Bass Players To Know: Joe Osborn
If you’re familiar with ‘The Wrecking Crew,” the group of session musicians that dominated the LA recording scene in the 1960s and ’70s, you’ve probably heard of Carol Kaye and our latest bassist to feature, Joe Osborn. These players jumped from session to session, providing the sonic backdrop to popular culture and racking up credits on top ten hits. Osborn was a mainstay of the LA scene for years and later took up residence in Nashville, further advancing his successful recording career. With his brilliant melodic phrases and the grooviest of groovy bass lines on records by Simon and Garfunkel, The Carpenters, The Mamas and The Papas, The 5th Dimension, Glen Campbell, Johnny Rivers, and Ricky Scaggs, Joe Osborn is one of the quintessential bass players to know.
Who Is Joe Osborn?
Joe Osborn hails from Mound, Louisiana, though his musical career began after moving to Shreveport. First playing guitar and then switching to bass, he spent a year working in Las Vegas before moving back to Shreveport. He was soon recommended to Ricky Nelson, joined his band, and moved to the West Coast to begin his career as a touring and session musician. During the early 1960’s, he worked with Nelson (recording his first number one hit, “Travelin’ Man), and Johnny Rivers. Thanks to producer Lou Adler, he began getting session calls alongside “Wrecking Crew” drummer Hal Blaine and keyboardist Larry Knechtel. Osborn quickly took to studio work and through the mid-70s, played on music for television and countless hit records with The Carpenters, The 5th Dimension, The Monkees, The Mamas and The Papas, Neil Diamond, Kenny Rogers, The Partridge Family, Billy Joel, and many others.
Desiring a change of pace, he moved to Nashville in 1974 to continue his career as a session bassist. There, he racked up credits with Merle Haggard, Ricky Skaggs, Amy Grant, J.J. Cale, and Tanya Tucker, just to name a few. Years later, he decided to move back to Louisiana with his family and has since retired.
Let’s Talk Style
Joe Osborn is the kind of player that you call when you need something to sound good. It’s as simple as that. His keen understanding of popular form, dynamics, and sonic density makes him the perfect musical conversationalist. Like a good friend, he knows when to listen and when to speak, when to chime in with a short word of encouragement or when to showcase his wisdom with an insightful monolog. Osborn is able to wait tacitly through sparse sections that highlight the lyrics and melody and recognizes when to take an assertive role with a crafty and well-executed bass line. He knows when to offer a different point of view by playing a 3rd or 5th instead of the root note and when to reiterate a point by doubling a theme or melodic phrase.
A few Osborn “signatures” include the quick root-5th; instead of fully outlining the triad, he’ll play brisk eighth notes that go between the root and the lower 5th. This bouncy rhythm drives the band yet it remains true to the classic sense of low-end harmony. Another signature move involves playing a one-to-four chord progression: he frequently plays the major third ascending through the progression (providing a half step leading tone before hitting the four chord) and a minor third descending from the four to the one (this highlights the flat 7th of the four chord). And one last example: the tone of his Fender 61’ Jazz bass, flatwound strings, and pick. There’s a fine balance between the brilliance of the Jazz and pick with the darker and mellow sound of the rarely-changed flatwound string—it magically sits perfectly in the mix and, frankly, just sounds like bass.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Never My Love” (The Association: Never My Love)
Mimicking the opening theme, Osborn favors the half-step leading tones to draw the listener from chord to chord during the verses. He adheres to a more diatonic approach during the chorus, following the major scale as he moves through the progression. Infusing the bridge with momentum, his signature rapid root-5th movement counteracts the lush and airy vocal line.
“Keep The Customer Satisfied” (Simon and Garfunkel: Bridge Over Troubled Water)
Osborn brings an energetic and blues-inspired bass line to this deep cut, a welcome juxtaposition to the ballads that bookend the record. A worthwhile tutorial in diverse blues progression playing, he shuffles with strong root notes and groovy 5th- 6th fills. He opens up during the choruses with a busier, major-pentatonic approach that mimics the vocal “ohs.” Ending in a climatic, horn-driven outro, Osborn adds more color by highlighting the octave and cleverly walking through the chords.
“(They Long To Be) Close To You” (The Carpenters: Close to You)
Playing with a gentle and sensitive hand, Osborn takes a minimalist approach to the bass line. He relies mostly on the root and fifth, playing with exactly the right note duration to glue together the simple drum groove. He sneaks in short melodic phrases, such as the high descending line during the verse following the bridge. Getting a bit more creative during the outro of the song, he adds slight variation with simple, staccato arpeggios and melodic fills emphasizing the up-beats.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Joe Osborn? 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!