Track by Track: Chuck Rainey Talks “Interpretations of a Groove”
Let’s face it, if you call yourself a bass player and don’t know and speak the name Chuck Rainey with reverence, then you would be in the minority. The bulk of us have long admired and emulated this pioneer of the bass guitar from the moment we began playing anything that grooved. Indeed, for most of us, that admiration started long before we became bassists. I was just a toddler when Sanford and Son began airing on TV (1972-77), too young to understand what a heart attack was or why my dad laughed so hard when Redd Foxx grabbed his chest and yelled, “I’m coming, Elizabeth.” But I knew I liked the music that played before the show started, and I can’t help but think that the seeds of my career as a bass guitarist were first sown through Chuck’s iconic contribution to that show. Throughout the seventies, I would groove to a host of Chuck Rainey bass lines on TV and radio, and, without a doubt, like many players, my own style is rooted in his.
Chuck’s career as one of the most recorded bass guitarists in the history of recorded music has been well documented in numerous articles over the years, but little has been written about his career as a front man. I aim to remedy that here. It should come as little surprise that Chuck would take on a lead role in a band; with their penchant for carefully listening to all instruments on the stage, bass players have long made great band leaders. In fact, what Chuck brought to the bandstand as a sideman significantly influenced his role as a frontman in the various bands he’s led over the last four decades.
In 1972 (the same year that the theme for Sanford and Son hit the airwaves), Chuck released Chuck Rainey Coalition (Sky Records), a blues, funk, rock, and country infused instrumental album. Over the next three decades, he would release three more solo projects: Born Again (1981), Hangin’ Out Right (1996), and Sing and Dance (1998). Each album featured a collection of covers and originals, Chuck’s signature sound on bass, and — at least on the last three albums — his expressive and bluesy vocals.
Fifteen years have passed since he released his last album, but alongside his steady gigs as a sideman, clinician, and teacher, Chuck continued to write and record tracks as his schedule allowed, and Interpretations of Groove is the result—a groove-filled smorgasbord of imaginative original tunes, as well as Chuck’s take on a number of classic hits.
On the Recording Process:
Interpretations of a Groove almost didn’t make it out of the studio. The album was recorded in variety of U.S. studios in Dallas, Shreveport, St. Louis, Austin and New York. In November 2011, with the tracking of the album completed but still in need of final mixing and mastering, Chuck suffered a massive stroke that paralyzed the left half of his body and left him unable to speak. For the next several months, he would struggle to recover his speech and his mobility. Determined to beat the odds, however, he devoted himself to therapy and by early January was able to speak and move around some. It was at this point that Chuck and I began talking about the best way to finish up the album. He knew that it needed the go through a final mixing and mastering, but he also needed to get well as quickly as possible. Although Chuck hated to table to album, he decided to focus on his health and for the next few months did just that. In the meantime, I gave Nashville producer and bass-ace Tommy Sims a call to see how we might help. Tommy arranged some studio time for October at James Waddell’s studio in Nashville. James, owner of Lyricanvas Studios, is a 2x Grammy-award winning mix engineer. With Chuck’s health vastly improved by October, we all met in Nashville and spent four days mixing and mastering the album. In the process, I gained a greater appreciation for Chuck’s songwriting and arrangement skills.
With this album, Chuck demonstrates he is far from done speaking through the instrument he helped pioneer. Although the road to recovery has been a steady climb for Chuck, his unwavering resolve has resulted in an amazing comeback. He recently returned from a tour in Japan with jazz star Marlena Shaw and has been making various appearances at universities and music events in the United States. Chuck’s plans for the next year involve several trips to Japan in support of the album, and a U.S. tour of key cities as well. He plans to travel with his Texas-based band, which is comprised of a number of amazing musicians, many who appear on the album.
On the Instruments:
For this album, Chuck played the following basses: His famous 1961 Fender P-Bass, a Xotic 5 string Jazz and a Washburn AB40. Whereas his older recordings were usually through an Ampeg B-12 Fliptop, he went direct for most of this record.
