January 3 – Zeppelin’s Quiet Copilot

One of the most talented and hardest-working musicians of the rock era was born. Happy 74th birthday John Paul Jones, long may you rock!

Although best known as the bass player for Led Zeppelin, Jones can play guitar, mandolin, violin, ukelele, autoharp, piano (which he learned to play at age six by his dad’s side. Dad was a concert pianist and big band member) and more or less anything else put in front of him! By the time he was 16 he was touring with The Shadows, at the time one of Britain’s top acts and in the mid-’60s he worked for Decca Records as a session musician, adding bits to records by the Who’s Who of the day’s music- Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, the Yardbirds…where he met Jimmy Page, making him an obvious invitee when Page and Robert Plant were starting their own band.Page recalls “he had quite brilliant ideas and I jumped at the chance to get him.”

In Zeppelin, Jones excelled at keeping to the shadows, both on the records and on stage. While the others had reputations for being the quintessential hard-partying rock stars, Jones rarely attracted attention. “I used to change my appearance all the time just to make sure I wasn’t as recognizable. I can’t see the point of travelling around the world and not seeing anything,” he said. People at Atlantic Records suggested he was the “wisest guy” in the band, “Why? He never got caught in embarrassing situations.” Likewise, while he’s not in the front and center of the band’s sound and is credited to far fewer songs than Plant and Page, it was very much Jones and his little flourishes – arranging string sections, adding oddball instruments and so on – which made them stand out, and made them different than say, Black Sabbath as he’s quick to point out.

Since Zep, Jones has kept busy enough, being in Them Crooked Vultures with Dave Grohl with whom he also guested on the Foo Fighters In Your Honor , which Grohl considered an honor. “The second greatest thing to happen to me,” the avowed Zeppelin fan noted. As well, Jones has kept busy producing records for, or adding and arranging string sections for records by the likes of Lenny Kravitz, R.E.M. and The Mission, whose very Zeppelin-like Children album he produced.

October 25 – Scot Bassist Was The Cream Of The Crop

We remember a bassist who was the “cream” of the crop. Jack Bruce died five years ago at age 71, from liver problems. For a man who’s output of hit records was small, his legacy is huge. Bruce is largely remembered for his work with ’60s super-group Cream.

Bruce was a Scot who traveled a lot as a child and gravitated towards music, likely for a sort of companionship or fulfillment. He learned to play stand-up bass when young and then got a scholarship to the Scottish Academy of Music by age 14, where he studied cello and music composition. He didn’t last long there. “I wasn’t learning a lot. Plus I’d discovered money and girls – more important things,” he recalled about the time.

To get the girls and money, he began working around London playing in jazz or blues clubs and doing session work. The demand for that led him to pick up, and quickly master the electric bass. During a brief stint with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, he met Eric Clapton. After a bit more session work (including with Manfred Mann on their hit “Pretty Flamingo”) he was back together with Clapton and drummer Ginger Baker to form Cream. The name referred to each of the three being the “cream of the crop” at what they did. As Rolling Stone would declare, “most musicians would have a very hard time distinguishing themselves if they wound up in a band with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker, but Jack Bruce was so gifted on the bass that he did so.”

What he did was play spectacular bluesy bass on the band’s four albums at the tail-end of the ’60s, co-writing a number of their tracks including the two North American top 10s, “White Room” and “Sunshine of Your Love” as well as singing a few of their songs like “Tales of Brave Ulysses.”

After Cream, Bruce continued to work when he wanted to with other artists including Lou Reed, Frank Zappa and guitarist-extraordinaire Robin Trower with whom he formed the band BLT. He also toured with Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band for several years, adding a few Cream songs to the set. Although he recorded over a dozen solo albums, really only the first, 1969’s Songs for a Tailor sold in appreciable numbers, although it wasn’t alone among them in getting good reviews.

After he passed away, tributes poured in. Clapton called him “a great musician and composer and a tremendous inspiration to me.” Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath said he was his “biggest influence and favorite bass player” while Rush’s Geddy Lee called his death “terribly sad news,” adding that Bruce was “one of my first bass heroes and a major influence.” Roger Waters topped that, suggesting he’d been “probably the most gifted bass player who’s ever been.”

Guess he really was the “Cream” of the crop!

October 20 – King Of The 4-String

Happy 61st birthday to a “natural musician” in the words of one of his bandmates, Mark King of Level 42.

