As a former Tonight Show With Jay Leno bassist, Philadelphia native Derrick Murdock has had a career that most dream of, but only few ever get.
The range of music he has performed and recorded is nothing short of staggering. Even with his note-worthy accomplishments, he is continuing to reach even higher. His work ethic is only surpassed by his amazing humility, generosity and friendliness.
Murdock is a standout in the über competitive Los Angeles music scene. He continues to carve out a spectacular career as he supports a who’s who of music stars and geniuses. In addition to television and session work, Derrick also tours all over the world.
Bass Musician Magazine (BMM): Thank you so much Derrick for taking the time to talk to our readers and me about your incredible music career. I have to add that I appreciate your patience regarding our getting together for this interview. Scheduling time for this interview has been challenging for both of us, but you graciously hung in there.
Derrick Murdock: First of all let me say it’s always a pleasure hanging with you. We’ve been talking about doing something like this for a while, so I’m honored to have the opportunity to finally be doing this with you.
BMM: You come from Philadelphia, a city that has a long and storied history as a crucible that produces some of the greatest bass players in the world. I’m very curious to hear how you got introduced to music, and to the bass specifically. Also, can you describe your early years as a performer?
Derrick: Growing up in west Philadelphia, my father would always play the stereo when he came home from work. I’d be up in my room doing homework or whatever and all I could hear was the bass and drums. He would turn the bass way up with hardly any treble.
After I was finished with my homework and dinner, my mother and father would go upstairs to chill and my father would let me listen to the stereo with headphones on. I would listen to music until it was time to go to bed. At that time I was listening to all the singles and albums they had, which included James Brown, all the Motown stuff, Sly and the Family Stone, etc.
Later when I was allowed to buy my own records, I started listening to Kool and the Gang, Mandrill, Gil Scot Heron, Chicago, Rare Earth, and many more. When I had the headphones on listening to the music, I was always imagining myself playing bass guitar with all the bands. This is what drew me into wanting to play the bass.
After a while, I told my father I wanted to start playing and he bought me my first bass guitar and amp. He actually built my first bass cabinet, as he was quite the handyman back then. I immediately started practicing to all the records I was listening to. They were so easy to learn because I had all the basslines in my head.
After a while, my friends who played in a band around the neighborhood heard me practicing all the time on the porch asked me to be in their group. So now I was playing all these tunes that I listened to in the house on bass. I didn’t realize it at the time, but listening to so much music all the time made it easier and easier to hear the notes being played. Also, I was developing a great sense of time.
I played with this band for six months or so and then I put the bass down for a while to start playing football. I was 12 years old at the time. My early years as a performer didn’t start until I picked the bass back up at 17 years old. The first couple of bands that I played with were Top 40 bands that liked to do a lot of fun choreography. Later I started playing in a few rock and fusion bands.
BMM: It sounds like you unknowingly developed a great ear early on from listening to records. Who were your early influences?
Derrick: There were many, but just to name a few: there was Bernard Odom; Bootsy Collins from James Brown’s band; Robert “Kool” Bell from Kool and the Gang; Francis “Rocco” Prestia; Larry Graham; Geddy Lee; James Jamerson; Kae Solomon from Mandrill; Chris Squire; Lequeint “Duke” Jobe from Rose Royce; Tony Smith; Tommy Campbell’; Paul Jackson; Stanley Clarke; Jaco Pastorius; Marcus Miller; Victor Wooten; Nils Henning-Ørsted Pederson; Ron Carter; Eddie Gomez; Rufus Reid; Dave Holland; and many more.
Of course, there were the local my heroes like Darrel Brown, a great drummer who went on to play with Stanley Clarke and Weather Report. He is now a Doctor and is still tearing it up on drums. Another great musician by the name of Michael Pedicin Jr (sax), who played with Maynard Ferguson and many other greats, as well as doing all the sessions at Philadelphia International and is also into Medicine and tearing it up on sax still. Then there was the late, great guitarist Jef Lee Johnson who played with everyone from McCoy Tyner; Ronald Shannon; The David Letterman Show; Aretha Franklin; D’Angelo; George Duke; Esperanza Spalding; etc. These three were instrumental in me wanting to pursue music as a career.
BMM: Your list of influential bassists looks like a bass player hall of fame list. You had a truly great stable of seasoned musicians to learn from and be influenced by. So, how were musicians like Michael Pedicin, Jr., Darrel Brown, and Jef Lee Johnson influential in your development?
Derrick: Well let me backtrack a bit to say that once I picked up the bass again, not too long after that my family moved to Willow Grove, which was in the suburbs of Philadelphia. There I went on to finish my last year of high school where I met a bass player named Tony Smith and a drummer named Tommy Campbell. These two musicians influenced me to start playing bass full-time.
Tony Smith, now based in Las Vegas, is an incredible bass player and was way ahead of his time and still is! He developed a technique that he learned from his father he calls “The Claw”. Tony was gracious enough to show me that technique.
Tommy Campbell is an incredible drummer who went on to play with people like John McLaughlin, Dizzy Gillespie, etc. These two guys also got me into to playing fusion, jazz, and everything in between.
