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Oceans of Love: Chuck Rainey’s Life in Music

Chuck Rainey
Photo by Anthony Westmoreland

“I wouldn’t be the musician I am today without Chuck Rainey,” said Victor Wooten. “If there was a musical soundtrack put to my childhood, Chuck would have played bass on most of it.” We should have taken Wooten’s adulation as fact, but we weren’t sure. Was Rainey some sort of musical superhero? As bass players, we had all made the pilgrimage to Wooten’s Bass Nature Camp because we thought Victor was the authority. Victor had collected five Grammys and was voted “Best Bass Player of the Year” three times by Bass Player Magazine, and yet this master of the low end was extolling exuberant praise on somebody else who plays the bass. Wooten and Rainey are on two completely different ends of the bass playing spectrum. Victor is the show-stopper, a magician with the capability to bend what is realistically possible on a four string bass. Rainey, on the other hand, is the gentle giant who fills the part and supports the song like an oak holds up a treehouse.

It finally dawned on those of us lucky enough to be in the presence of these two great musicians what a massive influential force Rainey truly is when we saw his discography for the first time. Victor had printed out a list of the four hundred thirty-eight albums listing Rainey’s credits for bass playing. It was a single spaced, twelve-point font column of pages stapled together. Victor tacked that list up from the ceiling of the barn. It tumbled down the wall and spilled several feet onto the floor. The plethora of his recording gigs was astonishing, including Louie Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Quincy Jones, Little Richard, Bette Midler, Steely Dan, Frankie Valli, Jackson Browne, George Benson, Rikki Lee Jones, The Rascals, Roberta Flack, Bob Marley, Joe Cocker, Diana Ross, and the list kept going. It was astounding to think that this was just the list of the albums that he had recorded; it did not list the musicians with whom Rainey had played live. Reflecting on his accomplishments, Rainey said, “I was influenced by all of these musicians and artists.” Rainey’s voice was reminiscent of the tone of his bass. It is gruff, muddy, yet somehow comforting, and melodic. “I always listened to a lot of guitar players, but I was drawn to many singers, like Aretha Franklin…”

According to Roy Vogt, the first musician in the United States to earn a Masters’ Degree in Electric Bass, “A super moment in Chuck Rainey’s career was the Aretha Franklin tune, ‘Rock Steady’. That was the first time that I heard somebody doing all those double stops and making it groove so hard. The bass line was very busy, but it really worked with the song.” Vogt was also ecstatic about all the studio recordings Rainey did with Steely Dan. “Everything he did… was like a little concerto.”

Rainey reminisces about one of his most memorable sessions with Steely Dan, playing bass on the song Peg. “That story has been told a thousand times,” he said. Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen made it clear that he didn’t care for slapping. Nevertheless, Rainey was convinced that it would improve this song. “Jeff Pocaro suggested that I slap the chorus bass line because he felt that the technique would work well there,” he said. “I agreed, and since Donald and Walter were only listening to solidify a drum track, I turned my back to the control room so they could not see me doing it.” The song became famous, in large part, due to the driving bass feel and sound at that part of the song. When one listens to this recording, it is obvious that Rainey is sneakily slipping into the slap style. This song is a testament to Rainey’s musicality. He admits that he will do anything for the music if the music asks for it, which is a beautiful way to view his role.

Rainey’s role has also included teaching. Wooten explains how important it is for people to listen intently to Rainey’s expansive wisdom. “The electric bass is a very young instrument and Chuck is one of the first people to ever play it. He is one of the few remaining bassists who created the model for how the instrument should be played.” Rainey has artistically honed his craft, but he never fails to shed light and share his wealth of knowledge with others. Wooten recalls Rainey’s first day instructing at Wooten’s Bass Nature camp. “Every time we have a camp, there are ‘surprise’ guest instructors that the students didn’t know were coming. Chuck was our very first surprise at our first camp back in the year 2000. The students were shocked and excited.”

Rainey smiles. “After that, I was asked to come back every year as an instructor… sometimes I even go twice a year.” This camp quickly became an essential part of Rainey’s life. He makes a huge effort scheduling his time and traveling across the country just to work with students. “What I do is I talk about improvisation and how I come up with bass lines… I get a chance to meet people I normally would not meet.” Rainey’s presence at Wooten’s camp has shaped the musical landscape at Wooten Woods. As a teacher, he is generous enough to stop playing, turn off his amp, walk over to a student and place his hands over theirs to guide their learning. Campers not only look up to Rainey as a mentor, many feel like he is family by the end of one week. Nalani DeMarco Clisset, another camper and one of my best bass-playing friends, views Rainey as her Godfather. To me, he feels like an uncle. Rainey calls us “Chuck’s Chillun.”

