If you turn on any classic rock, oldies, or adult contemporary radio station, you won’t make it through the day without hearing a few Billy Joel tunes. With a musical catalog that defined American popular music from the 1970s through 1990s, Billy Joel made hit after hit with the help of his longtime backing band, and our latest bass player to know, Doug Stegmeyer. As someone who grew up on Joel’s music, I can recall the punchy notes of his bass playing as easily as the lyrics to “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” and after watching the documentary Hired Guns (which I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone curious about what it’s like to be a working professional), I figured it was high time to dig in to Stegmeyer’s parts. As a session player with artists including Hall & Oates, Phoebe Snow, and The Carpenters, and as a member of Billy Joel’s band, he is our latest Bass Player To Know.
Who Is Doug Stegmeyer?
Born in Flushing, Queens, New York in 1951, Stegmeyer got his start playing in bands in high school. Influenced by The Beatles and his father’s musical accomplishments as an arranger and wind player, he picked up the bass at the age of fourteen. He then met Russell Javors and Liberty DeVitto and formed the club band “Topper.” Billy Joel got wind of the band in his search for a “New York” sound and, in need of a bass player, asked Stegmeyer to join him for his Streetlife Serenade tour. A couple years of later, the other members of Topper joined Joel’s band, serving as both the touring and recording band from 1976 through 1988. Nicknamed “The Sergeant,” Stegmeyer served as musical director for Joel, guiding the band through song arrangements and having a great amount of influence on recording sessions. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he also worked as a session playing with other artists, including Phoebe Snow, Bob James, Graham Parker, Debbie Gibson, The Carpenters, and Hall & Oates.
After his tenure in the Billy Joel band ended in the late 1980s, Stegmeyer opened his own studio and continued to record music. On August 25th, 1995, he was found dead in his home in Smithtown, New York from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Let’s Talk Style
A superb rhythm section player, Segmeyer’s playing combines keen musical intuition with harmonic awareness and the all-for-one mentality of playing in a band. His ability to negotiate the sweet spot between locking in with the drums and taking cues from Joel’s harmonic composition make him the perfect candidate for providing the foundation of intricate popular songwriting. Stegmeyer and Liberty DeVitto play as a united front; a well-oiled machine of rhythmic and dynamic cohesion. He frequently matches DeVitto’s kick drum patterns, as all great bass players do, to reinforce the pulse of the song. They match each other dynamically, taking a cue from Joel as to when to filter into the ballads, when to play affirmative and poignant hits, and when to gracefully ride out on a groove.
Providing the backdrop to Joel’s sophisticated compositions, Stegmeyer favors the fifths and octave jumps to diversify his note choice while not coinciding with suspended chords and altered notes. On some of Joel’s highly arranged songs, such as “Prelude/Angry Young Man,” the rhythm section acts more like an orchestra, articulating the hits and melodic lines as a cohesive group. Stegmeyer’s tone stands out through the mix, providing a clean and “ballsy” low end with enough midrange to definitively stand up to the other instruments. There are few better examples of 1970’s pop-rock bass playing and tone.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“My Life” (Billy Joel: 52nd Street)
Stegmeyer opens this tune with eighth notes bouncing back and forth from the low to high octave. It creates a sense of motion and urgency, acting as a “home base” theme that occurs throughout the song. Throughout the verses, his approach is beautifully pop-driven with a consistent rhythmic pulse that coincides with the kick drum. He navigates the changes by clearing defining the root notes, adding simple three-note chromatic fills, and playing sustained notes during the bridge to provide space. It’s the perfect approach this immaculately crafted hit.
“All You Want To Do Is Dance” (Billy Joel: Turnstiles)
This reggae-inspired groove makes Stegmeyer’s playing the highlight of the song. He plays a luscious slide into the first note of the groove, followed by a staccato arpeggiation of the chord. During the choruses and solos, he elongates the notes to provide openness and punctuates the end of phrases with brief fills or by playing punchy eighth notes descending from the fifth to the root.
“Gasoline Alley” (Phoebe Snow: Rockaway)
Driven by gritty, early 80’s rocking guitars, Stegmeyer plays the perfect “one-and, three-and” rhythmic pulse to coincide with the kick drum. He throws in his signature octave jumps during the chorus to add a hint of “disco” and a bit of high-end excitement to the overall groove. His bass sits in the mix exactly as it should, with a punchy tone, the appropriate amount of foundation-asserting low end, and clean articulation.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Doug Stegmeyer? Please share with us in the comments.