Ex-Diana Ross bassist shares James Jamerson stories, and the brewing “hostility” among Detroit bass players
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
September 27, 2021
Reginald Canty knows all about the Motown sound. A graduate of the Detroit Conservatory of Music, he toured with the Marvelettes and Diana Ross—and also performed Las Vegas shows—during the 1970s. From the 1980s onward, the bassist stayed closer to his home in Detroit, playing with a variety of different groups, including his fusion group Spectrum and the 11-piece horn ensemble Free Flow. Although Canty’s main focus in recent years has been jazz, he’s also got a wealth of experience playing R&B, classical, and pop. Beyond his work as a performer, he’s been highly active with Detroit’s bass community, serving as a former administrator for the Detroit Bass Players Facebook group.
FBPO: How did you become a bass player?
RC: When I was growing up, there were these guys who would play outside all the time. It was right in my backyard where I could look out. And I said, “Wow, they’re performing in front of people.” And I saw how the people reacted to them. I was about 8 and I said, “Wow, I want to do that!” The guy across the street from me was a bass player and he had a couple of basses. I just used to watch him to learn how to play. The first thing I noticed is that, physically, it wasn’t difficult for me to execute. I had, I guess you would call it, “a physical disposition” to play this instrument. I just stuck with it. I needed something to amuse myself in my bedroom because we weren’t allowed to go outside. It was kind of a tough neighborhood we grew up in and we were all kids.
FBPO: Who were your musical influences on the bass once you discovered the instrument?
RC: Oh, man the big one. James Jamerson is the big one. The one that’s so obvious to me. I used to say, “Turn up the radio,” when I heard Jamerson. I mean, Jamerson had more hits than the Beatles, and Elvis and the Rolling Stones put together, but we just didn’t know who he was. And the funny thing about this is… I had two paper routes and I bought my first bass at Hewitt’s Music in Dearborn. I came in to make my final payment, and Mr. Hewitt introduced me to this guy named Jimmy. And Jimmy took me to the back room and showed me how to hold the bass, helped me how to play it and kept stressing, “Make it clean.” He’d say, “Come back next week.” I thought those lessons came with the bass. I saw this guy three times and twenty some-odd years later, I found out that was James Jamerson.
FBPO: Tell me something you learned from James Jamerson.
RC: Well, I was just a newbie. He was just trying to show me how to make sure your notes are clean. That’s basically, as far as I had gotten at that point. He said, “Just make sure your notes are clean. Hold your hands like this and make sure there’s not a big bend in your wrist on either hand.” All he was showing me was execution. I didn’t have knowledge of theory or anything, but I had a good ear.
FBPO: How did your bass career get rolling? You did some cool stuff.
RC: Well, I started getting serious about 17. One of the girls in the Marvelettes caught wind that I played. And they gave me business. This is after all the motel reviews were over and all of these acts needed their own groups because the Funk Brothers couldn’t play with everybody. There were a couple of different places they played and they sneaked us in. And I said, “Wow, I’m playing with The Marvellettes!” It was simple music, but I got kind of serious about it. After I went into the service, I wanted to get a GI bill so that I could go to school because I was the last of four kids and my mother and father was from down south, so I knew they couldn’t afford to send me. So I got my GI bill money and went to school. That was it for me. I knew I didn’t have a plan of working for nobody else. I just wanted to play music for a living.
FBPO: Tell me about the Diana Ross gig. How did that come about?
RC: Oh, well, I was playing with a Las Vegas show act and the guy who was the leader was formerly the music director for Four Tops and I went out on the road with him. He had a nice thing, all original songs. We were doing like the Poconos and ski lodges and stuff. When we got to New York, we heard about open auditions. In fact, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross had auditions there that same day. And I met Nate Watts that day, and he’s been with Stevie ever since. I said, “You don’t know how lucky you are, man. You never had to move. You ain’t got to go nowhere because this music will last for fifty fucking years!”
FBPO: What year would that have been?
RC: That was 1977. I went to our first rehearsal and, boy, we nailed rehearsal ‘cause everybody was familiar with all her songs.
FBPO: How many bass players did you beat out to get that gig?
RC: I have no idea because it was over a couple of days. I was just grateful to get it.
FBPO: How long were you with her?
RC: I was with her for two years. But they kept trying to book her in places she couldn’t fill. And I said, “Come on, Diana can’t fill Radio City Music Hall. And they were trying to fill off the strength of the two movies that she had done. I knew the tour was coming to an end. I had made no plans of what I was going to do after that. I just knew I was going to continue to play. But even after playing with her and with the experience I had, I figured I shouldn’t have a problem finding a gig. Got home, and everybody’s using the programs with the drum machines and sequencers and the need for a bass player was beginning to diminish on the show circuit. So I had to get a job. FedEx. So that’s how it kind of happened for me. I’m really lucky for that much that happened to me because it just kind of fell in my lap. I didn’t have to do too much, but it happened.
FBPO: What’s keeping you busy today?
