Musical chameleon talks to FBPO about being Whitesnake’s bass player, life on the road and how to be proficient in every style!
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
September 14, 2009
Bass player Uriah Duffy is best known for his work with the group Whitesnake. Though his rock bass chops are first rate, Uriah considers himself a freelance “urban” artist, feeling equally at home in funk, R&B, jazz, hip-hop and metal settings. He is based in the Bay area of California.
FBPO: You grew up on the East Coast listening to classic rock while studying theatre music and jazz. As your musical tastes broadened, you discovered you had a hankering for fusion. You left Rhode Island for the California Bay Area. You’ve gone from Christina Aguilera to Whitesnake, via Sly & the Family Stone, Pat Travers and Carmine Appice (with a little Messenjah and Rupert “Ojiji” Harvey reggae mixed in). Who are you?
UD: I love bass. One thing to keep in mind is that to every “name” artist listed above, there are countless other artists that I also chose to play with over the years since I started in ’85 (I believe my first gigs were at 10 years old). It’s important to know that every gig is a learning experience in many ways. It’s important to take as many gigs as you can to make it as a working musician, either for financial reasons, exposure or experience. By not limiting myself by the style of music, type of gig or pay received, I’ve been able to maximize my time behind the bass. This, up until recently, has been my most important goal.
Now I’m learning business skills bit-by-bit along the way, which will only help me to achieve longevity as a bassist, support my family and always upgrade my short existence here on earth. I’m not the best, but I’ve realized that that’s a foolish and impossible goal. But I know I can always be better. So I play, play, play out as much as possible. Now if only I practiced- it’s been years! Oh, and uh… flirt with everyone!
FBPO: What goes through your mind when jumping from one musical situation to another, especially with a resume as varied as yours? How do you adapt?
UD: Having had so many influences over a long period of time has been of great advantage to me. That way, when I’m thrown into a new situation, I have a reference to draw from. Being into Béla Fleck led me to listen to other forms of great acoustic and bluegrass music, which gave me the skills I needed to tour with Americana/folk/acoustic artist Tony Furtado. Playing in disco, funk & pop bands gave me the opportunity to learn some of the best bass lines ever and play them in front of real dancing people, which in turn led to me being able to hold down the bottom end for one of my favorite bands, The Family Stone. Again, it’s not limiting oneself to the free knowledge pool that exists out there. So jumping from being a member of Whitesnake to musically directing Hip-Hop mogul Lyrics Born is not a big stretch for me – it’s all music. The role is the same; the differences are in the details: playing what’s appropriate for the gig, dressing/performing the part and working professionally. I love the variation to keep things fresh and I get to sample all kinds of grass, whether greener or not.
FBPO: With a background as diverse as yours, which bass players influenced you the most? Ray Brown? Paul McCartney? François Rabbath?
UD: Hmmm… I must say, with so much free music history out there, there are admittedly gaps in my knowledge. You may have found my gaps with these three bassists, as I don’t even know who François Rabbath is! I finally had a chance to study Paul McCartney intensely when doing an all-star Beatles tribute in Marin County with my friend Eric Martin. WOW! Paul’s knowledge of movement and harmony in the bass, and fat bottom end had me rethink everything I thought I knew about the Beatles. For me, the first bassists that I keyed in on intently were Geddy Lee, Geddy Lee and Geddy Lee. After playing nothing but Rush songs from my father’s records for almost five years, I started copping others as well: Chris Squire (who at the time of this writing, I met last night!), Billy Sheehan, John Taylor, Michael Manring, Victor Wooten, Larry Graham and many unknown bassists I heard on the radio. I’d say I’m exactly a product of all of these bass greats, showing off with unique sounds techniques and chops at times, but also having learned to invisibly hold down the foundation of a tune. Knowing when to play what is the skill that has kept me in good company.
FBPO: So, tell me about life on the road. Any interesting stories?
UD: Of course there are! My life is what it is: commonplace to me. All this is what I expected all along! But I suppose mine is a very unique existence when compared to the ‘regular’ or ‘9 to 5′ experience. That said, yes, there have been great things for me to look back on. Like not being able to find my son for half an hour at a Dio gig, only to find he and Ronnie had been chewin’ the fat about Black Jack among other fun topics. Or like sandwiching Gene Simmons (in full regalia) between David Coverdale and me for a picture. Or touring with soul singer Ledisi supporting Chaka Kahn, and watching Chaka call Led onstage to finally meet in person, then sing to each other as the audience wept from the amazing intertwined voices of mentor and protégée. I’ve fallen a few times on stage and lost my bass over my shoulder in front of no less than 20,000 fans. Brian May asked for a picture with me the other day when we headlined the Download Festival in the UK to the tune of 80,000 fans. Last night I introduced Chris Squire from Yes to Ian Hill from Judas Priest. Ron Jeremy is a friend and all around great guy. Playing with one of the forefathers of funk drumming, Greg Errico has really been a highlight for me, and I’m lucky to have him as a dear friend. And to currently have a boss like David Coverdale with such a huge voice rattle our feathers during pre-show vocal warm-ups is simply amazing. Reading back, this all sounds like bragging, but this has become my existence, and I really hadn’t pictured it any other way. Hmmm, what shall I picture next for myself? What will YOU picture next for yourself?
FBPO: What other musical aspirations do you have? What haven’t you done yet?
UD: I stated earlier that I’m learning business more. This is essential, as many of my heroes, whom I’ve met over the years, are not in the best financial shape. Many successful musicians I know have found other hustles that are usually more lucrative than being a musician, like real estate or stocks, the latter of which I’ve started dabbling with this year. I’ve learned that fame and fortune DO NOT go hand in hand, and nothing is ever handed to you. I said that over the past years my goal was to just play bass, but now as I get older, I find my priorities are changing. My son will be with me for his final year of high school this year, and then college, and there’s no way to do that without upping my own game somehow. I want to figure out how to make a decent living doing what I love. If I don’t, I’ll be just gigging till the day I die. So, next on the horizon for me is to find more session work (which I can do remotely) or teach at the local jazz school in Berkeley, CA. I’m not above doing anything to survive, but I’d rather it be playing bass! Reality is what it is, and the fact that I play the bass is merely a skill I have that can hopefully make a better life for me, my son, and everyone who’s been touched by the music I play. I’ve built a lot doing this, and I’ll be starting all over again if I do something else.
FBPO: How much time do you get for just you? What do you like to do that’s not necessarily musically oriented?
UD: On the road, there’s plenty of time alone. Traveling and hotels are the name of the game; actually playing music for people is a very small part of the day’s schedule. Some people practice their instruments; some exercise. I spend my time relating with people, either friends that are far away (via the Internet) or in meeting new people in the random places I walk to. I do a lot of walking. But the majority of my time is spent putting myself, making sure people know there’s a person available that can not only hold down professional bass for them, but can lend a hand or an ear if need be. I think folks should realize that one’s job should never define who they are. For me? I’m a person of the world first. Everything else comes after that.