King grew up in Britain’s rural Isle of Wight, living on a small farm with his dad a milkman and the house lacking an indoor washroom. What he did have though was music, and his dad seemed to encourage the lad to play, buying him a set of drums when Mark was just nine. Phil Gould, who grew up nearby and along with his brother Boon would co-found Level 42 with Mark recalls when he played drums “he blew me off the stage because he was so much faster than me.” However, drums didn’t end up being the musical calling for King.

After moving to London and taking some iffy jobs including following in his dad’s footsteps as a milkman, he wanted to concentrate on music. So, he figured working in a music store would be a good job and a good way to get his foot in the door. The only hitch was the store he was interested in, Marcari’s, didn’t sell drums. So proving himself adaptable as well as musical, he lied and told them he could play bass and got a job selling basses – and getting coffees for the rest of the staff. He decided evidently that he’d better be able to demonstrate the instruments so he quickly did learn to play.

And play it well. He won many accolades in the ’80s for his bass work in Level 42, with his somewhat unusual “slap” playing technique. Guitar Command rank him in their list of the 16 Best Bassists (why 16? You’d have to ask them) saying his early ambition to be a drummer “may explain his highly rhythmic slap bass style” and speculating his “advanced playing was a huge influence on a whole generation of bassists.”

He crossed paths with Phil Gould again in 1979, when they were working on a record for the succinctly-named M. Gould was the drummer, King played bass although not on the hit, “Pop Muzik.” The pair, along with Gould’s brother Boon started Level 42, and quickly recruited M’s keyboardist Wally Badarou to work with them on the keys and in the control room. To date, they’ve put out 11 studio albums and in their UK notched 11 top 20 singles, with their greatest success coming in the second half of the ’80s. At that time both World Machine and Running in the Family went double platinum in their homeland and made a significant breakthrough in the North American market.

In a brief hiatus the band took in the ’90s, King put out a couple of solo records which were decently reviewed but didn’t sell much. Proving his adaptability once more, when Virgin Records wouldn’t put out an album he wanted to release in 1999, he used his home computer to finish it up, burn CDs, prints sleeves and sold them off the band’s website. He sold over 1000 copies of it, proving again there’s “Something About You”, Mr. King.

 

July 20 – No Need To Lodge A Complaint About John

Here’s hoping John Lodge‘s birthday isn’t “moody” nor “blue”! The bassist and sometimes singer for the Moody Blues turns 74 today. Which if you do the math, is longer than the “22 000 Days” (“that’s all we got, i’ts not a lot…”) his band sang about in the ’80s.

John grew up in Birmingham, England and soon gravitated towards music, being in a band called El Riot & The Rebels as a teen. He joined the Moodies in 1966 (along with Justin Hayward) after their debut album and the pair, along with Graeme Edge are still in the band 50 years on. Lodge is largely credited with shifting their sound from rootsy blues to the prog rock pioneers they’re known as. He told a Miami paper in 2014, “it was very difficult to sing about the Blues from the Delta when I’d never been to America.”

The new sound worked of course, and the band has been one of the UK’s most popular for decades. The fulltime bassist has sung a few of their songs including “Talking Out of Turn”, which along with “Gemini Dream”, “I’m Just A Singer” and “Isn’t Life Strange?” are among his writing credits.

Even outside of the “day job” the Blues have tended to hang out together. John helped on Justin Hayward’s 1975 solo album and in 2015, Lodge put out a “solo”, 10 000 Light Years Ago. Mike Pinder and Ray Thomas of the band helped him on that one. The latter being especially significant to him as it was one of his last chances to work with him before he (Thomas) died early in 2018, just before the Moody Blues were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Ray was my best pal. I met Ray when I was 14. we were two young kids from Birmingham who were reaching for the stars,” he recalled.

He’s been married to the same lady for 50 years and credits his Christianity for keeping him grounded through the years.

June 27 – Who Else Could Play Bass Like That?

Some considered him the “Jimi Hendrix of the bass”, and like Jimi, the Who’s John Entwistle passed away prematurely. He died on this day in 2002 at age 57 in Las Vegas, from a cocaine-induced heart attack. The band was preparing for an American tour at the time.

He was the only one of the group to have formal musical training, studying piano and learning horns and trumpets as well when young. But it was on the bass that he made his mark; “The Ox” was more than just loud… although that he was! As Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones put it, Entwistle was “the quietest man in private and the loudest on stage.” He used 200W Marshall amps on stage when many bands used no more than 50W, resulting in the band being called the loudest band in concert by Guinness Book of Records– and in hearing loss for him and Pete Townshend later on. Offstage though, he was known for being low-key and avoiding the famous raging battles between his bandmates Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey. Nonetheless, he had prowess on the 4-string that made him as essential to the band as any of his better-known mates.

