Frank Russell

First-call Chicago bassman describes his musical upbringing, collaborations with Darryl Jones, and bass technique

Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
February 8, 2010

Chicago native Frank Russell has been playing bass since age 14.  Throughout his illustrious career, Frank has performed with Art Porter, Freddie Hubbard, Ramsey Lewis, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Alphonse Mouzon, Mike Wolf, Willie Pickens and many others.  He has also recorded five CDs with Chicago guitarist Henry Johnson and is a past recipient of the Hennessy Best of Chicago Jazz Search.  Frank’s debut CD, Covering All Basses, was released in 2005.

FBPO: Your path to the bass was a roundabout one, preceded by drums, guitar and sax. What made you settle on the bass?

FR: I grew up in a house where some of my first memories as a child were hearing music and seeing covers of Miles Davis and John Coltrane albums on the walls. My dad, who played acoustic bass as a teenager, was a big influence on me.  Mom, too, sang around the house and had quite a pleasant voice. I remember hearing her singing Shirley Bassey songs. We would visit my relatives’ homes, where music was always a big part of our gatherings. I remember being 6 years old and hearing Gene Chandler singing “Duke of Earl” on the radio at my grandmother’s home. And all the Motown music at my aunt and uncle’s home, as they lived downstairs from us.

Around the same time, I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show and asked my dad for a guitar, which he bought for me that Christmas. I started guitar lessons soon after that.  I had to practice at home while my brothers and cousins got to watch Batman!  I was mad at the time, but I am grateful now. Soon after, I received a drum set, which I played until high school, along with the sax.

I had a girlfriend who was a singer in a band and their bass player quit. She knew I played guitar and asked if I could play bass. I said “Sure,” not having played one before.  I figured it would be easier, as there were fewer strings. Little did I know! At the age of 14 I began my career as a bass guitarist.  I have never thanked her, so I will do it now. Her name is Charlotte Gibson and she has gone on to be an Emmy Award-winning writer for the soaps. I had to learn 30 songs in about two weeks and did my first professional paid show a short time later.

I got all the albums of bass players of the day, starting with Verdine White, Larry Graham and Stanley Clarke, and immersed myself in listening to them all day. Larry was a particular favorite. I learned my slap technique from listening to him. Eventually, I discovered one of my greatest bass guitar heroes, Jaco Pastorius.  I also admired Anthony Jackson, Louis Johnson, Alphonso Johnson and other great players.

FBPO: How do you think growing up in Chicago influenced you, musically?

FR: I was born in Chicago, but grew up in Hammond, Indiana, and then Gary, Indiana. I was always playing some instrument or another for as long as I can remember. I had groups where I showed all the members, including my brothers, how to play their instruments – guitar, bass or drums. I do believe playing guitar gave me a sense of melody while drums gave me a sense of time. I incorporate both of them into my bass playing today. I know a lot of bass players who played drums first and they all say it added to their overall musicianship.

I had great musician friends in Gary, like pianist Billy Foster, guitarists Henry Johnson and Larry Campbell, and drummers Roberts Gates and Lannie Turner. There was a bass player from Gary named Johnny Red who could play “Teen Town” way before anyone else in the neighborhood could.

I played with some well-known artists through my connection with Bill Foster. They included Dee Clark, Dee Dee Warwick, the Spaniels and lots of others. Later, moving back to Chicago, I started playing with people like Ken Chaney and Henry Johnson. I met all my friends from Miles Davis’ band at Terry Morrisette’s house, a drummer friend. It was at Terry’s house where I met Randy Hall, Bobby Irving and Vince Wilburn. They had just done Miles Davis’ comeback album, The Man With The Horn, and they were big heroes of mine.  I played that record until the grooves wore out. That meeting was very monumental to me.

I also met Darryl Jones and Richard Patterson that year. These guys are both great influences on me. Sometimes after a gig we would all go to my apartment and play bass until the wee hours of the morning. I remember Darryl being really into Victor Bailey who was playing with Steps Ahead at the time.

I met Darryl after filling in for him in the band Windsong, when he got sick one night and he couldn’t make the gig. A few weeks after that, Darryl got the call from Miles Davis. And the rest is history. I met Richard Patterson when he was playing with Chicago pianist, Ken Chaney.  Richard went on the road and recommended me as his replacement in Ken Chaney’s group, in which I’ve been playing for over 28 years. Ken has had some of the great bass players in his band, including Rufus Reid, Darryl Jones and Cleveland Eaton, so I was quite honored to take the bass chair. I have learned so much about music from Ken and about being a bandleader.

FBPO: Was there a turning point in your life that made you realize you were going to be a professional musician?

FR: I knew all along that I wanted to make a living as a musician, but I didn’t realize it could be possible until I saw my friend, Henry Johnson, doing it. He was traveling the world and making a great living doing what he loved. When I saw this, it clicked. I must have been 20 years old at the time and I saw that this could be achieved with hard work and dedication to the craft. And of course it helped that Henry was a monster guitarist! Also, seeing people like Darryl and Richard having great careers influenced me too. I was starting to get a lot of work as a first-call bassist, working six to seven nights a week, as well as going on the road from time to time making decent money.

