Stories Behind the Songs: Chuck Rainey
Chuck Rainey’s bass lines have laid the foundation for many of the most popular songs in pop, rock, jazz and fusion that emerged from the ’60s and ’70s. From Aretha Franklin to Marvin Gaye to Steely Dan, he’s played an integral part in the music of at least five Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame inductees. As a result, he is celebrated as the most recorded bassist in the history of recorded music, and for good reason: his double stops, slides, and syncopated grooves are legendary, and—alongside James Jamerson, he remains one of the most influential players in our instrument’s history.
A Youngstown, Ohio native, Chuck’s first instrument was the trumpet, on which he enjoyed some success traveling with a brass ensemble after high school. As a young adult, however, he switched to guitar and then shortly thereafter the bass. On this instrument, he found his groove in more ways than one, and his move to New York in 1962 jump-started a career that began with backing King Curtis and eventually led to working with Quincy Jones in Hollywood.
Along the way, he released four of his own albums, the last in 1998. As most readers know, Chuck suffered a stroke in November 2011, but his recovery has been amazing, he’s back to playing bass, and he’s slated to release a new solo album this month.
This past July, we caught up with Chuck at his home in Dallas, Texas, where he reflected on the last fifty years of his recording career. You can imagine how difficult it would be to pick your favorite recordings from such a vast catalog, but Chuck didn’t seem to have a problem deciding on his favorites. The following list provides ample evidence of Chuck’s versatility as a player and why so many artists sought him out to play on their albums. Without a doubt the stories below are interesting, but those reading carefully will notice that through them Chuck offers valuable advice regarding session playing, live recording, how to create great bass lines, and what it takes to be a versatile and dependable sideman.
“It’s hard to choose favorites, but usually the song is the key to why I like a particular bass part—the combination of the phrasing and what the melody is doing. At other times, it’s recalling the other side-musicians who played with me on the recording that inspire me to really enjoy the song. On some songs, it’s the tone of the bass itself I dig, a sound which I call ‘old fashion.’ In end, though, it’s really the energy that comes off these particular songs that makes them my favorites.”
“Except for two, none of these songs had notated bass lines. I’m very pleased with those composers and arrangers who let me play to a chord chart and the feel of the music. The exception was Donny Hathaway, who was a consummate arranger. Everything he wrote was perfect. He would put the music in front of me and say, ‘Rainey, before you do anything you want to do, try this first,’ and it would always work.”
“When I hear these songs now, it seems like someone else is playing the bass. It may sound ethereal, but I didn’t make these decisions. I was allowed to play free, and once the music started something just came through me and I played what I played. I never listen to them and think, ‘Look what I did.’ I wasn’t trying to play great bass lines—I was just playing the bass.”
1. “Rock Steady” — from Aretha Franklin’s Young, Gifted and Black (1971)
Most people don’t know that “Rock Steady” is a demo recording. We recorded it before Jerry Wexler [Aretha’s producer] and Tommy Dowd [engineer] arrived. That morning, their limo picked them up late and ours picked us up early. Aretha sat down at the piano and taught all of us the song and Gene Paul [Les Paul’s son] recorded it for us as a demo to work on later. There were no overdubs. When the top brass finally arrived, they charted out the song and arranged it. We worked all morning trying to do the song their way, but we could not duplicate what we had done early that morning on our own. If you listen closely, you can tell it’s a demo.
2. “Until You Come Back to Me” — from Aretha Franklin’s Let Me in Your Life (1973)
Slides have been part of my style from the beginning, and this song is full of them. James Jamerson wasn’t a close friend, but I did listen to him a lot and this song is indebted to his 1-5-1 feel and Bernard Purdie’s groove. I still remember that groove, and when things groove like that, you smile like you’re George Jefferson.
3. “Sanford & Son Theme (The Streetbeater)” — from Quincy Jones’s You’ve Got it Bad Girl (1973)
Quincy is an excellent producer. He never wrote for the rhythm section but rather orchestrated after the rhythm section has played, which primarily consisted of James Gatson or Harvey Mason on drums and David T. Walker on guitar. I had just moved to Hollywood to continue working with Quincy, and I was recording a lot of sitcom music with him. He’d walk in, hand out blank manuscript paper, and we’d all take five minutes to quarter off four bars on each line. He’d say, “Okay, let’s put this in G,” and then he’d give us a sample of the rhythm he wanted and call out various chord changes. In about ten minutes, we’d have a complete chart. On this particular song, he walked in and said, “Okay, this one’s a comedy,” and we charted it out quickly. At the end, however, I made a mistake—I miss-fretted the last note. I complained and asked to record it again, but Quincy said, “Rainey, this is a comedy, and you just made me look like a genius,” so we didn’t fix it.
4. “You, Me and Ethel / Street Walking Woman” — from Marlena Shaw’s Who Is This Bitch, Anyway (1974)
Marlena is a beautiful woman and beautiful singer, one of my favorites of all time. I like this tune because it’s both funk and jazz. The first eight bars is funk, and then it goes into swing, then back and forth. I also love this rhythm section: Larry Nash (keys), David T. Walker (guitar), Harvey Mason (drums). You just don’t find musicians who have such sensitivity and more, and I always considered it a privilege to include myself in their company. [author’s note: Chuck still tours with Marlena Shaw overseas each summer.]
