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Bass Players to Know: Tommy Cogbill

Tommy Cogbill with Elvis

For those of you keeping tabs, it’s safe to say that I’m a soul music junkie. Motown, Philly Soul, R&B from Memphis and Muscle Shoals, you name it — I can’t get enough. I’m a sucker for listening to old records, reading books about the development of record labels such as Stax and Atlantic, and seeking out the musicians who played on the classic hits and groovy B-sides. The “Bass Players To Know” series has featured quite a few of these legendary players — Duck Dunn, Bob Babbitt, David Hood, etc. — though there are still a few unsung heroes from this era of bass playing. Without further ado, our next bass player to know is Tommy Cogbill. A guitarist turned bass player, Cogbill provided the bottom end for many of the soul classics we know and love, from Dusty Springfield’s “Son Of A Preacher Man” to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” Jumping from sessions in Memphis, Muscle Shoals, Nashville, and New York, his contributions as bass player and producer have made the world a funkier place.

Who is Tommy Cogbill?

A native of Johnson Grove, Tennessee, Cogbill took to the guitar at a young age and eventually made his way toward the electric bass. In the mid 1960’s, he began picking up sessions in Memphis with a group including Gene Christman on drums, Chips Moman and Reggie Young on guitar, and Bobby Emmons on keys. Often hired by Jerry Wexler for artists on Atlantic records, the group traveled between the hubs of soul music — Muscle Shoals, Memphis, Nashville, and New York. While he frequently recorded at American Sound Studios (owned by Chips Moman), he’s one of the few bass players from that era who regularly bounced around to different cities and studios. By the late 1960’s, he had recorded with artists including Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, and Elvis Presley, among others.

Cogbill soon began stretching his muscles as a producer, working with Neil Diamond (producing the song “Sweet Caroline”), The Box Tops, and Arthur Alexander. In addition to producing, he continued his career as a bass player throughout the 1970s and recorded with country artists and singer songwriters including Kris Kristofferson, J.J. Cale, Bob Seger, Jimmy Buffett, and Townes Van Zandt. Cogbill passed away in 1982 at the age of 50 due to a stroke.

Let’s Talk Style

As we examine the bass lines of soul music makers from the 1960s, it’s easy to see how certain players favor one another. Duck Dunn and David Hood have similar styles, as they are both meat-and-potato players who often find a simple groove or hook and maintain it throughout the song. Their lines are clean, consistent, and definitive. Other players, such as James Jamerson and Cogbill are a bit more outgoing and improvisational. They establish a theme to play to and around, usually sneaking in creative fills, dead notes, and rhythmically busy lines. While Cogbill is dexterous enough to play intricate and imaginative lines, his respect for the song and genre always guide his performance. His brilliance as a bass player is exhibited by conservatism and restraint when supporting a singer songwriter just as much as when he “steps out” on an R&B record.

Cogbill’s overall musicality is impressive. His timing is dead-on, as demonstrated by his keen attention to note duration and the accuracy of his muting and attack. His experience on guitar no doubt translated well to the bass; he plays the neck with freedom, knowing how certain notes would translate in the higher register of the instrument. His understanding of harmony shines as he navigates through chords in clever ways, frequently using the pentatonic scale as a roadmap and rarely shying away from highlighting the dominant 7th or 9th of a chord. Furthermore, the placement of his fills and melodic lines seem completely natural, taking advantage of the space left between vocal lines and playing to the listener’s sense of musical symmetry.

Where Can I Hear Him?

“Son Of A Preacher Man” (Dusty Springfield: Dusty In Memphis)

Dusty Springfield: Dusty In MemphisWhat makes this track so remarkable is the concept of movement; Cogbill’s bass line provides a sense of motion and counter melody while most of the other instruments hold down a static foundation. The drums are solid and steady, the guitar and organ make a harmonic bed, and the horns respond to Springfield’s vocal. Meanwhile, the bass is the instrument that moves. Bouncing between the root, fifth, and octave, he throws in the 6th and dominant 7th to add tension and toggles between the octave and 9th. Cogbill opens up at the end of the song with groovy major-pentatonic lines that move up the neck and jump out of the mix.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” (Aretha Franklin: I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You)

Aretha Franklin: I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love YouCogbill’s approach to this song is like “Bass Playing 101.” Come in at the right time with simple, yet definitive notes. Hang back during the verses but provide direction when moving from chord to chord. Use rhythm to bring up the dynamics when going to the bridge. Open up towards the end of the song to match the intensity of the vocalist and other players. Cogbill executes perfect chromatic lines, skillfully directs the band back down to the root at the end of the phrase, and knows exactly when and how to pedal a note.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“Who Do You Love” (Townes Van Zandt: Flyin’ Shoes)

Townes Van Zandt: Flyin’ ShoesAnyone who can make quarter notes groove as well as they do on this record is worthy of note. Cogbill’s timing is spot on with the kick drum; while the song remains on the same chord, his use of fills and pick up notes create enough motion to separate the verses from the choruses. Playfully using the minor pentatonic scale, he executes slick descending lines on “even” bars (usually the 2nd or 4th bar of a phrase). He takes the energy up a notch towards the end of the song by playing eighth notes, a simple choice that elevates the vamp out and reinforces the groove.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Tommy Cogbill? Please share with us in the comments.