Accomplished session bassist opens up about George Duke tribute, Anita Baker and more
By Jon Liebman and David Sands
July 18, 2016
Larry Kimpel’s name is well known in the L.A. session scene.
In fact, the Chicago native’s masterful, heartfelt bass playing has made him a familiar face, not just in Hollywood-area recording booths, but also on stages the world over. Known for his ability to express himself in a wide range of styles, Kimpel has put his skills as a sideman and session player to work for some of the music world’s biggest artists, including Stevie Wonder, Alanis Morissette, Mary J. Blige, Steve Perry of Journey, George Duke, Branford Marsalis, Vanessa Williams and Lou Rawls, just to name a few.
After getting his start recording on R&B albums in the Chicago studio scene of the 1970s and spending years developing his craft, he established himself as a solid recording industry presence in the 1990s, touring with the Grammy-winning soul diva Anita Baker. In addition to knowing his way up and down the frets of a bass guitar, he’s also made a name for himself as a singer, songwriter, arranger and producer and runs his own music label, GVR Records. Kimpel currently plays bass and works as a music director for the soul group Frankie Beverly & Maze. FBPO’s Jon Liebman recently caught up with him to find out more about his recent projects and fascinating journey through the music world.
FBPO: How did you become a bass player? Didn’t you start out on piano?
Kimpel: I started out at about age 5, learning the piano and wanted to become the next Ramsey Lewis. But then the process got kind of slowly bogged down and boring, really. And so [I was like:] “OK, when can I get to play those cool chords? … What are these chords I’m hearing? I can’t get those yet.”
So I lost interest in that, and then right around that time Jimi Hendrix was making his rise to stardom and I saw him on TV. … I asked my aunt for a guitar. … And she was like: “Yeah, yeah, we didn’t do so well with the piano.” She did get me art lessons at the Art Institute of Chicago here, in painting and drawing. And I was interested in going into Graphic Design and actually started that in college along with music theory over at Columbia College.
The bass came into play around about age 11 or 12, and that happened because my older brother, Maurice, got me turned me onto the first Earth Wind & Fire album I ever heard, which was Head to the Sky. And just something about what Verdine [White] was doing was magnificent. Just the overall sound and music was something I had not heard before, so it really turned my head. And he had an old guitar in his apartment just kind of sitting over in the corner collecting dust. And with music I gravitated to the guitar, and I was sitting around trying to mess around with it … and he said he said, “Man, take it home with you. I’m not doing anything with it. It’s just sitting here.”
The real catalyst for me becoming a bass player, however, came from my sister Diane [who] bought me a Curtis Mayfield record. She bought me the Superfly movie soundtrack. And I’m listening to the record in my room, and I’m picking up the guitar parts on the thing. But the bass was so prominent on that record, and now years later I realize that it was the late great Lucky Scott playing, who was the Curtis Mayfield bass player for many years, and that just did it for me. I was like: “OK, This is just too cool. I love this.” So I stood there and pulled the two top strings from the guitar, and that was my first bass: Sears Silvertone Focus.
FBPO: How did you transform that into a career?
Kimpel: Well, the career actually got started really in high school. And by that [I mean] my high school band director recognized the talent. His name was George Hunter, and he recognized the talent. And a lot of teachers do that, but the difference with George was, in addition to being a Chicago public school teacher, he was a very popular working woodwind player in the Chicago sessions scene and had played on records by the Ohio Players, by Gene Chandler and Jerry Butler — all these people that were coming out of Chicago at the time. So, you know, he was always in school by day and working in the studios by night, and he also had a big band that he toured in and around the Midwest with on weekends and stuff. So that’s where it really started. He’s the one who pulled me in around age 16, going into age 17. He pulled me into the studios in Chicago. And, at that point in time, I had already made up my mind that’s what I wanted to do. But he is the one that escorted me in literally and said: “Hey, guys, the bass player’s name is Larry Kimpel. He’s a bad boy. You need to try and put him on a couple of things.”
And they did, you know? These guys were so gracious and so nice. I’ll never forget that. Working with these guys like the late Morris Jennings, who just passed, … he was the equivalent of Steve Gadd in Chicago. He played on everything. And he was such a nice guy, warm, very much a mentoring kind of guy. He guided me along. Not only him, but Tom Tom 84, who was one of the arrangers on Phil Collins stuff and Earth Wind & Fire stuff. He was instrumental [along with] Sonny Sanders. Carl Davis was the record label owner for all of those [artists] on Brunswick and a record label called Chi-town. I was working at Universal there in Chicago from around age 17 for a few years, and I just caught the tail end of the whole Brunswick Records thing here. So that’s how it happened; he took me under his wing, and that’s where I got my ticket and started to get a reputation for solid performances.
FBPO: You’ve performed with so many music icons, from Anita Baker and Whitney Houston to Alanis Morisette and Boney James. You’ve covered a wide range of musical genres. Is there a highlight from your career that stands out? Something you’re especially proud of?
Kimpel: That’s a really good question. The Anita Baker thing stands out, ’cause really of how that came about. That was really my second major grand touring. My first one came around 1978, when I was with the Staples Singers for about five years from that point.
FBPO: Staples singers? “I’ll Take You There!”