I sat down with Chuck to get his unique take on the album, track by track.
1. Interpretation Of A Groove (3rd movement)
I recorded the first version of this song on an album with David T. Walker. We each had five songs on the album, which was called the Rainey/Walker Band. It was a blast. After I moved to Texas, I decided I wanted to do another version of it. I was working with a different group of musicians and just heard the song at a slower tempo this time. I’ve always fashioned myself as an arranger, and I enjoyed arranging the tune differently this time around, focusing on a more laid back feel. That version appears on Sing and Dance (1998). It’s one of my favorite tunes. This time around, I was working with another group of musicians for the current album and was thinking about the music coming out of New Orleans and the use of the snare in that style of music. I also dig marching bands (I’m a FAMU guy), which is why the song starts out with the drum cadence and my whistle [author’s note: listen for that whistle throughout the album].
2. Think About It
Look, I’m not a great singer, but I do sing. And I do have character to my voice. This song is a singer’s song, but I just didn’t want to feature another person on the record, so I just decided to recite the lyrics as a spoken word poem. I’m not so much talking about myself here as I am about people I’ve observed. I consider myself an amateur psychologist on the bandstand, observing people as they listen to us, and I sometime see a couple together and you can tell one person is more in love than the other. That’s what the song’s about.
3. Brick House
I’ve always wanted to do a version of this song, but I didn’t just want to copy it. Much of my career has involved changing grooves, improvising. I wanted to change the groove, to make the song feel different. And I knew I wanted to play a solo over it, which would have been difficult with the original groove. It is quite repetitive [author’s note: Chuck’s solo on this song, much of which is in the lower register, could be used as the textbook example of soloing with groove as the focus]. I really dig soloing over great grooves, with the band backing me. I figure that I backed them; they can back me. That’s what this song and this solo is about.
4. And The Cowboys Still Ride With Pride
This song is about living in Texas. I came up in Ohio, and although I didn’t hear country music much growing up, I did hear bluegrass. When I moved to Texas in 1982, I began to mimic various bluegrass players in my playing. I started playing some chords and writing some story songs, borrowing themes from country western songs (dogs, girlfriends, mother-in-laws). When I moved there, I quickly learned I was a “Yankee” to them. To them, I wasn’t a “Texan,” and there was a lot about that state that was just a bit too black and white to me. I was from Ohio and had spent many years in Hollywood, so it was a bit of a culture shock.
Also, I began to notice that Texans thought they invented everything. They thought they invented the various musical styles and dances. I thought, “You didn’t invent that!” They just were just adapting various musical styles from other places, like everyone does. So, I originally wrote the song as a response to all those Texans who looked at me like an outsider and as someone who didn’t have much to offer. I knew that much of what I was hearing, especially in R&B, came from me and mine, and I wanted to say something about that. But I kept the song off my records for thirty years, because I didn’t want to offend anyone. After thirty years, though, I think I’m enough of a Texan to put it out. I’m not putting anyone down, though, just saying what I think. [Author’s note: As a Texan, I can attest to our penchant for, at times, exaggerating things a bit. But it’s a really big state…]
What I dig most about the song, though, is the way I play the chords. That ain’t easy. I played it on my 1961 Fender P-bass, which I used for all those 60’s and 70’s hits.
5. Beautiful Brown Eyes
I always enjoyed the story of that song. Most versions have a country feel, but I approached the song from a rock groove—a 1-5-1 feel. The players I worked with felt it that way too, so we recorded it like that. I really dig it this way.
This is one of my favorite songs, especially as performed by Little Willie John. I was playing in the Apollo Theatre one night when they featured Little Willie John and he played it with a swing feel, with the band walking along with it. I loved it. Peggy Lee covered it as well. In fact, I played behind Peggy Lee when she sang it on TV once. Many people think she first made it a hit, but it was a hit in the early 50s by Little Willie John first. I arranged it very differently here, with an Afro-Latin groove. I dig the cowbell and wanted that in this arrangement as well.
