Stories Behind the Songs: Chuck Berghofer
As a member of the Wrecking Crew, Chuck Berghofer helped change the sound of popular music. His big, warm bass sound has laid the foundation for artists from A to Z with recordings by Frank Sinatra, Glen Campbell, Christina Aguilera, Frank Zappa, The Beach Boys, Diana Krall, Robbie Williams, and more. It has also set the mood on over 400 movies like Rocky, True Crime, Bird, and The Majestic and TV shows like The Carol Burnett Show, The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Star Trek. There’s no doubt that you’ve heard his bass playing.
Berghofer was born in Denver, Colorado, but moved to Los Angeles at an early age. It was there that his love for music – especially jazz – grew. After playing trombone and tuba in a German band, he switched to upright bass at 17. By 19 was on the road with bandleader Skinnay Ennis and then Bobby Troup, where he met legendary jazz guitarist Herb Ellis. Little did Berghofer know that his Ellis would help change his life.
“My first record date was with Herb Ellis, and it was called Thank You, Charlie Christian,” Berghofer said. “When we did that date, Herb said, ‘You know, you should look into getting in the studio thing. You’d be good at it.’ I don’t know why he thought that, but that planted a little seed in my mind. Shortly after that I did a second gig with RCA. The engineer came out and said, ‘God, I love the sound of your bass.’ He had people coming into the booth to hear it and everything. He said, ‘I’m going to give your number to a producer friend of mine.’ It turned out to be Jim Bowen, so I started doing some dates with him. I started doing more, and then I got the call to play with Nancy Sinatra. We did “Boots are Made for Walkin’” and when that became a hit, it put me on the map. Pretty soon after that I was doing three record dates a day with the Beach Boys and all kinds of stuff.”
He became a top player during the ’60s along with a group of musicians that came to be known as the Wrecking Crew. The group, which has been examined in the fantastic documentary of the same name, worked day and night to create the majority of the hits of the decade, and they did it on their own terms. “In those days, when you worked in the studio, most guys wore a suit and looked pretty sharp,” he explained. ” We’d show up in Levi’s and a t-shirt and people started saying, ‘They’re gonna wreck the music business!’”
Throughout all of the studio work he did, his passion was always for jazz. “I was always a jazzer and always played jazz all the time. I’d do these other [studio] gigs, but I wasn’t really thrilled to death doing them most of the time… It was kind of boring to just play one note sometimes. So then I’d go to Dante’s afterwards and play jazz until five o’clock in the morning and that kind of stuff.”
“The weird thing about bass,” he adds, “or any instrument – is that the simplest stuff to do is the hardest. A lot of guys can play a million notes and do all kinds of stuff, but when it comes to the most simple thing, that’s the toughest to do. One little wrong note or wrong placement can stick out like a sore thumb.”
With such a catalog of musical experience, we reached out to Chuck to tell us about ten of his favorite tracks from his career.
1. “Whatcha Gonna Do On Monday” – from Frank Rosolino’s Turn Me Loose (1961)
Frank Rosolino is one of the greatest trombone players that ever lived. He was absolutely ridiculous.
We made this album in 1961 and it had Irv Cottler, the drummer for Sinatra, on it. It’s one of the swinging-est records I’ve ever done. It’s just straight ahead; there are no drum solos or anything. Frank sings on every one of them, but the way he plays is just ridiculous. I used to work with him all the time and it was just a great experience.
2. “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” – from Nancy Sinatra’s Boots (1966)
The bass line was written out, but it was written in a different kind of vein. It was in quarter tones. I don’t know if I ever played it that way, though. I may have tried to do it on the first take, but eventually I just made it all fit in that many bars by sliding chromatically down. Of course, that ended up being the hook of the tune, so my nickname ever since then has been “Boots.” Carol Kaye was also on this, and we doubled the line except for the slide stuff. They started using string bass and electric bass together all the time. It gave it more bottom, and it was real simple lines we played.
Like I said in The Wrecking Crew, if it hadn’t been for that song I would have been selling insurance. That was a joke, but you understand. I don’t feel typecast by it – it’s a great thing and it’s still going today. I can’t believe it! From 1966 to now. On bass solos, I’ll throw it in just a little bit and everyone will understand exactly what I’m doing. It’s a great thing that happened. I can’t complain a bit. That was the first time I was connected with a Sinatra. A little bit later with the Wrecking Crew, we did [Frank Sinatra’s] Strangers in the Night.
3. “Stars & Stripes Forever” – from the Pete Jolly Trio’s Timeless (1969)
I was with Pete Jolly for 45 years in his trio. It goes back to being at Shelly’s Manne-Hole, making $16 a night. After three years or so, Pete called me because Ralph Peña, my teacher I studied with, went out with Frank Sinatra at that time. Pete asked if I could do six nights a week with him at a club called Sherry’s on the Sunset Strip. It was just a duo of piano and bass. I used to go in there and listen to them all the time. He said, “Can you do six nights a week? It’s $25 a night.” I said yes, because that was a big deal.