5. “Gone Away” — from Roberta Flack’s Chapter Two (1970)
Donny Hathaway arranged this song and notated the bass part. I remember he brought the music over to me and laid it on my stand. The song was in Eb and he asked me to tune down my bass a half a step so that I could play that low note on an open string. That was back before there were five string basses. Now, I’m a fairly good reader and seldom have problems reading bass parts, but there were a few difficult sections in this piece. I was struggling with a part and Donny came up from behind me, put his arms over me, and showed me how to play the part. He said, “Chuck, when you get to this part, look at it like this,” and he played it on my bass, with his arms around me. I will never forget that. He was a very warm person, so I didn’t mind, and the song was perfect.
6. “Reverend Lee” — from Roberta Flack’s Chapter Two (1970)
This song starts out with the bass. Even though the bass line was notated, Donny allowed me a lot of freedom on this one. I added all the slides and fills. Donny’s a great leader, and he knew how to write a great bass part. In this song, it’s almost like an affair between Roberta and me, because of the way the bass and her voice work together.
7. “Kid Charlemagne” — from Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam (1976)
I had been in Hollywood for about a year when we recorded this one. I had already done some work for Gary Katz [producer] earlier in New York. The energy on this song is great, and I remember playing everything I knew on that song, based on my 1-5-1 style. I walked out the studio that day with my chest stuck out, enjoying the sunshine and my new car. I felt very good about that session, especially because we did it so quickly. I think the best sessions are the ones that happen quick. You don’t labor over it. Once you make sure you understand the music, the best things happen the first, second, or third take. I think I did Kid Charlemagne in one take.
8. “80 Miles An Hour Through Beer-Can Country” — from Gary McFarland’s America the Beautiful (1967)
This album is a collector’s album, a very orchestra-centered work. Gary and I were really good friends, and in recording this album I was very free. I remember walking into the CBS studio and finding a complete orchestra ready to record. Gary didn’t track the bass separately, so I recorded with the orchestra. One day, I had slated Jerry Jemmott to sub for me for two hours while I did another session across town. When I got up to leave, the string section applauded, and it really touched my heart. I was walking out the door as Jerry was walking in, and he later said he kept wondering about what I possibly could have done to make them applaud like that. It made me feel very special. I would encourage everyone to get that album.
9. “Groovin’” — from The Young Rascals’ Groovin’ (1967)
“Groovin’” was very easy to play. The music is so nice, and it dictated the bass part to me, as it usually does. I was a mainstay bassist for Atlantic Records during that time, mainly working for Jerry Wexler. At that time, the Rascals weren’t getting along very well. Felix was the organ player, and he had been playing bass with his left hand or his feet, but the producer wanted to hire a bass player. I came into that recording feeling very much like an outsider. I was very influenced by organ players, especially Jimmie Smith, and could make my bass sound like a muted organ part pretty easily. But now I was a bass player with my own style, so I wanted it to sound like bass, not an organ. In the end, we were all happy with it. It’s one of my most simple bass lines, but I love it.
10. “Get Back” — from Shirley Scott and the Soul Saxes’s Shirley Scott and the Soul Saxes (1968)
To me, this song represents the most incredible bass part I ever played. When I listen to it, I think “What was I smokin’? How late did I stay out the night before? What was I doing before I came into that session?” The bass is off the charts. I hardly remember anything about the session, but the bass just knocks me off my feet. I was probably at the top of my game when we recorded it. I know it’s me, and I know it’s my style, but when I hear that song, it’s like someone else is playing the bass. Something came down from somewhere and said, “Chuck, this is your day.”
11. “Just a Kiss Away” — from Allen Toussaint’s Motion (1978)
This is probably one of the funkiest things I ever played. Bernard Purdie played drums on this track—real groovy. I actually perform this song with my own band, but as a shuffle. It’s a challenge to play bass and sing lead on this kind of song, but I really dig it.
12. “Sister Sadie” — from King Curtis’ Soul on Soul (1973)
I used to watch King Curtis play this tune at concerts back in the sixties, never dreaming I would one day be in his band. Sister Sadie is a jazz tune, and King Curtis played it really fast. His bass player, Jimmy Lewis, played that tune with his thumb (he was an upright player before switching to bass guitar). When I got in the band, I was a bit worried about that song, but we never played it until we went into the studio to record an album. I remember him counting the song off super fast and I was immediately lost. I had learned from Bobby Durham—one of my favorite drummers—not to think too much. He told me once, “Chuck, you’re a good player, and when you have problems, you’re thinking too much. When you get lost, don’t get scared, just keep on groovin’.” So, even though I knew I was lost during that recording, I just kept playing and it all worked out. When I listen to the recording, I feel like somewhere Jimmy Lewis is smiling down on me.
Chuck Rainey’s Top 12 Song List:
Note: Marlena Shaw’s “You, Me and Ethel / Street Walking Woman” isn’t available in digital format.
Readers, what is your favorite Chuck Rainey-backed tune? Tell us about it in the comments.