After graduating high school, my father got ill, which caused us to move back to Philadelphia – South Philly to be exact. There I hooked up with some incredible musicians that were playing fusion at the time and I started jamming with them a lot.
One guy in particular, Johnnie Valentino, who lives here in LA now and does a lot of writing for television, had me play in his group. The band was called Going Public, and we recorded a CD called Free Exchange. We are still good friends to this day!
A year later after jamming with the fusion band, I was introduced to drummer extraordinaire Darrel Brown, who at the time was playing with Weather Report, He took me under his wing and I started working with his band doing gigs around the Philadelphia area.
Soon after doing a bunch of hits with Darrell, he introduced me to sax player Michael Pedicin Jr. who was, at that time, doing all of the sessions at Philadelphia International and playing with Maynard Ferguson. Michael had a band of his own and asked Darrell and me to be a part of it.
I met guitarist Jef Lee Johnson in Atlantic City and we became very good friends and later on I played bass in his trio called the Undesirables with my homie Danny Blaze on Drums. Jef Lee Johnson also hired me to play bass with my first well-known R&B gig with Miles Jaye as Jef was Musical Director (MD) on that hit.
These three guys were very instrumental in my development as a musician as far as what to play, what not to play, phrasing, how to communicate and interact with different musicians, etc.
BMM: Thanks for detailing the impact that Tony Smith, Johnnie Valentino and Jef Lee Johnson had on your development. I’m especially happy to hear you talk about Jef Lee Johnson. He had a big impact on a lot of musicians and he left a big mark among musicians. (For those who are not familiar with Jef Lee Johnson’s work, I highly recommend you look up his recordings and performance videos).
Did you study music theory with anyone as you were coming up, or did you attend a formal music school?
Derrick: I was planning to go to Howard University or Berklee at the time but when my father got ill and we had to move back to Philadelphia, I wanted to stay close to home. I eventually went to community college for year and a half and then attended the School of the Performing Arts to study upright bass with Craig Thomas, and later with Al Stauffer.
BMM: I was not aware that you also double on the upright bass. I have only seen you on electric bass gigs. So, at what point did you decide to make the move from Philly to L.A.?
Derrick: After studying upright for two years, I started getting a lot of calls in Atlantic City to do gigs. I eventually moved down there and started working nonstop! Years later after gigging constantly, I started going up to New York a lot to soak up all the genres of music there. It was these two cities where I learned how to play all genres of music.
After doing gigs in Atlantic City, on my days off and sometimes right after an early gig, I would head up to New York to go see Jaco Pastorius, Marcus Miller, Kevin Eubanks, George Benson, The Brecker Brothers, Tito Puente and other amazing musicians at 55 Grand and other cool clubs.
Eventually I got a gig on the Spirit of New York boat, which sailed around the harbor every day while we played all types of music. That gig was very cool because they allowed me to sub out as I was now getting gigs with famous R&B artists.
The boat gig ended after a couple years and things were starting to die down in Atlantic City. I started trying to make my move to LA, so I called a good friend of mine by the name of Jim Moran who was doing a lot of roadie work for people like Miles Davis, Chicago, etc., at the time. I asked him to keep an eye out for anybody auditioning bass players.
Well a month later he called to let me know that Sheena Easton was looking for a bass player. At the time half of her band was leaving to go with Janet Jackson, so Jim called and told me to make a demo so he could submit it to the to the tour manager.
I was hanging with good friend, guitarist Jef Lee Johnson, at the time I got the call and he helped me to make a cool demo to give to Sheena’s people who eventually got me the audition and the gig. That was in 1994.
BMM: Once you got to Los Angeles, how long did it take for you to get established there as a player? Was the transition from the Philadelphia scene to the L.A. scene smooth?
Derrick: it was very smooth because I was already doing Sheena’s gig. Two weeks after being in LA we actually did a gig in Atlantic City. After the hit, I asked the Road crew if I could put my belongings I had stored at my mothers in the prop truck to move back to LA, and they said yes. I treated them all to beers afterwards.
A month later I got a gig with Rolls-Royce and now I was gigging with two groups. For some strange reason, there were no conflicts between those two gigs. That lasted for three years. During that time, I was also doing a bunch of gigs in town I got through word-of-mouth.
BMM: Now that you were settled in Los Angeles, working on high profile gigs with Sheena Easton and Rose Royce, how did you take your career to the next level? Also, who else were you playing with at this time?
Derrick: At that time I was doing a lot of gigs in town. In between the Sheena and Rose Royce gigs and everybody I was doing gigs with in town, I played with well-known artist as well.
I remember going to a gig and running into this drummer friend of mine I knew from Atlantic City by the name of Johnny Friday. He was playing with Tom Scott. We had so much fun on the gig that night and Johnny asked me if I was interested in playing with Mr. Scott. He said that he could get me an audition with him. Next thing I know, about a week or so later, I’m doing a gig with Tom Scott and I guess the sound check we had was my audition!
I did another gig in town and met somebody that got me on Jeff Lorber’s gig. Eric Marienthal was in his band. After doing about four dates with Jeff, Eric asked me to do a couple of his gigs, so I was getting a lot of gigs that way.