People ask where I went to school, but I never went to university or anything, I just went on the road out of high school. So I tell them I went to the University of Pete Jolly, which is where I learned to play. He’s so underrated. He should have been as big as Oscar Peterson or any of those people, but he was laid back and would wait for the phone to ring.
This song is just one example… I did many albums with him. I just love this one because it’s live in a club. This was just playing, and some of those tunes we’d never even played before. We just did it off the cuff and it’s got that excitement factor.
4. Theme from “Barney Miller” (1975)
I did the “Carol Burnett Show” for nine years or so. We always had a three-hour lunch break on Friday. I had a call to go up to another studio in Hollywood to do this pilot. It was called “Barney Miller,” but I didn’t know anything else about it. I showed up with my electric bass – I was playing electric in the ’70s – and they had something written [that was totally different from the final line]. The producer came out and said, “Can you do something on the bass? This guy is a cop in New York. Can we just start it out with the bass?” So I played that lick and he said, “Yeah, that’s it!” Then we put a bridge to it that goes up to Ab, and that’s the way it happened.
I was playing a ’59 Fender P bass. It would have been worth a fortune, although I did get a good bit of money for it anyway, but I had modded it a lot. I had put in a different neck, different pickups, then I refinished it and so on. Had I left it the way it was it would have been worth thirty five grand or something like that, they said. But you know, I paid $200 for it to start with, so you don’t think about that kind of stuff.
5. “All or Nothing At All” – from Patrick William and His Big Band’s Sinatraland (1998)
Pat Williams is probably my favorite arranger of all time, along with Dave Grusin. The whole Sinatraland album is great, but I picked this song because it’s got some nice bass lines.
It’s the first time I met Peter Erskine. He came into my booth and said, “Mr. Berghofer, it’s an honor to meet you!” [laughs]. We struck up a relationship now that we’re just a team. He’s my favorite drummer of all time. Right now, we’re in a rhythm section going out with Seth MacFarlane. He’s a fantastic singer.
6. “How Sweet It Is” – from Quincy Jones-Sammy Nestico Orchestra’s Basie & Beyond (2000)
I just loved playing on this one. What can I say?
One side note is that the bass I used was eventually stolen out of my garage. You’d think, who would want to go through the hassle of stealing a string bass?
7. “You’ve Changed” – from Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now (2000)
I got a call to go do this thing with Joni Mitchell in London. I never really listened to Joni, though. She was always folk music to me. I did something with Larry Klein a year before this and he loved the sound of the bass I used, so that’s how I got the job there. It was a bass I bought for $1,000 which was a German plywood bass. It’s very simple, but it sounds great. I still have it.
I got to the session not knowing what to expect at all. I got into my booth and there was the big orchestra in the studio. The first thing we recorded was this song, “You’ve Changed.” I didn’t know what to expect. We started playing this beautiful music and then she came in with her singing and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. After we went through it a few times, we went in to listen to it and I was standing next to Joni. I said, “I have to admit I’ve never really been a fan because I’m more of a jazzer.” I can’t believe I said that, but then she said, “Well, so am I!” I said, “Believe me, you’re my favorite now.”
We did a whole tour with different symphony orchestras just playing those songs the way they are. It was a wonderful experience. The writing on that is incredible, and it’s probably my favorite album I’ve ever done. I’m just playing simple stuff, but because of the arrangement, the bass became very important. It glues it together.
8. “There You Go Again” – from The Patrick Williams Big Band’s Aurora (2010)
This whole album is incredible. It’s one of my favorites I’ve ever been on.
9. “Thanks for the Memory” – from the Chuck Berghofer Trio’s The Film Music of Ralph Rainger: Thanks For the Memory (2008)
I had never made my own album. Dick Bank, who produced this, said “We’re going to make this your record.” So that’s why I have all these bass solos and different things.
I picked this tune because it’s really swinging, but the whole album is interesting. There’s a nice bass sound on it, and it’s the only album I’ve ever had as the leader.
10. “Here’s to the Chuckster” – from John Proulx’s The Best Thing for You (2012)
John Proulx called me years ago. I had never heard of him, but he said, “I’m doing a record and I would love to have you on it. Joe Labarba is doing it.” That’s one of my favorite drummers, so I said yeah. After that, I’ve done all of his records. He’s almost become my surrogate son, or something.
When he came up with this song, I couldn’t believe it. He’s also a wonderful singer and piano player, so I had to include this.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune backed by Chuck Berghofer? Share your favorites in the comments.