others. The Milwaukee native made his mark in the country world, too, backing George Strait, Clint Black, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill and more. In all he’s played on more than 2,000 albums, and his mane of long hair and beard, turned white, have given him the nickname Father Time.
See our latest FBPO interview with Leland here.
The Berklee College of Music grad, a bassist since he was 12 years old, made plenty of friends as an educator, which led to a spot in Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1977 and subsequent gigs with Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand, Larry Carlton, Aerosmith, Anita Baker, Elton John, Frank Sinatra, Michael Bolton and a slew of others. He also struck up relationships with a variety of Hollywood composers, making him a regular on film and TV scores. The tally so far — more than 600 albums, more than 60 gold and platinum albums, and 20 Grammy Award-winning songs. And he’s not done yet…
See our FBPO interview with Neil here.
The Grammy Award-winning producer, Blue Note Records president and co-founder of Was (Not Was) has been a prolific bassist for hire as well, playing for the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson, Elton John and Leon Russell, Ringo Starr, Brian Wilson, the Chieftains and a variety of others. A kind of Gump/Zelig figure in the industry, Was (nee Fagenson) has also been active as a music director for several TV and film projects, winning an Emmy Award for The Beatles: The Night That Changed America in 2014.
Your Turn: Who else deserves to be spotlighted from the behind-the-scenes world of bass hired guns. Nominate your favorites in the “Comment” section below for consideration for our next list…
FBPO interview with Carol Kaye
FBPO interview with Abe Laboriel
Latest FBPO interview with Leland Sklar