Bass player/songwriter/actor (and one funny guy!) talks to FBPO about the gigs with Buddy Rich and Chuck Berry, Broadway performances and more
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
July 27, 2009
Ritt Henn is a bass player, songwriter, actor, TV producer and one funny guy. A bass player since fifth grade, Ritt began his career by performing in coffeehouses. After graduating from Bucknell University with degrees in music and psychology, Ritt bought a white three-piece suit, joined a lounge band and was on his way.
Henn has since performed with a wide variety of musical luminaries, including Buddy Rich and Chuck Berry. His live shows, sometimes with an ensemble and sometimes with just a bass, incorporate elements of storytelling and humor.
Ritt has acted in several off-Broadway musicals and portrayed an alien bassoonist on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He has produced more than 200 episodes of ManBassBoxTV, a reality show that has been running on public access TV since 1993, first in LA and now in New York City and on the web.
A serious artist, Ritt is the recipient of the prestigious Back Stage Bistro Award for Outstanding Songwriter and Instrumentalist, as well as a MAC Award from the Manhattan Association of Clubs for Best New York Debut – Male. He’s been a winner in the Sierra Songwriters Festival, a finalist in the Independent Music Awards and received an honorable mention in the Napa Valley Songwriters Contest. His latest CD is called Timber.
FBPO: It’s a common theme that a lot of guys ended up as bass players, either because nobody else wanted to do it or because they were tall and their music teachers didn’t know what else to do with them. What’s your story?
RH: When I was in fifth grade, they were looking for someone tall and musically inclined to play the upright bass in the school orchestra. I was indeed tall, and I had sung the bejeezus out of that song about the Erie Canal in the second grade. Interestingly, once I was signed up, they actually started me on tuba, since they didn’t have a string bass yet. They said they were just trying to introduce me to the bass clef, but I suspect they were smelling “double.” Didn’t work, for as soon as the upright came, I stopped playing the tuba; I just couldn’t get the hang of one fingering equaling so many different notes.
FBPO: You’ve performed with an impressive list of stars, including Buddy Rich, Chuck Berry, Tom Jones… How did those gigs come about?
RH: Buddy: I knew his piano player from my days playing in a lounge band at the Jersey Shore. I ran into the pianist on the subway in NYC in 1981 and he mentioned that Buddy was looking for a bassist. He wasn’t really telling me because he thought I should try to get the gig; he was just mentioning it. They were playing in town and I went to go hear them. Afterwards, I told their road manager that I was better than the guy they had. This was true. However, I hadn’t played anything like that since college a couple years earlier and I was in way over my head. I lasted two weeks, between Thanksgiving and Christmas 1981, for a tour of the Midwest. But hey, I played with him, and dammit, I’m gonna put it on my resume!
Chuck: I often played with an Oldies outfit, Billy Cioffi & the Monte Carlos (always using the “idiomatically correct” Fender 4-string). They’d back up rock ‘n’ roll stars of yesteryear in L.A. and its surrounding environs (think: Martha Reeves in Laughlin, Nevada; Ben E. King at a used auto parts convention in Vegas, etc.) There was a big show around Halloween out at the Greek Theatre in L.A. in the ’90s with a whole bunch of classic oldies acts. Chuck was the headliner and he had it in his contract that his back-up band could only play with him. So my buddy Lou Castro played bass with all the other acts that night, and I played with Chuck.
Tom: Guitarist Will Ray (of The Hellecasters) called me for this session. (I worked a bunch with Will out in L.A.). The producer for the session was Thomas Dolby, who had called Will to subcontract for a roots-rock sound. It was the theme song to the movie, “We’re Back!,” a Spielberg-produced animated dinosaur flick, hot on the heels of “Jurassic Park.” Tom came in to growl through the vocals; he looked and sounded so cool! When I went to go see the movie in a theater, Little Richard was singing the tune instead. I couldn’t tell if they were still using my bass line or not, but I still get royalty checks!
FBPO: Among the accolades on your website bio, it says you “whistled for Michael Jackson.” You want to tell us about that?
RH: I was listed in the union book as an “artistic whistler.” Back in the ’90s, Michael’s people called me and another guy from the union book in to whistle for this march that was one of many, many songs in contention for inclusion on a forthcoming project (I don’t think it made the cut). Much to my embarrassment, it was at this session that I learned that when I whistle, I also produce a low guttural hum, which a Neumann mic does an excellent job of capturing. (“Um, we’re hearing something in here…”) Years later, while whistling for a track on a D.C. Anderson CD, the engineer discovered that if you roll off everything below 1K on my whistling track, the guttural thing goes away and it sounds great. Honest.
FBPO: In addition to your ensemble work, you’ve been known to perform with just you and your bass. Is that like a Jay Leonhart type of thing, i.e., part humor/part music, or is it something else?
RH: I have indeed done the solo bass/voice thing, and yes, there can be a humor element in it, in the patter and/or music. In describing it to folks, especially if they say something like, “Oh, like Jay Leonhart?,” I’ll say, “Yes, only a generation younger.” So yes, it’s like Jay, and it’s also something else. One night, I took my G.A.T.T. (Girlfriend At The Time) down to the Village Vanguard to hear Bill Charlap’s trio, with Peter Washington on bass. Peter was using a single-finger right-hand technique on gut strings – very fat and old school, which I really admired! Jay Leonhart happened to be there that night and in a conversation we had at the bar, he called me an “incurable romantic.” I think he was referring to my date, but perhaps there’s more of that in my tunes too.