I started doing some theatre work through guitarist Bill Boris. I played the show Beehive for two years straight. This eventually got me some work at the prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre, where I did a show with the South African singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo for six years. We traveled all over the country playing lots of different venues, including a three-month stint at the Kennedy Center. I played drums in addition to bass on that show, so I was paid double scale. I always say I used everything I learned as a musician on that gig! I not only played drums and bass but I sang and danced.

Playing with Ladysmith was one of the high points of my career. I was the only American musician in the show. During the daily rehearsals, the actors would go to one room and I would go with Ladysmith to rehearse. Joseph Shabalala, the leader, would do all the talking. His voice was always singing and clicking. He walked, talked and sang music. When they would sing, the bass voices would fill up the room and the sopranos would sing like birds. I was in heaven!  They treated me like one of the family and Joseph started introducing me as “Frank Shabalala.”

In preparation for doing the show, I listened to a lot of South African music, but they told me they wanted me to play like myself. I was quite honored. I actually brought them out to a jazz club one night to hear Ken Chaney’s band. I was actually on a hiatus from that band at the time and Ken invited me to sit in. I showed them what I could do in the jazz context, which they had not heard me do since their music dictated that I played simple. Needless to say, I was a big success at rehearsal the next day. They kept singing my praises.

We recorded a cast album and I caught Joseph alone and told him how proud I was to be on this record with him. He told me, with tears filling in his eyes, “Frank, you have come home.” They always told me I should go to South Africa. One day, I will.

I actually wrote them a song on my CD that I call “Ladysmith Parade.” It’s a bass line I used during the show. On the CD, I added a lot of percussion and a keyboard, using a concertina sound. I used this song as an interlude between songs for about a minute and-a-half, but everyone that heard it thought it should have been a whole song. God bless Ladysmith!

FBPO: I cited you in my first book, Funk Bass, because I like your slapping technique. Any tips or secrets you can share with us about your funk style?

FR: First, I would like to thank you for putting me in that book with so many great bassists that I admire. I was first told by a friend of mine, acoustic bassist Bruce Evans, that I was in the book. Many people have told me since then. My dad and I call the bass players you mentioned “The list.” What I tell my students is:

Immerse yourself in bass players playing this style. Start at the beginning, with Larry Graham. Get everything with him playing with Sly & the Family Stone to his solo projects. Listen to this constantly. 

My mom bought me Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On with this style of bass playing on it. She bought me my first cassette player, where I would play this tape all night long. When the tape ran out I would hear the click, wake up, turn the tape over and press play. This habit continued all my life, till I was married to my wife, Roz. After ten years of this, she finally said “Can we turn the music off for a few hours so I can get some sleep?” I listen to the album to this day.

I also believe that playing the drums helped me with my slapping technique. Plus, having friends like Billy Dickens, Darryl Jones and Richard Patterson and seeing them play has given me some great ideas. I also tell them to get your book and listen to the examples you put in it. With DVDs and videos, now you can actually watch people play this style!

FBPO: In addition to the long list of jazz heavyweights with whom you’ve performed – Freddie Hubbard, Ramsey Lewis, Peter Erskine, etc. – you’ve had a long association with guitarist Henry Johnson. How did that gig come about?

FR: “HJ” is what I call him. He’s my best friend and biggest influence outside of my bass heroes. Henry had something to do with me getting all those gigs, in one way or another. He’s one of the best guitarists in the country. I’m not the only one that feels that way. George Benson wrote that on Henry’s Organic, CD when he did the liner notes. When George comes to Chicago, he calls Henry, whom he calls “Brother Johnson,” and we go hang with George. George holds court and tells us stories of days gone by and then he and Henry pick up their guitars. They face each other, no amps, and just start playing the most amazing music you would ever hear. This is when I am thankful that I switched from guitar to bass!

I’ve known Henry since high school. Henry was already into Wes Montgomery and was quite focused and dedicated already. Years later, we would meet at Billy Foster’s home. Henry liked my playing and I started hanging with him. He was one of the first musicians to get out of Gary and go on to the national scene.

I met Ramsey and Freddie through Henry because he played with both. Ramsey needed a bass player in Chicago once and Henry recommended me for the job. I eventually went on to record with Ramsey. It was quite an honor.  Ramsey’s bassist during the 60s, the late, great Eldee Young, always encouraged me as a bassist.

I met Freddie when Henry was playing a show with him. I saw him backstage sitting at the piano playing an Elton John song. I also recorded with Freddie on Henry’s CD, New Beginnings. We did the rhythm tracks first and sent them to Freddie. Freddie asked who was on acoustic bass and Henry told him it was Frank Russell playing electric bass. A great compliment coming from Freddie!

