Celebrated multi-genre bassist talks of his early days and debut solo album
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
October 11, 2021
There’s no doubt Harvey Brooks is considered a heavy hitter when it comes to the bass. The prolific musician has appeared on numerous unforgettable albums in a whole range of styles, including rock, folk, jazz, and blues. An NYC native, he got his big break in the 1960s playing with Bob Dylan’s band on the album that would become Highway 61 Revisited. From there, Brooks went on to become a member of Mike Bloomfield’s blues rock group, The Electric Flag, and work with an eclectic group of artists that includes Richie Havens, The Doors, and jazz legend Miles Davis. He’s also collaborated with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Donald Fagen, Clarence Clemons, Seals & Crofts, Loudon Wainwright III, John Cale, Dinah Washington, Bing Crosby, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, among others. Currently residing in Israel, Brooks recently completed his memoir, View from the Bottom, and earlier this year released his first solo album, Elegant Geezer, Jerusalem Session.
FBPO: How did you become a bass player?
HB: In junior high school, I learned to play the guitar from a friend of mine, showing me a couple of chords. I played my first gig two weeks later with two chords. Then we started playing in a band, two guitars, drums, and saxophone. As I got a little older, going towards high school, I joined the high school fraternity and met a fellow named Sid Davidoff, who managed our little band. He said, “You have two guitars, you need a bass. They have these things called electric basses now, so you should try one.” So he got one for me and I played it, and that was it. I became a bass player.
FBPO: Did you start listening to music differently after that, picking out the bass parts on records and on the radio?
HB: Mostly I would listen to the vocalists and the words. That was where I was coming from. Then, as I became a player, I started to analyze what was going on. For my bass playing, a lot of it, I would sit down and play with the records or with the music, and I would learn the parts. Then, as I played different gigs, I adapted those parts to what I was playing, so that became my vocabulary.
FBPO: Who were your bass influences?
HB: Well, I’m a huge Motown [fan], so James Jamerson of course. Offhandedly, I would say that Motown was my biggest influence, but I was listening to jazz at the same time. I had some older friends that hooked me up with that. Ray Brown and Scott LaFaro, Charlie Mingus…
FBPO: Those were some great upright players. Did you play upright too?
HB: I did. I still do a little bit. But everything I did just was electric. That was what was called for. I was never that confident on the upright, but to this very day, I’m an upright lover.
FBPO: Did you set out to have a career in music, or did it just happen with each new opportunity?
HB: Each new opportunity. I was just making a living. That’s how I was earning my money and it was a thing that I loved to do. If you love what you do, life is good. That, basically, is what I was doing. I was playing in trios around New York, R&B gigs. I played with a band called The Exciters, a vocal group that had a big hit called, “Tell Him.” I toured with them all over the East Coast. That was my first big-time tour, and it was an amazing thing. I was put in the role of semi-bandleader to organize the band and it was great stuff. It was doo-wop. From that, I started playing all around town doing that stuff, playing little club dates. Then I got the call for Bob Dylan and I went from the minors to the majors.
FBPO: Who called you? Al Kooper?
HB: Al Kooper. I was playing a lot. I was able to work. When the Kooper call came, Al and I had been messing around over the years. We played in bands together. We had played at the World’s Fair together. That was when Dylan and … the bass players that Dylan was using, Russ Savakus … these were good bass players, but they were a little stiff for him, I guess. And Kooper, he knew I’m a pretty flexible guy, so he called me up for the gig. And that was the beginning of an actual career outside of being a road guy.
FBPO: Was that around the time Dylan was making his transition from the acoustic folk thing to more of an electric thing, and upsetting a lot of people in the process?
HB: Oh yeah! It made it wonderful. The tension, the extra tension in the air. Dylan has always been a brilliant all-around guy. He knew what he wanted. He knew what he liked. He didn’t need anybody to tell him, but he still was open for advice and to listen. He didn’t say much to me, Bob. We had a little conversation here and there, but I was just laying down the part of what felt good with whatever else was going on. And I had help from Bobby Gregg, the drummer, without any rehearsals. Bob had gone through a number of scenarios, and thank God this one clicked.
FBPO: Working at Columbia Records and getting to know Teo Macero sent you in a completely different direction. How did you switch hats so abruptly to record with Miles after playing with outfits like Dylan and The Electric Flag?
HB: Well, after Dylan came lots of folk records and folk/rock records, and lots of pop records, being called in on sessions with just the lead sheet. All the guys that were hired were there because they played a certain way, and then they would write the song after. So when I got my opportunity at Columbia, which came from Jack Gold, who was a Vice President at the time, he called me up and said, “We want to get some of the psychedelic rock and pop music that you just came back from.” I was playing with Electric Flag then. And this was right after Electric Flag and Mike Bloomfield. I had my office next to Teo. Teo was a beautiful guy, really nice man. Teo calls me up one day and he says, “Harvey, come over, let’s have some coffee. I want to talk.” And so he invites me to the Miles’ demo session, because Miles wants to try an electric bass. He’s doing a demo with his wife, Betty, and he invited me down to do that. After the session, he said, “Hey, Harvey, we’re going to do some more sessions. Talk to Teo.” I said, “Yeah, Miles.” And so that was it. All of a sudden I’m in a room full of masters.
