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Ups and Downs : Respecting the Music With Phil Baker

Meet Phil Baker –

“Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.” -W. H. Auden 1962

“The fire of suffering becomes the light of consciousness.” -Eckhart Tolle 2005

The music biz is tough. Or, to paraphrase Steve Swallow: “The music biz is tough if it’s what you want to do, and easy if it’s what you have to do.” I’ve seen great talent waste their careers needlessly, while lesser talent thrived, buoyed by posturing, hype and jive.

In 1983 I played on the “Motown 25” TV show. I was in Diana Ross’ band and was honored to back up legends like Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and Stevie Wonder. James Jamerson, who was my idol, had preceded me in Diana’s band by two bassists. I was shocked to learn after the fact that he had to buy a scalped ticket to get in to the show! This was a TV show that should have had a thirty-minute tribute to him! He died soon after a broken man.

Flash back to 1977. I’m hanging out with my teenage buddies behind the Paramount Theatre in Portland hoping to meet another one of my idols, Jaco Pastorius, who was playing there with Weather Report. Well, as the old saying goes: “You don’t want to meet your idols.” In this case it was only half true. Although he was obviously under the influence of something, there were pearls of wisdom surrounded by all the bull#$% he was talking.

I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that both men (and many others) died way too early. Yes, both men had substance abuse problems but they also felt that their careers had taken a downturn. If either were alive today they would be worshiped as the iconoclasts that they were. Fashion in music, just like fashion in clothing, is fickle and cyclical. The demand for Jamerson’s warm tubby grooves had given way to popping and slapping and synth bass lines but his bass lines on the Motown hits will always be classics. Similarly, Jaco’s contribution to Weather Report and several of Joni Mitchell’s albums are timeless.

It can be tough as a musician to weather some of the inevitable lows that almost every career faces but if we remember why we started to play music and the joy that playing with gifted musicians can bring it can help us through tough times. Before her comeback Bonnie Raitt said that her record label considered her vinyl records not important enough to release on CD. Guess who had the last laugh.

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