Nathan Watts: The Groove Of Wonder
The Detroit sound. However you define it, it’s a living, breathing musical entity, a phenomenon that rose out of Michigan’s largest city midway through the twentieth century and left an indelible imprint on modern rhythm and blues, eventually creeping its way into mainstream pop music. Like the grease and grime of the auto factory workers who gave birth to Detroit’s booming industry in that era, the Motor City sound was forged with the sweat and soul of masterful musicians, stellar singers and pioneering producers who combined to create a virtual hit factory with their new sound. Many of those hits were cranked out in the basement of a small house nicknamed “Hitsville USA” by its owner, Berry Gordy Jr., where his recording studio revved with a combustible energy that fueled a motorcade of radio-ready records. The house musicians, who called themselves the Funk Brothers, were likely well aware of the creative forces at work in that basement, but perhaps less aware that a few of their musical Motown sparks escaped through the small windows of Hitsville and fired up the soul of a young Detroit boy named Nathan Lamar Watts, who was on the outside peering in, just trying to get a glimpse of all the excitement. Young Nate was entranced by what he heard and saw.
“I was just a kid, we used to walk all the way over there,” says Nate. “And the whole thing about it was that these cats were the musicians that were making all the songs that you heard on the radio. So you know, you’d just try and sneak over and look in through the windows and have fun, man. I mean sometimes we would hear ‘Get away from the window!’ you know. We’d get that, but we still were around the scene.” Two of the Motown regulars who Nate may have caught a glimpse of were Little Stevie Wonder and bassist James Jamerson. As fate would have it, Nate would get the call to play bass with Stevie years later, and although Jamerson would eventually become Nate’s biggest influence on his instrument, Motown’s bass master didn’t make much of an impression on that young boy hanging around outside Gordy’s house. “I didn’t even think about Jamerson then, I was playing trumpet. I think I saw him play a couple of times with the Motown Revues. I met Jamerson much later, after I started playing bass and came out with Stevie.” But when Nate eventually switched from trumpet to bass, Jamerson very quickly jumped to the forefront of his mind. “When I first started playing bass, we had no better teacher than the one that was on all the records, and that was Jamerson. I mean, if you learned even half of the Motown songs we grew up with, you can learn how to play bass very fast!” laughs Nate. “And the most amazing thing about it, Jamerson did it all with one finger. A lot of people don’t realize that, he played all that with one finger,” he says, referring to Jamerson’s right hand technique.
So back to the Detroit Sound, that thing. That indefinable thing. Or is it? I ask Nate his take on it, at least in regard to playing bass in Detroit back in the day. “It’s complex,” he explains. “More than a sound, it was a competition, because there were so many great players from there. I mean you’ve got Ralphe Armstrong, you’ve got Byron Miller, you’ve got Eddie Watkins, you’ve got so many cats. Reggie McBride, David Shields… it was a competition. Ron Carter’s from Detroit. And everybody was in competition with each other, you know what I mean? Because if you couldn’t play good, you didn’t get any gigs. So all of these guys made it hard for everybody else. I think the Detroit Sound was a diversity of sounds, but Jamerson was the father. A lot of bass players picked up different things from different guys, and I was one of the ones who picked up Jamerson.” It could be argued that if there is a single bassist out there today who encompasses the essence of Jamerson’s bass playing, it’s Nathan Watts. For one, he is the man laying it down for one of Motown’s greatest artists, Stevie Wonder. Perhaps had Jamerson stayed healthy and lived a clean life, it might well be him playing behind Stevie on stage where Nate now stands. But James lived the hard life and died young, and so we can only ponder that possibility. To our good fortune however, nothing has been lost in translation. Listening to Nate play with Stevie leaves no doubt that Jamerson’s soul still speaks to us, courtesy of Watts. Not to say that Nate doesn’t have his own sound of course; he is surely his own man on the bottom end.