FBPO: So, are you a jazz guy?
RH: Not as much as Jay. Er, I mean, sure! Where’s the gig, when do you want me there, what do I have to wear, and can I go direct or do I need a small amp? (If I have to wear a tux AND bring an amp, there’ll be a surcharge.)
FBPO: I understand you’ve done some acting, too.
RH: Yup, mostly in a genre of musical theatre called “guitar musicals.” It’s where the cast doubles as the on-stage band. I got my start doing “Pump Boys and Dinettes” in the ’80s. I was playing in a band that was opening for Dr. John at the Lone Star Cafe in NYC. Dr. John’s bassist, Gary Bristol, recommended me for the Cleveland company of “Pump Boys.” I got the gig and ended up doing 7 different productions in the ’80s, including the Hollywood company for 8 months in ’86-’87. That was the gig that took me to L.A., where I stayed for 15 years before returning to my senses and NYC. Since then, I’ve done a couple other musicals written by Jim Wann, one of the main creators of “Pump Boys,” including an Off-Broadway showcase last summer of “The People vs. Mona,” soon to be published by Samuel French. For that, I was assistant musical director, led the on-stage “bar band,” and played my plywood beater bass upright (an Englehardt from a mom-and-pop shop in New Haven, which I’ve had since high school), Danelectro longhorn and Fluke ukulele. I also sang and, yes, engaged in what some dare call acting.
And then there was that time I portrayed an alien bassoonist on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” complete with full facial prosthetics. And the time I pretended to play fiddle for the movie, “Wild Bill,” with Jeff Bridges, but I ended up on the cutting room floor. I still got a song out of that one though: “20 Feet Away,” which is on my first CD, “It’s Me!” It includes the line, “Jeff Bridges is standin’ in the spotlight/I’m in the shadows playin’ seventh fiddle.”
FBPO: What exactly is “ManBassBoxTV?”
RH: It’s my public access TV series. I began producing it in L.A. in March 1993. The original title was, “A Man, a Bass & a Box of Stuff.” Music and conversation with independent musical artists, I described it as “Tom Snyder meets Marian McPartland.” Out in L.A., you could get a 2-hour block of time in the studio, complete with full support crew and a 3-camera shoot. I produced 157 episodes like that. When I moved back to NYC, there were just too many hoops to jump through to get the same production set-up, so for a while I just played reruns. Then, I started building episodes on my laptop, first with iMovie and now with Final Cut Pro. I started calling it “ManBassBoxTV” a couple years ago. The 210th episode just aired in NYC last month. Whereas I used to focus on other people’s music, it’s evolved into the life and times of a freelance musician on the road and living in NYC. Some of the short films that make up the episodes these days can be seen at YouTube.com/ManBassBoxTV.
FBPO: On top of everything else, you’re an educator, too! What exactly do you do (and where do you find the time)?
RH: I have taught bass privately (both upright and electric), but I haven’t done that in a while. After years of frustratingly trying to decipher “charts” that people would hand me to play – often just lyrics with chord changes written above, or better yet, stuff that LOOKED like music, but… – I wrote an instructional tome, “Chart Writing Made Easy (a.k.a. Writhing Charts Even a Bass Player Can Read),” available at RittHenn.com (of course). I occasionally conduct workshops at songwriting camps in conjunction with the book. Where do I find the time? Well, on page 7, I talk about figuring out the time signature. :^}
FBPO: So, what’s next for Ritt Henn?
RH: On the immediate horizon, I’ll be doing a couple cool sideguy gigs in NYC. One is at Feinstein’s, a posh cabaret, where I’ll be accompanying Julie Reyburn, who’s performing a tune I wrote in her set. Another is at Joe’s Pub, where I’ll be accompanying Rachel Bay Jones for the release gig of a cool CD I played on called, “ShowFolk,” which has a bunch of old and new Broadway tunes set with an acoustic Appalachian flavor. After that, I head off to Swans Island in Maine, where I’ve been the house bassist for the Sweet Chariot Music Festival since 2001. (I’m also a featured artist up there.)
And the next big thing, Ritt-wise and release-wise, is the CD/DVD combo pack, “All Kidding Aside,” a collection of whimsical tunes and short films that has been sitting on the back burner for way too long; it’s a companion piece to the latest album, “Timber.” (Some of the band tracks were culled from the “Timber” sessions, but weren’t included on that album.) It’s almost finished; I just keep getting distracted. (I know, it’s hard to imagine.)
And I look forward to writing more tunes with Mary Liz McNamara, with whom I’m currently trying to bang out our third co-write. Damn, I want this thing finished!
FBPO: What do you like to do that’s not necessarily musically oriented?
RH: Well, video and photography, though that’s still “media” oriented. It’s sort of the same thing, especially when one is the CEO (okay, sole proprietor) of Inimitable Media.
What I LOVE to do is ride my bike, though since I left L.A. in 2001, I hardly ever get the chance. I was doing summer stock up on Cape Cod a couple years ago, playing for “Guys and Dolls,” and I took my bike. The bike trails out there are wonderful. I was in heaven.
And on my birthday, my buddies Rex Benincasa (percussionist and 3/8ths of the ensemble, RITTnREX), Rich Jenkins (pianist with whom I used to work regularly over at the St. Regis hotel before they got rid of the bass players) and Frank Wagner (bassist/music therapist) go bowling.
Yup, livin’ large in New York City.