FBPO: That’s a great bass line. [hums]
Kimpel: Yes, it is. The great David Hood is on that from Muscle Shoals. Exactly. Anita, yeah, that was a real proud one, because of how that came about; when I was referred, I was working with her musical director Bobby Lyle. We had a show in Detroit that he invited her and her husband to, and she came to the show and got a free audition, you know? [laughs] I mean, I played, and she enjoyed what she heard. And [South African singer-songwriter] Jonathan Butler, interestingly enough, who I also came to play with some years later, he opened for the show.
FBPO: Do you remember the venue in Detroit?
Kimpel: That was the Fox Theater. And so, anyways, we ended the show; we hung out for a little bit after, and I gave her husband my business card. They were really, really nice people. And I said, “Listen, this is my card. … It was a pleasure meeting you guys and hanging out. If you ever need a bass player, please give me a call.” And I’ll never forget; he looked at the card and looked back at me and said: “Well, ok, then. Oh, that’s great, because we’re looking to make a change on bass.”
FBPO: The timing worked out.
Kimpel: Yeah, exactly. So about six months later her management called me for the first tour I did with her, which was in 1990, her Compositions album world tour. So, yeah, that’s how that was, and that was real special. That was real special!
I don’t know if you’ve seen that poster that has the big branches, the big tree; it has all these branches [of] the different musics. That’s sort of kind how [my] career has blossomed. One thing has led to another to another to another. So that was a proud moment. And then through Anita I met George Duke, who I played with and recorded with for upwards of 20 years. And from that it blossomed into Jonathan Butler, Rachelle Ferrell, Dianne Reeves, David Sanborn, Al Jarreau; all those people came from that one association. So it’s amazing how those things happen. You’re right, timing is everything. If I hadn’t opened my mouth, who knows what would have happened or not happened.
FBPO: You’ve been an artist with Xotic basses for some time. What is it about the instrument or the company that you like so much? Why do you play Xotic?
Kimpel: Well, number one, they are just the warmest, kindest people in the musical instrument business that I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. Number one! Toshio Horiba and his crew are just top-flight people. [Guitarist] Allen Hinds out of L.A. was the reason [I started using them], because he was using their sound effects. … He said: “It might be a good fit. Check ’em out.” So he hooked us up. And so we’ve been together ever since then, and that’s probably been eight years or so.
FBPO: Do you play their basses or do you just use their effects? Or both?
Kimpel: Both, I’ve used both of them. [The effects were] the first thing. And then I was so impressed with their guitars, their basses, the amount of care that goes into them. They’re super sturdy, which is something I need, working like I’ve worked. I just love what they did with them, and they have that [active/passive master volume preamp] feature. They had really sold me on that. Oh my God, are you kidding me? That’s perfect. I’ve been looking for that for years, and they had it as a standard feature. So all of that, coupled with the fact that they’re just top-flight people. Everybody that I’ve ever referred to them, they’ve taken such great care of. Nobody’s ever had a bad word for them. And that’s why they’ve grown like they have.
FBPO: Tell me about GVR Records.
Kimpel: GVR Records is my independent label, my brainchild. I opened the label, oh, about three years ago. It’s actually a vehicle for my own records, my own projects; and I’ve put out a couple of solo CDs in a couple of different genres. I kind of went to George Duke, if you will, just trying all different kinds of things. The first record was a contemporary Christian inspirational record called Be Still and Know and the next one was a record called The Music Inside, which was a contemporary jazz kind of thing. And from that I did a blues project with a group called Outlaw X that I fronted and sang, wrote a lot of the stuff and sang the lead vocals on.
FBPO: What does GVR stand for?
Kimpel: It actually stands for God’s Voice Records.
FBPO: What else is keeping you busy these days, Larry?
Kimpel: The label’s keeping me popping pretty good. It’s actually growing. We now have about seven acts on the roster, which you can see on the website, GVRrecords.com.
And also what’s keeping me busy studio-wise as well as touring is [the soul group] Frankie Beverly & Maze. I’m the bass player and musical director for them. That’s been keeping me hopping pretty busily.
FBPO: How about the future, Larry? What else would you like to do that you haven’t already accomplished?
Kimpel: I’d love to continue to grow the Larry Kimpel brand, by that I mean I wanna do more of my own [work]. I’d love to do more clinics. I’d love to do more live shows under my own name. And I’m working on doing that stuff right now, putting those things in place. I was asked by George Duke’s manager in 2014 to go over to Jakarta, Indonesia, to the Jakarta Jazz festival, to do a George Duke tribute, which we pulled off in record time with very little rehearsal. And it went so well. I’ve had a ton of people asking me to recreate that kind of a thing; so I’ve actually put a George Duke tribute band together that I’m going to be shopping out there to venues and clubs and performing arts centers and things like that. The name of the group is Snapshot: A Tribute to George Duke. And there’s actually a website up about that, and you’re the first to hear about this. It’s georgeduketributeband.com.
FBPO: And if you’re traveling in a city where Stanley [Clarke] happens to be, are you going to have him sit in?
Kimpel: Oh, you know we’ve got to!
FBPO: What would you be, Larry, if you were not a bass player?
Kimpel: If I wasn’t a bass player, I would probably go into art in some way, probably graphic design or maybe photography. Something like that, something creative. I would have been maybe an art teacher or something like that, something where I was giving back a little bit.