I was 13 years old the day I first met Rainey, deep in the woods of Tennessee at Wooten’s camp. I remember him towering over me, standing six foot three inches. His skin was dark as coffee and his hair was a fluffy white cloud. I was the youngest student at camp, but a novice at the time; the gentleman before me was a legend. We hiked together to an electric bass seminar being held in a nearby cabin with Rainey and twenty other bassists. Rainey reached down and locked my small frame in a friendly embrace. Childishly, I tried to stump the expert, attempting to find an artist with whom he had never played.

“Did you ever jam with Jimi Hendrix?” I asked.

“I did, but that was before Jimi was famous,” he humbly replied. “Jimi and I were at one time members of the King Curtis All Stars in New York City.”

Rainey was born on June 17th, 1940, in Cleveland Ohio. He grew up about seventy miles away in Youngstown, an environment he describes as “a perfect place… with my family, good teachers, lots of different ethnic groups, a lot of kids, a lot of activity.” He studied violin, trumpet, and piano as a child. Looking back at those days, he says, “I came from a very nice upbringing with a lot of love and affection from my mother and father.” In high school, he sang bass in a vocal group and he played upright bass in the high school orchestra. Shortly thereafter, while serving in the military reserves, Rainey learned to play the electric guitar.

At the age of twenty-one, Rainey moved back to Cleveland where he began to play guitar with R&B groups. A year later, he found himself playing in a band with three guitar players. He said, “I wasn’t really playing anything chordal, so that’s one of the main reasons why I switched to the electric bass.” In 1963, he moved to New York, where he joined King Curtis’ group, and the band opened on stage for the 1965 Beatles tour of the US. After this, Rainey’s career took to the skies, as he started playing bass in many studio sessions for pop, soul, and jazz musicians. By 1971, he landed a coveted gig touring and recording with Aretha Franklin at the pinnacle of her career. In June of 1972, he moved to Los Angeles, and began playing with the critically-acclaimed Crusaders.

A turning point in Rainey’s life occurred in 1982, when he was touring with Hank Crawford’s band. During a show in Texas, he met Susan, the woman who would soon become his lifetime companion. “A wife is very, very important to a man,” Rainey explained. “A wife is your best friend. It’s as simple as that. They know what you’re going through; they know what you need.” Susan Rainey is the honeysuckle of the relationship. She is always sending positive, sweet energy to him and those around her. When you see Chuck and Susan together you can understand why he wanted to make a home with her in Texas.

It was during the mid-1980’s, at a small music store in Dallas, when Roy Vogt first met Rainey. Rainey had already published five books on bass methods; this is why Vogt thought of him as an authority on the bass guitar. “At that point, (Chuck) had relocated from L.A. to Dallas, a big small town. He was trying to figure out how he fit in, and what musically worked in that city. It was surprising to me and I think humbling for him.” Roy paused, and then grinned. “There was a funny moment, because at that time I had a house gig at the lounge of the Doubletree Hotel. I remember telling him, I have to go back to Nashville because I have a gig. Chuck said, ‘Well, you lucky turkey. You’ve got a gig!’” Fortunately, Rainey was able to keep Texas as his home base, building his career by traveling. He continued to expand his recording and touring career on both coasts, on to Asia and ultimately around the world.

During the sweltering heat of early July 2016, I walked into the Nashville Convention Center for the North American Music Merchandise convention known as NAMM. The convention floor was filled with a cacophony of sound. I immediately noticed a group of onlookers gathered around one particular booth from which a funky, rootsy bluegrass melody was emanating. It was a booth sponsored by Rhythm Intensive (a company in which Rainey is a business partner) that markets music clinics and seminars for enthusiasts striving to be successful in any profession. As I made my way through the parting crowd, I was able to identify the sound: Rainey’s bass. His simplistic bass playing rarely consists of more than a few notes, but it is personal and unique, with lines filling the exact part of the song that Rainey intends. Immediately after this performance, Rainey spotted me among the masses and came over to welcome me, as if I were the rock star. He hugged me the same way he had years before when we first met. It is like this every time I see him. Rainey is always one of the highlights of this convention.