After he died, The Who continued on but never officially replaced him on bass (Pino Palladino took his spot on the tour and on their one new album since, Endless Wire.) His expertise on the 4-string has been rewarded with more accolades than you could shake a Keith Moon drumstick at. Bass Player rank him as the 7th greatest one of those ever, noting he influenced the likes of Geddy Lee and Chris Squire and has innovated with “trailblazing …use of treble frequencies” as well as “technical innovation… such as bi-amping, splitting his signal between overdriven high-end and clean low end.” The LA Weekly ranked him the 3rd best bassist ever in 2015, and Rolling Stone to one-up that. They list him as the greatest bassist ever, crediting him and how he “played it like a lead”  instrument…that often overshadowed Pete Townshend’s guitar.” 

May 9 – Petersson Not Just Your ‘Bass’-ic Rocker

Happy birthday to one of the harder-working rockers from Middle America. Tom Petersson was born on this day in 1951. Petersson was born with one less “S” in his name but changed the spelling of his last name, likely to avoid confusion with a chain of stores called Tom Peterson’s.

He knew Rick Nielsen since they were young, and played in various bands with him in the latter-half of the ’60s. In 1974, the pair formed the band Cheap Trick, which he’s been with almost non-stop since. Although he grew up playing guitar (as did Nielsen apparently), he picked up the bass for Cheap Trick. “We never expected a thing. Honestly, it was one day at a time,” he recalls of the band’s first few years. They of course became quite a thing, hitting it big after a couple of years, almost inexplicably, in Japan, which led to their Cheap Trick At Budokan live album which eventually made them famous over here, the first of 6 platinum albums they’ve had at home. Petersson co-wrote a few of their popular tunes, including “Need Your Love”.

Although he plays a variety of conventional basses, his claim to fame is a 12-string bass. Instead of the normal 4-strings, the one he helped Hamer Guitars design, has four sets of three, giving it a fuller bass sound some compare to “a multi-voice chorus” instead of a single voice. Among the others who’ve used the unusual bass are Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam and Peter Hook.

While Cheap Trick are still active on the concert trail (among a number of dates this year they headline the normally-country music based Bowen Music Fest in Texas) and occasionally record new material, Petersson also keeps busy making music for a totally different sector of the population- autistic kids. One of Tom’s children is an autistic lad, and as a result he’s become an advocate on behalf of various autism charities and he and his wife have begun their own: Rock Your Speech. “We record music with simple melodies and lyrics” which he says help his son, Liam, and others get to talk more and expand their vocabularies. Like his bass guitars, seems there’s a little more to Petersson than people expect!

April 24 – A ‘Bass’ically Excellent Day

It’s a good day to have a birthday if you are a musician- particularly if you play bass! Among today’s birthdays are the original bassist for The Damned, Captain Sensible (whose parents probably preferred the name Ray Burns they gave him!) turning 65, Goth bassist extraordinaire David J. (of Bauhaus and Love & Rockets), 61; Faith No More’s Bobby Gould (one of only 2 members who’ve been in the California band since its inception in 1979) who’s 56 and Creed’s Brian Marshall, turning a young 46. And let’s not forget producer Tony Visconti, who played bass on David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” .He’s 75 today.

Visconti is actually a New Yorker, but he moved to England in the late-’60s. Things worked out well for him there, quickly falling in with Badfinger, T-Rex and Bowie. He produced 11 albums for the former and 14 for Bowie including most of his big ones of the ’70s and his finale, Blackstar. Apart from the glam rock superstars, he’s produced records for a host of artists including The Stranglers, Iggy Pop, Manic Street Preachers and the Moody Blues. He says the #1 rule for a producer is that “the producer is boss” in the studio. He also recommends listening to a wide range of music – seems like good advice he’s put to good use!

While they all had musical success, some have branched out into other interesting pursuits. David J. (whose brother Kevin Haskins was a bandmate in both Bauhaus and Love & Rockets) has written three plays so far. After Creed had their commercial (if not critical) hey day in the late-’90s and early 2000s – their Human Clay is 11X platinum in the U.S. and launched their biggest hit, “Arms Wide Open”- he’s gone on to be a real estate agent in Florida.