Peter Erskine was on the road doing clinics after playing with Weather Report, using pickup bands, and Henry and I played with him. Peter was great! He put me at ease. I told him I was nervous playing with him after he played with Jaco, and he said “Well now I am playing with Frank Russell.”  We learned all these Weather Report tunes, but he didn’t want to play any of them. He just wanted to swing. A great drummer!

Henry’s CD had came out and made a big splash. Right away, we were on the road playing with bands like Tower of Power, Kenny G, Stuff, Dave Brubeck, etc. I played on six CDs with Henry. Of those CDs, one was nominated for a Grammy and one was given five stars in Downbeat magazine. That all started about 25 years ago. Henry recently got the band back together to do a jazz festival. We’re hoping to do another CD in the future.

FBPO: After all the recordings you’ve done for so many artists over the years, you must be especially excited to have released a CD of your own. Tell me about Covering All Basses, your solo debut.

FR: This came out of me having a trio with Henry Johnson and drummer Greg Rockingham every Thursday for a year. People kept asking me if the band had a CD and I finally said to Henry, “We have to do a CD!” Henry agreed, so we got the tunes, musicians and the studio and went in to record, maybe with about a month of prep work. We cut the whole CD in three days. When it came out, we received some nice coverage and radio airplay. We received great write-ups in Bass Player magazine.

A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into that CD and a lot of gigs started coming from it. It’s actually in its second pressing already. I was quite proud of what we achieved in such a short amount of time. I tell Henry, if we had had another week or two, we could have done the Beatles White album! Darryl Jones and Bobby Irving both wrote great reviews of the CD.

I had some of the finest musicians in Chicago on this CD and they all played their tails off!  Some of the musicians were Ari Brown on sax; Mike Logan, Bob Long and Ken Chaney on keys; Ernie Adams and Robert Gates on drums; and of course “HJ” on guitar. I played 5-string bass guitar which I tuned EADGC. This is the bass I played all the melodies on. I played fretless bass on a couple of tunes and played the straight-ahead tunes with the acoustic bass guitar. For the funk stuff, I played 4-string Fender bass. I received some great feedback from bassists Jimmy Earl and Benny Rietveld and from a lot of musicians around the world on my mySpace page, where I have some tunes up.

FBPO: What else is keeping you busy these days?

FR: Right now I’m in the early stages of doing another CD. I got the idea from Miles Davis’ nephew and drummer Vince Wilburn. He liked my first CD and said it’s time for another. So I started writing tunes and sending the demos to Bobby and Henry. I told Darryl Jones that I was doing a new project and he asked me if I needed any tunes. I said “Certainly!” and he gave me a tune he wrote called “Miles’ Lament.”

Darryl and I have gotten together to work on my tunes. He has a big ear for melodies and he can really sing great. Sometimes he sings the melodies while he’s playing piano and he really knows the structure of tunes. I feel quite privileged to be collaborating with him. Sometimes he picks up the guitar and plays all the Rolling Stones tunes he learned from Keith Richards, using alternate tunings.

I tried to get Bobby on the last CD, but he was too busy. I think he will be able to do this one. I wrote a tune as kind of a tribute to Stanley Clarke, Victor Wooten and Marcus Miller, where I would use Darryl Jones, Richard Patterson and myself,  showing the Chicago way! Darryl and Richard like the tune. I’m hoping we can pull this off. By having two of the greatest bass players on the planet playing with me, I’ve gotta be either very confident or completely delusional. It’s my honor that they’re both down for it.

I’m also working with my band, which includes Peter Lerner on guitar, Greg Spero on keyboards and Charles Heath on drums. I’ve done a lot of festivals and club dates. I’m still playing with Ken and I’m in a corporate band called 312 with a great friend, Nicholas Barron, who sings and plays guitar. Nicholas has over a million hits on YouTube.

FBPO: Now that you’re firmly established in the music world as a highly respected bass player, what would you like to do next?

FR: I would like to take my music and my band to more places and markets. I remember reading a quote from the great Joe Zawinul right at the beginning of Weather Report. In an interview, they asked him what he wanted to accomplish with this band. He said he wanted to take over the world… and he did! 

I’m not quite that ambitious, but I would like to take the music overseas and see how different cultures would respond to it. I’m also learning all the melodies on bass from Stevie Wonder’s catalogue, as he is one of the greatest songwriters ever and his music and melodies have always inspired me. From his earliest album, he played some of the greatest bass lines ever on his Moog bass. So right now I’m entrenched in Stevie.

Like my friend Henry Johnson says, “You can never stop learning music.” Also, we don’t have to retire at a certain age. We can keep going until we drop on stage if we live a relatively healthy life.

FBPO: What do you do when you’re not making music?

FR: Well, if you ask my wife or my family, I don’t do anything but music! If I’m not playing it, I’m listening to it or watching it or writing it. We do like going to see movies and watching movies at home. I watch a lot of news programs. I also love seeing my family in Arizona. My son and his wife live there with my five grandkids, but I don’t get see them as often as I would like. I do want to leave my grandkids a small legacy of my music. I hope when they are older, they can appreciate their granddad had a special relationship with the bass guitar.

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