The Light Bulb Moment: I Want To Be Like That
At the age of 15, I dreaded the thought of being caught at a movie theater on a Friday night with my parents. So. Lame. If spotted by my fellow classmates, I would immediately be identified as weird, uncool, and antisocial. Who am I kidding… I definitely was (and am) weird, uncool, and antisocial. It wasn’t my fault that my best friend was out of town for the weekend and that I had been bribed by dinner at my favorite Chinese restaurant. Worse yet, I was going to see a documentary instead of the latest chick-flick or action film. The only saving grace was the fact that I actually did want to see the movie… it was unlikely that any of my teenage friends would spend two hours watching a film about Motown music that was recorded 40 years ago. I, on the other hand, had been listening to The Four Tops and The Temptations for longer than I could remember and after picking up the bass a year ago, “My Girl” had already become a staple part of my repertoire.
Needless to say, seeing the movie was well worth the risk of social degradation. Exiting the theater, I felt like a new person. Inspired by the music, the stories, and the bass playing of James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt, I couldn’t wait to get home and pick up my instrument. My father and I drove home from the theater and stopped off at a local record shop just before closing time. Lucky for me, they happened to carry the soundtrack to Standing in the Shadows of Motown and my dad deemed it a necessary addition to the CD collection. We returned home and after fumbling with the plastic wrap, I finally opened the disk and retired to the confines of the basement. Armed with a boom box, my bass, and a novice set of ears, I decided it was time to get to work.
I instantaneously skipped to track four, the instrumental version of “Bernadette” that had been featured in the film. Mesmerized by the round and slightly muted tone of the instrument, the complexity of the phrases, and those mysteriously percussive dead notes, it was my mission to learn this bass line. I vowed not to go to bed until I could at least play through the chorus.
The next four hours were quite possibly the most frustrating, patience-trying, and rewarding musical experiences that I can remember. I wore out the rewind button on the boom box and strained my ears, desperately hoping to figure out which note came after the last. It was as if I were trying to define every shade of blue in a painting of Monet’s water lilies. Jamerson’s phrases were similar, yet there were slight nuances in both the notes and rhythms that made the bass line more complex with every listen. I loved the sound of the bass, the way it fit in with the rest of the band, and how the song wouldn’t be the same without it.
By 2:00 am, my fingers were raw; I could hardly move them fast enough to play through the verse and there was absolutely no way I’d make it through the whole song. I could barely keep my eyes open, let alone keep all of the notes straight. As I gave the song a final listen, I wondered why I didn’t just go to bed when I got home. Why did I stay awake past my bedtime, alone in the basement, struggling to figure out how to play one third of a song? It seemed completely irrational and could only be described as love. I was enamored—challenged by the notes on the record and intrigued by the bass player that I had always heard but never fully appreciated. At that moment I realized that this is how I want to play bass; this is the player that I want to be.
Before I knew it, my Jamerson obsession morphed into a Duck Dunn phase—I wanted to be the guy in the Blues Brothers, playing a shuffle to “Sweet Home Chicago” and backing up Aretha Franklin. That was until I discovered Marcus’ slap chops, Victor’s soloing, Paul McCartney’s melodic lines, Flea’s rock-funk style, and Christian McBride’s walking. The more music I listened to, the more amazing these bass players became. Each one had their own style, their own tone, character, and sense of groove. I wanted to be like all of them, though I constantly changed my mind as to who was at the top of the list. It was as if I were a child who idolized different professions, hoping to one day become an astronaut and the next day a firefighter, a businessman, a teacher, a football player, and then a rock star.
Thousands of records and bass players later, I still find myself coming back to the sounds of Motown, Stax, Chess, and Muscle Shoals: the dead notes, the flat 7th, the syncopated phrasing, and the ever-present groove. Though I still rock out to Nirvana, play along with “Lopsy Lu,” and revisit the “Bach for Bass” book, I can’t help but revert back to the players who inspired me from the get go. When I grow up, I still want to be like James Jamerson, Duck Dunn, David Hood, Tommy Cogbill, Willie Dixon, Carol Kaye, and Joe Osborne. And yet, I know full well that I can only be myself. The bass player that I’ve become is an amalgamation of all of the players I’ve ever listened to, with a heavy emphasis on a few of my favorites and an infusion of my own stories, experiences, and feelings. Who knows, perhaps one day, someone might hear me and say, “I want to be like that.”
What was your “I Want To Be Like That” moment? Please share in the comments.
Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!