In Memoriam: Joe Osborn

Joe Osborn

Very sad news to report today: bass legend Joe Osborn has passed away. He was 81 years old. His son, Darren, made a statement on behalf of his family on social media.

“Thanks from all the Osborn family for all the warmth and support from our friends during this difficult time,” Darren wrote. “Joe is in a beautiful place now. He passed 12-14-18 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was surrounded by family at his home in Greenwood, Louisiana.”

Born and raised in Louisiana, Osborn’s first success came as a guitarist working with singer Dale Hawkins. He moved to Las Vegas at just 20 years old where he switched to bass. It was here that he joined Ricky Nelson’s band and scored the enormous hit, “Travelin’ Man.”

Nelson’s band broke up in 1964, by which time Osborn had become a known entity in the music industry. He began branching out into the recording scene and started doing session work full-time in Los Angeles. The magic of the studio musicians, including his frequent bandmates Hal Blaine and Larry Knechtel, during this led to hit after hit.

Osborn played on smash hits for Johnny Rivers (“Memphis”) The 5th Dimension (“Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In”), The Mamas and the Papas (“California Dreamin'”), The Association (“Windy”), Simon and Garfunkel (“Bridge Over Troubled Water”), and many, many more. He also helped to discover The Carpenters and played on all their albums throughout their career.

Osborn left the L.A. scene in 1974 for Nashville, where he continued to work with primarily artists like Kenny Rogers, Hank Williams Jr., and more. In a 1998 interview with Vintage Guitar magazine, the bassist says his son counted “about 200 pop Top 40, 18 number ones on the pop charts, and at least 53 number ones on the country charts.”

The music he made put a stamp on an entire generation and inspired scores of bassists. We were lucky enough to speak with Mr. Osborn for an article in our “Stories Behind The Songs” column back in 2012 where he discusses 10 out of his many famous tracks. He was very gracious with his time and knowledge, even sharing a tip for up and coming musicians.

“Young players ask me, ‘How do you think of all those things to play?’ And this is one of my lessons that I repeat over and over again: The song will tell you what to play if you listen. You get your ideas from either the melody or the vocal phrasing gives you rhythmic ideas.”

Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Joe Osborn.

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  1. Steve Pinkston

    Joe Osborn’s playing was an early influence for me, particularly when I was trying to break into the LA studio scene. I imitated him shamelessly. Producers sometimes would hand me written-out bass parts that had very ‘Obsorn-esque’ licks in them. On one, I circled the lick and wrote “thanks, Joe” in pencil before I handed it back at the end of the session. The arranger saw that and got a laugh out of it – “you got me!”

    I guess my favorite Joe Osborn bass track is still “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” He lays out through the whole first verse, then comes in with four simple high notes, then a HUGE scoop into the root. I choke up every time I hear it.

    And of course, his track on “Let The Sunshine In” is so good that it got mixed really hot – I think Joe’s bass track is what made that cut a hit, to be honest.

  2. Jeff Lux

    Growing up in the Detroit area, I started playing bass around age 14 when all the big name rock bands came through in the 1970’s while the radio stations played a variety of music. It was in the 1990’s that I ended up moving to North Louisiana working in healthcare and little did I know that the songs I was most interested in playing at the time had a common theme in that their bass tracks were all laid down by a famous guy from the area Mr. Joe Osborn. Songs from the Fifth Dimension – Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In, Never My Love, The Carpenters, America’s Ventura Highway. Such a huge talent…such a huge influence on so many including myself. So sad to hear of the news of his passing and my condolences to his family. Thank You Joe…God Bless and may you Rest In Peace.

  3. Keith Rosier

    I met Joe, along with Duck Dunn, at the Lakland celebration concert in Chicago honoring them and other players of Lakland. It was funny how I met them because as I walked into the meet and greet prior to the concert, I saw a kind of a schmooze fest going on to my right. I thought that wasn’t for me so I turned left, the other way, and ended up in the bar. There were 2 people in the bar: Joe and Duck. I’m a Southern boy, too, so it makes sense that we all ended in the same place avoiding the fray. So I just walked up to them and said “Hey, how’s it going?” They said fine, come join us. So I introduced myself, and sat and chatted with them and later their wives when they arrived. Very down to earth and great guys. I didn’t know what to say other than telling them how much I admired their playing -what else could I say? It was so great to get to meet and talk with them. Sadly, we lost Duck a few years later, (While visiting with them he shared with me that he just went through treatment for throat cancer) and then we lost Joe. Joe was such a powerhouse, and so melodic all at once. Such a huge presence on the bass, and what a career! So glad we have his basslines to listen to and learn from.