A few years earlier, more than thirty of the bass players gathered in Nashville for NAMM participated in the Bass Orchestra lead by Dave Pomeroy. Roy Vogt was among the herd of performers. “We played one of Chuck Rainey’s songs off of his last album,” he said. “It was great to be on stage with that man.” It was powerful to see Vogt, one of the most cerebral and premiere jazz musicians in the world, playing bass lines for Rainey. Finally, instead of supporting everyone else, Rainey had the spotlight on him and the audience gave an enthusiastic response. When attending NAMM, conventioneers must prepare themselves for the overpopulation of the musically verbose. However, Rainey’s bass lines slice through the busy chatter. Rainey can do this because he understands music on a different level than most musicians.

“There are only seven notes, flattened or sharpened, in the music scale in this western world,” Chuck says. “There are rules and regulations to music. And those same rules and regulations apply to life in general. If a chord is a G minor, you shouldn’t play a B natural note, because it won’t go along with the intent of the music. Looking at life the same way that I look at music, I know you have to follow rules before you change things.” Rainey realizes that sometimes, you have to get along in a situation that you don’t particularly care for, or work on something that isn’t your idea. “Music compares to how I am as a person. There are rules, but depending on the situation, sometimes you can bend some of those rules.” Chuck’s philosophy and musicality originate in his spirituality and his daily practices.

Rainey always smells like the densest incense. He meditates at absurd hours of the morning with the candles lit. He is dedicated to the practice of Hatha yoga, the branch of yoga that uses meditation, breathing techniques and physical postures to promote mental well-being and physical health. “In practicing Hatha Yoga, my teachers have been Hindu; they align both Hinduism and Buddhism. I don’t claim to be Hindu and I don’t claim to be Buddhist. I practice self-realization and self-understanding as a yogi.” One of Rainey’s favorite things to say to me is “the mind is a powerful thing, especially when you can quiet your thoughts.” Meditation, Rainey insists, was an important factor in his recovery from the stroke that he suffered in 2011. In a way, Rainey has willed his body to function the way it once did.

“One day, I started bumping into things that were not in my way,” he shared. Fortunately Rainey lived five minutes away from a major hospital. “When I got there, the doctor told me that my blood pressure was two hundred fifty over two hundred and that I was having a stroke. ‘But doctor,’ I said, ‘I feel fine!’ The doctor told me, ‘Well, in about eight hours you won’t,’ and he was right. I woke up speechless and paralyzed on the left side of my body.” It took a year for Rainey to speak clearly, to get past the mental pain and recharge his muscle memory. He opened up about his fears during this time, saying, “I spent a lot of time reminiscing and thinking and wondering. Confused. Afraid. And angry.”

It was a long road, but Rainey was determined to play the bass again. The activities of playing the bass were much like physical therapy. “It took a year for me to get a sound out of the bass and another year to build up the muscle. I had no control over my left hand. No pressure. No strength at all.” It is truly remarkable that Rainey has made the recovery that he has. The audience standing around at NAMM would not even suspect that a few years earlier, he had no control over the entire left side of his body. His recovery, stemming from his own willpower and love for music, seems like a supernatural phenomenon. Rainey’s perspective is that the more love you pour into music, the more music will take care of you.

Rainey is a Guru, filled with the knowledge of seventy-six years on the earth that he is willing to share. A hug from Rainey feels as if he is pouring his energy into you, and his peaceful aura is nothing short of overwhelming. The rest of the world disappears for a moment. Rainey signs his name on fan’s posters and CDs with his name and the words, “Namaste,” and “Oceans of Love.” This phrase is his way of approaching others. This man is more than just a legendary bass player; he is a miracle, an awesome human.

Rainey exudes “Music is the universal language. I am basically in love with music. It’s the equivalent of loving your mother, your father or your wife.” He also says that he is in love with the instrument he plays. He admits that sometimes he simply holds and caresses his bass, “simply to know her better… The more you love something or pay attention to it, the more you’re going to get back from it. It gives the energy back to you.” Rainey is a real bass player, a servant of the band. The humility of this musical giant astonishes me every time I encounter him.

A song came on the radio, Rainey smiled a little. I knew that he had played bass on that song, and I asked him how it felt listening to himself. He told me that he didn’t remember doing that particular session, and that he was surprised to hear himself. “Was that really me?” he mused, as if he were not taking credit. Rainey’s approach to life as a peace-filled yogi makes him unselfish, the ultimate supporter, and a great foundation in any musical setting.

“Everyone knows I can play the bass, so I’m not trying to prove anything.”