Then in 95 I met bassist extraordinaire, Mel Brown, who pioneered the cd ROM resume. Mel was gracious enough to show me how to make that CD ROM. After giving a bunch of those out, I was getting calls like crazy and was honored do hits with some amazing groups like The Jazz Crusaders, Dr Dre, Cherelle, the Dazz Band, Mandrill, as well as doing music for the Power rangers show.
BMM: We got to know each other during your time as bassist on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, with Kevin Eubanks as band leader. With so few live TV gigs available, you landed one of the most high profile of them all! How did you land that gig?
Derrick: I ran into Kevin Eubanks in Vegas when he was opening up for Oleta Adams at Caesars. He was touring the states with his own band on the weekends when he was off from doing the Tonight Show. We got to talking after his sound check and he mentioned that he saw one of my CD-ROM resumes and enjoyed it. Then he mentioned that he might need a bass player for a couple of his dates because his bass player had some prior commitments. Three weeks later he called me to start doing some hits on the weekends. Soon after that he called me to be on the Tonight Show.
BMM: What were the usual rehearsals like for the Tonight Show? How much preparation were you able to do for the show? I don’t recall seeing the band doing much sight-reading. You all played like you’d been playing the songs together for a long time.
Derrick: It was different every day. Sometimes we would get called to the stage to rehearse a comedy skit for whoever was on the show that day; or to rehearse a play for one of the stars; or play behind the guest band for that day. Some days you would walk in and there was music on the stage and you had very little time to go over it. Of course they were those days where you just walk in and sit down and somebody would come up and put music on your stand and you had to sight read then and there. Some days Kevin would just start playing something and you had to start following!
BMM: In hindsight, what was the most challenging aspect of the Tonight Show gig from a bass player’s perspective?
Derrick: In an environment where there’s no room for errors, some of the most challenging aspects of the show was being consistent every day. Trying not to make mistakes and being aware of what was going on around me musically, as well as what was going on in the show that day was the main challenge.
BMM: What has your professional music career been like after you finished playing on the Tonight Show With Jay Leno?
Derrick: I started touring, working with endorsement companies, and recording more. When I was doing the show five nights a week, I was touring the states on the weekends with Kevin’s band so I didn’t have any days off. So now I had time to tour with other bands and finish online recording sessions.
From being on the show for 5 years, I was able to accumulate a lot of clients to do online recordings. I also hooked up with a group called Capital Cities who just finished a successful tour this summer opening up for Katy Perry, and I did a fun tour and recorded with Mandrill.
BMM: Are there any projects that you are either working on, or will be coming up for you in the near future?
Derrick: I just finished recording some bass with a couple of new artist at Aftermaster studios, which was just bought by Justin Timberlake. Can’t really talk about it much until they get the legal things straightened out. I’ve been in and out of town a lot with Marilyn McCool and Billy Davis Jr. In between that, I’m just trying to fly in parts to finish my first CD.
BMM: I know you do a fair amount of work with Roland, T.C. Electronics, etc. Do you mind telling us about the companies that you have an endorsement relationship with? Also, what basses are you playing lately?
Derrick: With most of the companies, I’ve done clinics, demoing products, online lessons, contests, etc. With Roland I’ve demoed products at their factory with all the Roland representatives from around the world. With Gruv Gear, we’ve had contests for the winners to win online lessons.
TC Electronics currently has pedals out that have a function on them called “Tone Print” which simply means signature effects. Custom-built versions of classic TC Electronics effects are available for the Tone Print pedals. They asked all the guitarists and bassists to give them their take on TC effects as they use them live and in the studio. They then dialed in a sound that truly represents them via their deep editor. You can actually beam a sound from your phone to your pedal! Check out this link to find out how this amazing technology works – www.tcelectronic.com/toneprint/. As far as basses, I’m mainly using Ken Smith, Fenders and Sha guitars/Causeway Basses.
Derrick: Sure! Actually it’s just a modern-day self-promotion tool/website/resume from which you can actually sell products as well. Everyone today seems to have their face stuck in their phones so I thought this would be an easy way to get people’s attention faster.
When my good friend Jef Lee Johnson passed, I was depressed for a while. He wanted co-produce my first CD and I was looking forward to that. He even wanted to re-do and update some tunes he helped me record on the demo we did to get the Sheena Easton gig. I was so honored that he wanted to do this with me. I knew this project would be so different from what was out just because of the way he thought musically. One of the main reasons for making this app was to get out of this depression, stop grieving and get theses CD’s done and dedicate them to Jef.
The app has multiple functions but for now the emphasis will be on promoting my CD’s and giving tips to inspiring up-and-coming players on how to function on a gig, in the studio and on television shows.
Derrick: Thanks for inviting me!
BMM: I especially appreciate your taking time out of your very busy life to share your experiences with us. We will be following your career with great interest!
Derrick: Right on bro!
BMM: Do you have any words of wisdom to leave with us?
Derrick: The best things in life are still free! Live life to the fullest! And always keep an open mind about music!