7. Uncle Chucky’s Thumb ’Slappin Bass Boogie
I use to play this song as solo piece, with just the audience clapping, but for the recording I added Jeff on piano. He’s really good. It’s a boogie, which I played for many years. This song needs to be played in Gb. I moved the song around here and there, but it sounds best in Gb. It has a certain sound to it in that key that I like. Also, it allows me to play it in the second position, which makes it easier to play and pay attention to the audience.
8. Use Me Up
Bill Withers has been one of my favorite artists from day one, and I really dig the lyrics of this song. Every man has encountered this situation. The original version was a bit too repetitive for me, though, so I changed it up. Also, I found that the original bass groove was hard to play and sing, so I wrote my own groove and gave it more of a Latin feel. Ralph MacDonald, a musician from Harlem, by way of Trinidad, played percussion on it. Trinidad has it going on, man. They are so percussive there. After I visited, I came home and couldn’t sleep for days. They are so rhythmic. I wanted to add that flavor to this song, which you can hear from the moment it starts.
9. Papa Was A Rolling Stone
Another one of my favorite songs. Like with “Brick House,” I changed the feel. I wear a whistle around my neck and use it during this song as well. The coolest thing about this song, though, is the fiddle player, Dale Morris Jr. I met him at a jam I hosted in Dallas. After he played one song, I grabbed him and told him I wanted to chat with him. He’s amazing (his father was a fiddle player too). He’s all over the record, and all his parts on this album are usually from the first take—the second at most. He didn’t even use chord charts. I’m honored he’s on the album.
10. It Comes Down To This
Jimmy Smith (the Creeper) wrote this one. He’s played with many people over the years, and I recorded this song at his home studio in New York. He also helped mix a few of the songs and overdubbed the piano for this song. Rob Paparozzi plays harmonica on the track. He was the front man for Blood, Sweat, and Tears for a while. He’s a great player. This is also a song where I give it a live feel by talking to the band. I’ve always dug bands that communicate with each other while they’re playing. About 10 years ago, I was in Dallas working with a band and we went to Las Vegas. One night me and the rhythm section sat up in the Caesar Palace lounge listening to a local band, and every song they played involved them talking to each other, going back and forth. We loved it. I wanted to bring that to life on the album, so you’ll hear it on several songs.
11. That Xmas Eve
This song comes from my solo bass story-telling days from about 20 years ago. I’ve always liked this story, and it was one my mother told. She was a great storyteller and told stories all the time. Her mother told stories to her, and she would tell me them to me and make me smile. Ray Stevens use to knock me out too, as did Jerry Reed. I really dug those guys and how they told stories.
12. Oceans Of Dreams
I dream a lot. Every time I close my eyes I dream—full dreams. This song is about that. For the last 20 years, I’ve also been involved in Buddhism, but more of the Hindu side. My wife is a Buddhist, and our spiritual paths merge well together. The last five years of my life I’ve been involved with a Hindu master in meditation and yoga. I’ve performed this song for years. It’s a simple melody on bass and then the band comes in. It helps me go to sleep. It is long because I never want it to end. I’ve played it for people who are ill and it helps them too. I played the tune on a Washburn A40 acoustic bass, which was later stolen.
Rod Taylor is an Assistant Professor of Literature and Writing in the Department of Language, Literature, and Philosophy at Tennessee State University. Rod has long been involved in music, both as a performer and as an academic. A bass player for over two decades, he has written for a variety of music magazines, including No Treble, Bass Player Magazine, and the UK’s Bass Guitar Magazine. He is also the author of a forthcoming composition textbook themed on music and the digital age, as well as a forthcoming book on luthiers based on his previous BP column “Meet Your Maker.”