Bass Players to Know: Willie Weeks
Time and time again, I must pay homage to the movie that sparked the flame of my musical obsession… the one that introduced me to a style with more passion and groove than I had ever experienced, with an eclectic history and diverse idioms, and with more influence than any other American genre: Blues Brothers… 2000. While some may say the sequel is a bit cheeky, it features most of the blues greats from the original movie and then some. The final scene involves a battle between the Blues Brothers and the Louisiana Gator Boys, a band of all stars who have made significant contributions to blues, R&B and country. Fronted by B.B. King and Eric Clapton, the band is rounded out by Isaac Hayes and Billy Preston, Jimmie Vaughan and Travis Tritt, Koko Taylor, Bo Diddly, Grover Washington Jr., and Steve Winwood. The rhythm section of Jack DeJohnette and Willie Weeks is second to none, with the players having just as much influence on popular music as the artists they support. Unfamiliar with him at the time, I realized that Weeks must have quite the resume to share the stage with this incredible band. I soon discovered that he toured with Eric Clapton on a regular basis and that his astounding number of album credits is comparable to our previous Bass Player to Know, Michael Rhodes. If you’ve never taken the time to explore the diverse and eclectic catalogue of Weeks, then get ready to buy a few more records.
So Who Is Willie Weeks?
Born in Salemburg, North Carolina, Weeks took up the bass in the early 1960s. Inspired by popular music, jazz, and the styles of James Jamerson, Ray Brown, and Ron Carter, he developed a musical style that is soulful, playful, and musically appropriate. By the early 1970s, he was doing sessions and gigs, including the 1972 live performance with Donny Hathaway at the Bitter End in New York. The rest of the 1970s were marked by sessions on both upright and electric with David Bowie, George Harrison, Randy Newman, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, The Rolling Stones, Ron Wood, and Rod Stewart. The following decades solidified him as a session great, featuring him on records by The Doobie Brothers, Michael McDonald, Rosanne Cash, Vince Gill, Etta James, Jimmy Buffett, John Mellencamp, Boz Scaggs, and John Mayer.
In addition to studio work, Weeks has an impressive live resume, with notable artists such as The Doobie Brothers, Steve Winwood, and Eric Clapton. He has been inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame and has appeared in the movies Blues Brothers 2000 and Lightning In a Bottle. He continues to be an active session player with more recent credits including Mark Ronson, Keb Mo’, Wynonna Judd, and Buddy Guy.
Let’s Talk Style
Whether you’re into deep cuts or someone who listens to popular radio to and from work, chances are, you’ve heard Weeks’ bass lines. His ability to act as a musical chameleon has landed him session work with artists of all genres, though he seems to flourish in the world of pop, blues, soul, and R&B. He goes from precisely arranged pop songs a la David Bowie and Michael McDonald to the open, improvisatory nature of blues, jazz, and R&B. He knows when it’s time to play with absolute attention to a part versus when to add flare and personality to a song; this mindfulness is the mark of a true professional.
In either situation, Weeks is a groove machine. His timing is exquisite, as is the placement and duration of his notes. He is the glue of a rhythm section; knowing when to lay back and play on the far end of the beat or how to play slightly on top to give the band more momentum. A master of the “double hit,” he often adds swing to a song with two attacks of the same note (“one-and” or “and-one”). This establishes a funky rhythmic pattern, leaving him room to play with note choice while maintaining a consistent groove for the band. His ability to combine the dead notes and string rakes out of Jamerson’s book with equally clever harmonic movement, brightness, and articulation makes him one of the most eclectic and inspirational bass players.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Voices Inside (Everything Is Everything)” (Donny Hathaway: Live (at The Bitter End, 1972))
Cited as one of Weeks’ greatest performances, this record captures the live groove and drive of a band fueled by his bass lines. His funky, punctuated notes establish a relentless groove that morphs throughout the song to support the vocals and soloists, only to give way to an extended bass solo. Beginning with an elaboration of the original groove, he takes his time and introduces new rhythmic and melodic themes without ever dropping the time or feel. Playing with range, he executes articulate high notes and chords supported by the low root, often inserting the original bass theme to anchor the solo.
Listen: Amazon MP3
“Unchain My Heart, Part 1” (John Scofield: That’s What I Say)
With new interpretations of classic Ray Charles tunes, Weeks has the opportunity to stretch out alongside Steve Jordan, thereby creating one of the grooviest rhythm sections of all time. This tune begins with a muted, minor bass line that sets the stage for the funk to come. Weeks’ slinky yet clearly defined playing respects the initial groove but has just the right amount of improvisation and interpretation to act as low-end ear candy. His chromatic double-attack line during the “B” section is nothing short of stanky, complete with quick octave hits, descending rakes, and slyly placed high accents. Check out the extended “part 2” for even more excellence.
“Takin’ It To The Streets” (The Doobie Brothers: Farewell Tour Live)
Weeks brings his punchy tone and expert articulation to this live performance, spearheading the song with a funky octave intro. He’s the bass player that anyone would want in their band—he plays to the songs’ arrangement with both discipline personality, executing each note perfectly yet adding the groove and flavor that is uniquely “Weeks.”
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Willie Weeks? Please share with us 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!