Perhaps most curious is Captain Sensible. If we never could quite figure out if he was having us on as a musician (then again, who cares? Songs like ‘Wot’ were just catchy as hell!) we sure can’t tell if he was when he entered British politics , creating the Blah Party. It expressed dissatisfaction with “airhead celebrities like the Beckhams, Paris Hilton” in its manifesto… but also pledged more spending on hospitals and transit. “I always wanted to put a brick through the TV when I saw (PM Tony) Blair pop his head up. I had to start my own political party… it was 50% joke, 50% serious.” It ran candidates in the 2007 elections, but didn’t win any, which given the state of world affairs may be a shame! He says he took his name ironically when with The Damned as he had fun “regardless of the consequences” but in the early-’80s he became involved with some Buddhists and became a rather responsible father and vegetarian.

March 15 – Phil Still Gratefully Live

Happy birthday to one of rock’s durable originals, Phil Lesh. Against all odds the gratefully live bassist turns 79 today. Lesh was the bassist for the Grateful Dead and has carried on that band’s traditions with Phil Lesh & Friends since Jerry Garcia’s death ended it in 1995.

Lesh was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area and although always musically-inclined, his background was a ways removed from what he’d end up doing with the ‘Dead. He was a fan of jazz when young and learned both violin and trumpet as a youngster, even going on to play trumpet briefly in a college’s big band.

Sometime around 1961, when volunteering at a radio station, he met Jerry Garcia, who was mostly a banjo-player at the time. The pair hit it off, and in late-’64, Garcia invited Lesh to join his folk-rock band, The Warlocks. The only hitch was, the band needed a bassist, not a trumpeter. So Lesh took to learning the bass on the fly…and did quite well with it! He’s suggested that having no background in the instrument was a blessing as it left him with more room to improvise and draw from jazz and blues as well as rock.

The Warlocks of course became the Grateful Dead and Lesh was one of the “core four” members that were permanent throughout the thirty year run. In that time, as the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame noted (when inducting them in 1994) “no band embodied the psychedelic rock era’s mind-expanding counter culture vibe better.” Although major hit records were scarce, the Dead built up perhaps the most loyal following of fans with their constant touring and jam-style shows. As Lesh told Relix, “the music played the band”, so fans never knew precisely what to expect from show to show. Which was part of their plan. “Human beings need a little danger, a little uncertainty, a little adventure in their lives, and our society frowns upon that,” he told that magazine.

While primarily the bassist, every now and again Lesh would get to use his trumpet in the band, and occasionally did some rhythm guitar as well. But for a guy who learned the bass in the band, he got pretty good… Bass Player ranked him as the 57th greatest one of those ever, applauding him as “more an improvising composer than mere bassist, Lesh elevated the Grateful Dead from hippie jam-band to an artistic ensemble.”

Despite the name of his band, one would imagine Lesh feels grateful to be alive. He underwent a liver transplant in 1998 and has beaten cancer twice. Not surprisingly, he’s an outspoken advocate of organ transplants and he tries to keep the “peace and love” spirit of the Grateful Dead alive through the Unbroken Chain Foundation, a charity he and his wife run. That organization say they work towards “partnerships of people working together for a common good, especially in such areas as the arts, education and the environment.”

Happy 79th, Phil. Long may your teddy bears be dancing!

February 21 – Burnel, Master Of The Booming Bass…And Karate

He’s 67 but he could still kick your butt- and mine! Happy birthday to the under-rated bassist J.J. Burnel of The Stranglers. Other punk acts have racked up more critical acclaim than “The Men In Black” but few have sold as many records and none have outlived Burnel’s band. And now, over 40 years on, make no mistake about it, it is Burnel’s band. And while the man who now talks easily about Philippine and Turkish political situations and cites Debusy as a musical influence may seem a lifetime away from the one who put out ditties about walking on the beaches, looking at all the “Peaches”, his booming bass licks and determination to do things their own way are two hallmarks that The Stranglers have never veered from.

Burnel, guitarist Hugh Cornwell and keyboardist Dave Greenfield started The Stranglers (with drummer Jet Black, the owner of a bar they played at in the earliest days, added in soon) way back in 1974 and they’re still going to this day. Burnel’s inventive and thundering basslines have always been distinctive and set the band apart from most of their contemporaries; since Cornwell’s departure in 1990, J.J.’ also become the “face” of the group and frequent lead vocalist.