As the mid-seventies rolled in and Stevie Wonder grew to be one of his generation’s greatest songwriters, Watts jumped onboard and accompanied Stevie on his musical road that traveled further harmonically, lyrically and structurally than the typical earlier Motown tunes, yet never losing that signature groove. I ask Nate how he’s worked out his bass parts with Stevie over the years, especially considering that Wonder himself is an accomplished bass master on the synth, as many of his records attest to. “He usually comes in with his new tunes, and he’ll sit at the piano and play the songs and the band will play with him. Sometimes he comes in with a basic bass part, and I’ll take it from there. When we did ‘I Wish’, for example, he had the left hand bass part on piano, but I put the slides in and all that. ‘Do I Do’ is a good example, too.” Nate sings to me the basic line that Stevie suggested for the tune, a fairly simple four-bar looping part. But as most bass players know, Mr. Watts turned ‘Do I Do’ into a ten-minute masterpiece of in-your-face funk bass. “I always listen first, listen to how the song goes. I try to harmonize with his lead, especially on ballads. I’ll play a bunch of root positions, but sometimes I try to play different thirds and fifths to compliment his melody.” Nate generally stays faithful to Stevie’s original synth bass parts when the band plays live, and good examples of that can be found on Stevie’s 1995 live album Natural Wonder and his 2009 concert DVD Live At Last.
For Nate, performing with Stevie Wonder is not only about playing bass. He’s also the band’s musical director, a position he has held for years. I ask him exactly what that entails for this particular gig. “I make sure it’s all ready when Stevie comes in. I make sure the band knows the songs and they know the cutoffs, because I know where he’s going a lot when everybody else might not. They can try and guess him, but I try to let the band know to go with me no matter what, because if I’m wrong I’ll take the blame. But most of the time I’m right, you know what I mean? Especially with cutoffs. Stevie will do cutoffs differently every night, and you never know. So I say if we’re all together, we can’t all be wrong.” Of course, there is only so much preparation Nathan can do with the band, considering Stevie’s penchant for improvising in concert and pulling old songs out of a hat. “Yeah, one thing about Stevie’s stuff is that his catalog is so big, you never get bored. I mean, he’s been pulling out stuff he ain’t played in 20 years! A lot of times in the show he’ll do that, and I’m the only one who’s playing with him because I’m the only one who knows it.” Does he have any personal favorites in that catalog? “One of my favorites is ‘As’, I really like that one. We recorded that when I first started with Stevie in 1975. And when I walked in, Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock were there, and that song had such a feeling it was ridiculous. We had a drummer on it named Greg Brown who was great. Herbie was playing all the piano fills. That was a classic.”
At the time, Watts was a mere twenty-one years old, and suddenly found himself playing bass on one of the most successful records ever released, Stevie’s Songs In The Key Of Life. The album’s phenomenal success catapulted Nathan’s recording career, and over the next decade his bass graced the records of a virtual who’s who of artists, including The Jacksons, Paul McCartney, The Pointer Sisters, Sergio Mendes, Lionel Richie, Diana Ross and countless others, all while securing his position as Stevie Wonder’s permanent bassist. And by the way, how exactly did Nate manage to pull off playing bass on an album by the world’s most famous bass player, Paul McCartney? “I did ‘Say Say Say’ with Michael Jackson at Hollywood Sound, and it was supposed to be a demo for Michael and Paul. Michael was the most incredible musical cat. He didn’t really tell me what to play on it, I just played the feel and Michael said ‘I like that, do that!’ And I thought that Paul McCartney was gonna overdub it, because he’s Paul McCartney. But when it got to Paul, he said he liked the feel so much he was leaving it the way it was. Now that was a compliment! That was the compliment of compliments man, because that’s Paul McCartney, one of the most melodic bass players ever in history. I mean, come on!” Nate sings Paul’s bass line from the Beatles song ‘Come Together’. “That’s classic, one of the most classic bass parts that’s ever been written, ever been played, you know what I mean?”