FBPO: Who was in the room?
HB: Jack DeJohnette, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Larry Young, Wayne Shorter… This is the caliber there. And me, I was there to put some bottom in.
FBPO: You and Dave Holland were playing together, at the same time, on those recordings, right?
HB: At the same time. Dave was great because he said, “Look, let’s have some fun. You play down at the bottom and I’ll fill in around.” And that’s kind of how it worked. I had no idea what was going on. I had never really sat in a room with musicians of that caliber, and we just went for it. And as it came on, I began to understand what was happening. Everybody was listening to what everybody else was doing and responding.
FBPO: Miles’ music changed so much from decade to decade. How did you know what to expect when you walked in? What were you feeling?
HB: I was feeling like, Whoa! [Laughs] I said, “I don’t know what’s going on, but I know I’m here, and I’m going to be here.” We had one rehearsal. We started in and Joe Zawinul played one little lick and he said, “This is something that might happen,” and we all just played a little bit. And then Miles started playing his reel-to-reel movie reels, Jack Johnson boxing tapes.
FBPO: Was Miles in the room during the rehearsal? I’ve heard that sometimes he was in a different room because he didn’t want to intimidate anybody or put the wrong vibe in the room.
HB: I was at the one rehearsal and he was there. He was talking and telling everybody about what he wanted to do. He’d come in and out every now and then, but we were only there for maybe an hour-and-a-half, two hours. Most of it came out to be (the) Jack Johnson (album). When we walked in the next day, I went over to Miles and I said, “Hey man, so what are we going to do?” And he said, “Don’t worry, I’m going to count it off and we’re going to go.” And that’s what we did. I think it was remarkable music. It was a combination of so many talents and so many contributions from the players. It was a beautiful thing and for me it was the best education I ever had.
FBPO: You’ve played with such a diverse list of artists, crossing over into so many genres. What was the common denominator you carried with you as a bass player through such an incredible variety of musical styles?
HB: Feel. They all liked my feel. I’m able to make things comfortable. That’s my mentality and was kind of like my personality. Most of the music that we spoke about is me just playing what I felt. Not written down, not being told what to do. You hired Harvey Brooks and I came in and I did what I do. So my take on it is, I hear it. A very good electric bass player, Billy Rich, wonderful bass player, told me this one time. He said, “You listen and you hear what the feel is. You hear what the bass drum is doing. You hear what the bridges in the songs are and you get a picture of the song. And then you anchor all of those things. And when you’re anchored, then you add your color.” That was a good lesson and that stayed with me pretty much my whole life. Everything I go into, I’m still being who I am and I adapt to what’s there.
FBPO: Up until now, everything was in New York? Right?
HB: In New York and Los Angeles.
FBPO: How long did you live in Los Angeles?
HB: Actually, I lived in San Francisco. When I came down to do the super session [with Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper, and Stephen Stills] we did a bunch of stuff in LA. But I was basically in San Francisco with the Flag. That was a good two years, two-and-a-half years.
FBPO: When were you there?
HB: 1966, ’67.
FBPO: What an incredible time to be in San Francisco! Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service…
HB: I was in Mill Valley. I lived in Mill Valley and we did all the Fillmore gigs. All those bands, the Grateful Dead, Janis, it was all of these people at that time and it was an amazing place to be. One of the things I always wanted to do, which I finally got to do here in Jerusalem, was to do my own album and to sing. I’ve never been a singer and that was like one of the most uptight moments of my life. But I did, and I had a great time doing that. I had great people.
FBPO: What kind of gear are you using?
HB: I play a Hartke amp, the LH1000, which I love. I’ve been playing it for years. I’ve got a Fender PJ that I made. It was a Fender Precision with a maple neck. Hipshot, which I love. A guy name Tim Gardner made a fretless for me. It’s a beautiful instrument and I’m playing that also. I have an Acoustic 5-String Elite Bass that I’ve had the frets removed up top to make it fretless. It’s killer from the 12th fret up!
FBPO: What kind of strings do you play?
HB: La Bella.
FBPO: You’ve been playing La Bella Strings for a long time, haven’t you?
HB: Yeah. I switched off for a little while, but I’m back on with La Bella. They’re just the best for me, especially the flatwounds.
FBPO: Tell me about the album.
HB: It’s called Elegant Geezer, The Jerusalem Sessions. I had a band in Tucson before we came out here. (My wife) Bonnie and I had a studio and it was called 17th Street Records. And we had an album called Positively 17th Street, with the 17th Street Band. That was in in 2009. We were working there and it was time for us to move on. There were a lot of things that we wanted to do. Bonnie is the most amazing person in my life. She had been going to Israel for many years. And we had been going back. We have children there and go for bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs. It was time to go overseas, whether it be now or never. For me, it worked out where I was able to play, able to write and do all the things that I wanted to continue to do, only here in Jerusalem. What an amazing place. All the people back home thought I was crazy. They said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “Well, I’m going forward with my life.” I think it’s rejuvenated my whole musical sense. There’s a lot more happening now. I’m 77 now and I have my moments where I’m playing better than ever, so I’m feeling really good about it. I see all the people that are moving on, but not me. I’m still here and having a great time.
See Jon’s blog, with key takeaways from this interview here.