L.A. session veteran talks early days, music biz
By David Sands
November 18, 2015
L.A. session musician Neil Stubenhaus has a list of song credits that reads a bit like War and Peace. In other words, it’s voluminous and filled with an amazing cast of characters.
As fate would have it, many of those characters are household names. Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand, Billy Joel and Cher are some of the artists he’s been closely associated with over the last few decades. Others include Julio Iglesias, Queen Latifah, Frank Sinatra, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Elton John, Dolly Parton and Terence Trent D’Arby.
That’s an eclectic mix by anyone’s standards, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. The Berklee-educated musician has played on over 600 albums since 1979. What’s more, many of them have garnered special recognition from the music industry. Seventy of the recordings he’s performed on have been nominated for Grammy awards, and 20 have actually been honored with gold trophies.
His lively bass-playing has also weaved its way into over 150 film soundtracks, including well-known movies like The Devil Wears Prada and Airheads, as well as a plethora of commercial jingles.
Although he’s spent a lot of his career working on pop music and soundtracks in the studio, Stubenhaus is no stranger to the jazzier side of things. In the late seventies, he played bass with the jazz-rock group Blood, Sweat & Tears and recorded on singer David Clayton-Thomas’ first solo album. In 1978, he toured with guitarist Larry Carlton, a decision that would ultimately lead to him to the L.A. session scene.
FBPO’s Jon Liebman had an opportunity to speak with the renowned session player about his fascinating career in a remarkable conversation that touched on his musical origins, years studying and teaching at Berklee, gear preferences and observations about the state of the music industry.
During his childhood in Bridgeport, Connecticut in the 1950s, the plunking of piano keys was a common sound for Stubenhaus. His mother was a pianist and played a lot. Perhaps this gave him a push towards music. Regardless, the future bassist felt a natural early pull towards the drums. He was quite serious, taking lessons from the ages of 7 to 11, but eventually his focus shifted to guitar.
Stubenhaus didn’t actually start playing a bass until his teens, when he was asked by his friend and guitar teacher, Vincent Cusano, in order to form a band.
Cusano later became known playing guitar with KISS under the name Vinnie Vincent.
Early on, Stubenhaus’ bass influences were local players. He’d also listen closely to the bass parts on the rock records coming out from bands like The Stones, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Cream and Vanilla Fudge.
He was particularly inspired by the latter two bands’ bassists, Jack Bruce and Tim Bogert, who inspired him with their ability to move all around the instrument.
Playing in Cusano’s band eventually led to a gig playing with the R&B band Little Anthony and the Imperials. Skip Smith, who’d played organ with Cusano and Stubenhaus, had joined Little Anthony after a chance encounter and gave Stubenhaus a call when they were looking for a bassist. That lasted for a year and-a-half, until he got tired of life on the road and decided to enroll at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
The mid-1970s were a pretty auspicious time to attend Berklee. Stubenhaus soon found himself studying alongside a bunch of future heavy-hitters like guitarist Mike Stern, keyboardist Jeff Lorber and drummers John “JR” Robinson, Vinnie Colaiuta and Steve Smith.
“That was our era,” he says. “It’s hard to be in the middle of it and then think: ‘Well this is going to be a classic era,’ because that sounds kind of silly, but it ended up being that,” he said.
At Berklee, Stubenhaus studied upright briefly with Bill Curtis and electric bass with Steve Swallow. His electric bass teacher took a real liking to him and eventually had him substitute teach while he was out on the road playing. Later, that led to a formal teaching position at the college. During this time, Pat Metheny was teaching there, and he’d often bring Jaco Pastorius by the school. Stubenhaus used to let the bass prodigy borrow his instrument and amp on these visits.
In 1977, the bass player stopped teaching and joined Blood, Sweat and Tears, playing with them for a year. After that, he toured with Larry Carlton. Through him, Stubenhaus was exposed to the West Coast and liked it so much he relocated. Carlton also introduced him to the Los Angeles session scene, kickstarting his work there.
“The big shock of my career was getting to L.A. and meeting Jeff Porcaro and changing my entire outlook on music, realizing how brilliant these guys were out here.”
At the time he was a big into the New York scene, which was full of studio musicians jumping back and forth between R&B records and progressive jazz and fusion.
“That was everything to me, until I learned a simpler easier approach, that there was so much more to it than meets the eye, than just chops,” he says. “It was really all musicality.”
With Stubenhaus having been a staple of the L.A. session scene for so long, it’s natural to wonder about the gear he uses.
While the musician is well-known for playing Fenders, he also owns several Ken Smith basses.
“They’re fabulously made basses and they sound great,” he tells FBPO.
“The guy is a genius,” he says of Smith, calling him a “pioneer” of unique, handcrafted wooden basses. Stubenhaus bought his first Ken Smith bass at the 1980 NAMM show upon the recommendation of the Stanley Clarke.
“I bought a four-string right away, and I played it a lot,” he says. “And then, when five-strings were just coming around, I really wanted a five. My work demanded it.”
As for strings, he’s been a solid supporter of RotoSound bass strings from the age of 15. When it comes to amps, he doesn’t use them much in the studio, but often relies on Fender amps and Ampeg SVT bass heads when he’s out playing.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Stubenhaus got his start in the industry, the studio scene was flourishing in Los Angeles. “When I was running from studio to studio, it was flush with money,” he says. “There was plenty of it, so it was not a consideration. It’s a huge consideration now.”
Stubenhaus says established rock musicians like Jackson Browne, Don Henley and Neil Young might be paying for studio work, but record companies aren’t spending like they used to because people are streaming music not buying records and CDs.
Television has also sagged as a source of employment, as much of the music work that used to be done by a roomful of musicians can now be done by a single person in a studio.
Stubenhaus maintains a busy schedule, though he only takes jobs he’s truly passionate about, rather than money being the prime motivation for working. He’s careful with his money and invests safely, advising other musicians to make smart decisions with what they have. He’s put his money in a diversified set of investments he’s confident will allow him to live comfortably for the foreseeable future.
Still, he’s concerned about the younger artists and musicians trying to make it these days. The session player sees a real need to educate up-and-coming players about how to manage their money wisely and avoid getting fleeced by dishonest elements in the industry.
“I’d like to see the whole business turned around and I’d love to be involved in some kind of way to see less money go into the hands of middlemen—some genius who figures out how to stream music—and more money to get into the hands of musicians,” he says.