Burnel was born in London and studied history at university there, but his parents were from France (hence the name Jean-Jacques) so he’s proficient in French and one of his two solo albums was in that language, as was the languid Stranglers single “La Folie” that he penned. Burnel was influenced by John Entwistle (“’My Generation’ – that bassline! I thought that was bloody cool!” he recalls) and Jack Bruce of Cream as a young bassist. In turn, his style and sound – in part created by rips in the cones of his Marshall speakers that creates a bit of distortion- have influenced a number of post-punk acts and artists like Peter Hook of New Order and Bruce Foxton of The Jam. While he’s not had the accolades of Entwistle, or the more widely-known Sting or Paul McCartney, his talent is undeniable and Music Radar said he can “only be rivaled by The Jam’s Bruce Foxton as the new wave bass hero.” Burnel notes “we’re starting to get (credit) when we’re in the autumn of our careers.” He calls the band a “bunch of old farts” who are “not selling anything, just a good time I hope.” Fans obviously agree, although their string of UK top 10 hits is years in the past, their 2014 Giants tour was the most successful of any British tour that year! They’re about to launch yet another tour of the British Isles, working in some new material from an album due this spring. That would be their 18th studio album, which is rather extraordinary when one compares it to the output of the Sex Pistols, who were considered their contemporaries back in the late-’70s. 

J.J. told the Louder than War website they will play two or three new songs every night (acknowledging that the fans came out to hear the hits, and only about “ten” hardcore fans wanted to hear new stuff) and that “Water”, a song they heard, is “about the Arab Spring and the Middle East, the situation there and the importance of water and what happens if it runs out.” He says he largely writes songs on his bass “because there is something about the four strings that really concentrates the mind melodically and rhythmically.”  And while now 80 year old Jet Black has retired, they send him all their demos to “see what he thinks of them- it’s a matter of honor.”

Burnel had the reputation of being a rather hot-headed, mean character when he was young but now comes across as rather easy-going and humorous. Which is a good thing, because you can also refer to him as “Kyoshi”- an honorary term for advanced Black Belt students of karate. He’s the head of Shidokan UK and considered one of Europe’s top practicioners of the discipline. However, even a well-disciplined and fit person eventually has to give in to Father Time. Burnel said a few months ago “I’m creaking a bit. My body doesn’t always do the things I want it to do.” We hope it will long continue to let you play that bass, Mr. Burnel.

January 15 – Elton’s Favorite Bass Note Was ‘Dee’

Creating musical masterpieces is rarely the work of just one artist, even most of those on which only one name appears. Thus it is with Elton John. As talented a singer, piano player and composer as he is, there was more to his success than just that or even the frequent addition of Bernie Taupin’s great lyrics. When he was at his best, he was backed by a very solid band to bring his creations to fruition and today we remember one of them, Dee Murray. Murray passed away on this day in 1992 at a young 45.

Murray (born David Oates) was the bassist for Elton during his most successful period. He and his friend, drummer Nigel Olsson had been members of the Spencer Davis Group briefly at the tail-end of the ’60s before being recruited by Elton. They both first appeared on Elton’s live 11/17/70 and the Tumbleweed Connection studio albums, doing session piece work basically. However, by 1972, both were regular members of Elton’s band, appearing on all the tracks and being a part of his touring entourage. Dee added backing vocals to several Elton songs, including “Rocketman” and was present on all of Elton’s smashes upto and including Captain Fantastic…

Then, somewhat inexplicably, Elton fired Dee and most of his band, citing a desire to go in a different musical direction (which he did with Rock of the Westies right afterward, although few thought the new sound was an improvement.) Perhaps because of diminishing sales, or perhaps because he listened to his favorite producer Gus Dudgeon (who said he “hadn’t heard a bassist quite as good as” Dee), Elton brought Murray back by 1980 for the 21 at 33 album and the massive Central Park concert and the pair worked together regularly through most of the ’80s. In the interim, Murray kept busy doing session work for the likes of Shaun Cassidy and Yvonne Elliman and touring with Procol Harum and Alice Cooper.

By the late-’80s, Murray was doing less with Elton but had relocated to Nashville and was in demand as a country music session worker. Sadly he’d had skin cancer before and died there as a result of the cancer and as well as a stroke he suffered in ’92. According to the New York Times, he was survived by a wife and three kids, and Elton helped out by playing two benefit concerts at the Grand Ole Opry to raise funds for them.

Although he tended to get lost behind the glitz of the “rocketman”, Murray was a solid bassist other musicians recognized. Bass Player magazine ranked him as the 74th best bass player of all-time and No Treble complimented him at length. “Accompanying a master like Elton John is no small task,” they wrote, “and Murray shines… he implements a classical approach to soprano-bass counterpart, playing a specific bass note to compliment the vocal melody.” It added “his fills are remarkably fearless.” It’s a shame the sun came on him all too soon.