Nate’s basses of choice for many of those records he played on were a 1974 Fender Precision and a 1979 Music Man Stingray. Over the years his arsenal has grown to include Avella-Coppolo and Bossa basses as well, but perhaps the most significant element in the Nathan Watts sound is the fact that he tunes all of his basses down a half-step. “I got that from listening to Hendrix, and then when I got with Stevie a lot of his stuff was in Eb so I just left it that way. I have to transcribe when I read music, but tuning down gives it a looser feel, it gives me a looser sound. You know, a lot of buzz and stuff.” Other gear Nate favors is Hartke amps and cabinets, and he prefers both GHS Boomers and Elixir Nanowebs for his string choice.
With nearly four decades of playing experience to draw on, I ask Nate to pass some of his hard-earned advice on to younger players. For starters, what is his definition of the ideal role of a bass player? “It’s like building a house. You are the foundation of the whole house, so you’ve got to be consistent, you’ve got to be steady and you don’t move. The bass and drums are the foundation of the house. The house has other stuff, like the doorway can be the keyboards, the windows can be the guitars, the strings and all that stuff can be the roofing. But you’ve got to have foundation. If your house doesn’t have a foundation– if you’re not steady on the bottom– nothing will stand.” And what about bass players who want to make a career out of it? “One thing: never give up. If you want to do it, you’ve got to be determined. When I came out to LA, I said I’m not gonna fail. I’m not gonna go back to Detroit, I wasn’t going to fail. You’ve gotta have that kind of attitude, that you’re going to succeed at what you do. And you’ve got to practice, man. I mean, you’ve got to sacrifice. I sacrificed a lot. There were many weekends when my friends were going out partying and having fun, and I stayed in the basement and learned how to play bass.”
What does he suggest to bassists who find they’re playing with a drummer who might not feel the groove exactly where they do? Should they compromise? “You want to compromise, but the best thing a bass player can do is play with a rhythm machine or some kind of metronome. And that way once you get your feel together, no matter where the drummer goes, you know how to adjust to him. But once your feel is together, nine times out of ten if you’re dead-on, he’s going to adjust to you.” And what was the best advice ever given to Nate? “Well, when I first started playing bass I played with Norris Patterson and his big band, and he was like a teacher to me. He said, ‘Nate, you need to read more and you need to practice more’, and he taught me a lot about being consistent when I play. Norris just died last week in Detroit, he was 97 years old.”
These days, Nate remains busy with Stevie Wonder, who is preparing for an upcoming tour titled Through The Eyes Of Wonder. “He’s putting that together now,” says Nate. “We haven’t got any special plans for it yet. I don’t what he’s going to do, we haven’t sat down and talked about it. But I’ve been telling Stevie that he should do a B-side tour. I don’t know if he’s gonna do it, but everybody’s got a B-side song that they love, you know? He’s got all the hits, but he’s left a lot of B-sides out.” Clearly, being Wonder’s bassist and musical director is a dream gig, but are there any other artists out there that he would like to play with? Nate ponders the question for a moment. “I’m happy where I’m at. I’m trying to think of somebody who I would love to play with… that’s a hard answer for me, especially because I’ve played with just about everybody through Stevie. Like when we did the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary concert, I got to play with B.B. King, Smokey Robinson, John Legend and Sting! I mean, come on,” Nate laughs. “B.B. King? I played with B.B. King live? Come on, man. And playing with Sting was incredible. He gave me compliments; he said ‘you really sound great man’.”
So there’s little wonder — no pun intended– why Nathan Watts is a happy man. I have one final question for the legendary bassist: any thoughts on doing a Nathan Watts solo album? “Everybody keeps telling me I should do one this year, so I’m really gonna sit down if we get time and start to put one together. But it’s not gonna be just bass. It’s gonna be musical, it’ll have singing, it’s gonna have everything. I can’t sing but I’ll have some friends come and help me with singing.” You can bet that when Nathan Watts finally reaches for his phonebook to call up some friends, he’ll have every A-list artist at his fingertips. To that I say: Nate, we can barely wait.
Photos: Lena Ringstad