RC: I’m 69, Jon. I had my run. Detroit Bass Players sounded like a good thing because we could motivate and teach the young ones, expose the ones who were active and promote the guys who were already doing it. That felt good to me, to be able to do that. And then here comes Kern (Brantley) and you have these events that come along and I’m having monthly sessions in my basement. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it more than the people who came over to visit!
FBPO: But what is the story? Is there still a Detroit Bass Players group? There were two of different groups, and I never understood what was going on there.
RC: Well, Craig Skoney started the original group and it started to grow. Then Lamont Johnson and Craig got into it about something, I don’t know what it was, but that’s what happens when you get two egos to clash. They came together, couldn’t come up with anything, and so Lamont left the group. Took one of our photos and opened up a new place called Detroit Bass Players School. And people were confused about that. I said, “Now why did you do that, man? Because you know people were going to cross reference one with the other. One ain’t got nothing to do with the other. They don’t really even like each other. Why did you do that?”
So that’s where the two groups came from. I’m not with them anymore. They had a hostile takeover about three weeks ago. But yeah, he (Skoney) removed me as an admin with no warning and that’s when I said, “Well, what’s up with that?” He said, “Well, I want to change some things around here.” I said, “Well, man, you’ve been gone for four years. We’ve built this for four years.” So I said I’d just stay on as a member. And he said, “Okay. No problem.” And the next day, when I woke up in the morning, he removed me too. So it was kind of a hostile takeover, but that’s behind me now. I mean, I don’t even know what’s going on at Detroit Bass Players now. I wish them well, but I don’t have any more relationships with that group.
FBPO: What about the Detroit Bass Players School? Is that still going on?
RC: I think so, but I never visited their music page because he made that a closed group so that nobody could see what was going on that page, except members, people who were already members. And I said, “Well, if you make it private instead of public, it’s probably because there’s some aspects about your group you don’t want to be seen.”
FBPO: Where does Kern fit in to all that?
RC: Oh, Kern came in for our first photo shoot. And he said, “Hey man, this is great. All these bad bass players out here, it would be great if we could hear them all.” So he started promoting. And the magic came when Bass Player magazine got a hold of that picture and it went viral.
FBPO: Yep. I remember!
RC: Yeah. And I’d get people requesting to join from all over the world. I got pictures of you when you were there. I knew about you, Jon, and I was sitting on Cloud 9 that you are a member of this group. Really!
FBPO: What advice do you have for somebody who wants to learn bass? What do you think is important for them to know?
RC: They have to have a plan. They have to set goals for themselves and conquer [them] one by one, and not worry about whether you make it or not. If you mess up, you just reset your goal, but make sure you set reachable goals. It could be anything. It could be, I want to be better at my execution. Set a time for it. And if you don’t make it, reset it, but be in the habit of creating goals for yourself and conquering them one by one. I fell in love with it and that’s what people have to do. If you’re not having fun with it, if you’re not in love it, you ain’t going to never excel at this.
FBPO: How much playing are you doing now?
RC: I can’t even play right now. I woke up one morning about three weeks ago and I couldn’t feel my right hand. I didn’t know what it was. I got a pinched nerve in my leg, and I thought it was related to that. About two weeks ago, they diagnosed me with Carpal Tunnel Repetitive Motion Syndrome. First two first fingers are completely numb. At this time, I just put the anxiety about it to the side because it’s not helping me. And I say, when it comes it will come in its own time. I’ll be ready when it gets here.
FBPO: You’re going through a challenging period right now. What inspires you? What keeps you going?
RC: For me, it’s things unrealized. I realized that I was really meant to do some things that I didn’t think I would ever be able to do. So this unrealized potential is what keeps me going. And it’s not likely that I’ll get to do those things again, but it is a great motivator. I live by myself. I’m a single guy. I don’t have nobody to say, “Hey, you can do it. You can do it.” I have to come up with that myself. So I stuck with music because I felt I was in control of that. I figured this is what I do best. I mean this is the thing I can do on a world-class, basis. That’s the only reason I stuck with it, because I knew that if the things were right, I could make a career out of this. And that’s what I was able to do. I was still young, 18, 19 years old, 21 when I got out of the service. I was ready. I was ready to go.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
RC: Wow! If I were not a bass player, I probably would have been a writer. When I was young, I wanted to be a journalist, but I was smart enough to know that, wow, this is 1970. We just came out of the civil rights era of all that tumultuousness. How many people are going to want to listen to the musings of a 20-something black kid just straight out of the Civil Rights era? And I didn’t want to be a columnist with anyone because they sanitize what you write. You go in and you submit something to them and when it comes out, it’s not the same thing as you… I didn’t want anybody to sanitize what I write. I was very emotional about the stuff I believed in, open enough to hear viewpoints, and I didn’t want to be silenced. I wanted to write about human interest stories, history, things we don’t write about. And nobody was interested in that. I probably would have been writing about music too. The one subject that I felt I knew enough about. Ain’t nothing worse than that for somebody trying to talk about a subject they know nothing about, and try to talk about it in detail. Nothing worse than that.
See Jon’s blog, with key takeaways from this interview here.