It was a true honor to do an interview with the legendary Chuck Rainey, a very kind and gentle soul!
In this interview, Chuck shares stories from the early days, as well as current projects.
Image: Bass is the Xotic XPJ-1T
What initially got you interested in playing bass?
I was playing guitar and was in a band that had three guitar players, and I was playing single note patterns on the guitar. Finally one night the drummer said, “Why don’t you go get one of those new electric basses?” I had lowered my strings down, my E string to D, and so on, and that’s how I got into playing bass. I was actually going to be a guitar player, but in that particular band, the lead player’s wife played rhythm and then I played the single note patterns on my guitar and sang background vocals behind him when he sang.
What was the experience like touring with King Curtis and opening for the Beatles?
Well, it was exceptional and I think the largest audience I had been around was when I was working with Jackie Wilson, he would draw about 1800 to 2500 people, which was a lot of people in those days, especially compared to the club dates I was playing where you don’t have that many people. It was very exciting, and the band, well, we didn’t know who the Beatles were because we were not listening to and playing that kind of music. We were playing pop music; we just weren’t listening to the radio. We didn’t get a chance to hear them till maybe the seventh or eighth concert. I forget where we were but I want to think it was The Cow Palace in San Francisco. There were so many people there that we couldn’t get to our dressing room and had to remain in a certain area off stage where they had monitors and we listened to the Beatles.
We had a private plane and the whole tour was on that plane. Every city we went to, we had police escorts from the airport to the hotel and of course, everyone had escorts to the venue from the hotel. I remember our first concert was at Shea Stadium in New York, and the sound check at around 2 PM had about 50,000 people there. We had a really good time and of course I enjoyed listening to the Beatles once I heard them; they were a very good vocal ensemble, who sang and played very well. George Harrison and John Lennon were always on our part of the plane playing cards, talking and stuff like that. Paul and Ringo were kind of snobbish and they did not bother at all to come back and visit with anybody on the plane, they just stayed in their part of the plane.
The tour was a lot of fun and ended in Los Angeles after which our band ended up staying an extra week because we had a gig in Hollywood. After we returned to New York and it was all over I wanted to go back some day and live in California and I ultimately did a few years later.
There is a rumor about how the bass was performed on Steely Dan’s song Peg; can you elaborate a little bit on that?
Well, Walter, Donald, and Gary, what they did on every song in Steely Dan was they would always listen for a drum track they could keep. So the rhythm section would be sitting in the room playing but they would be listening only to the drummer. When they felt that they had a good drum track, then the drummer could leave and the rest of the rhythm section would play to the drum track. Jeff Porcaro usually played drums first and if they had another drummer come in, they would listen to his track on a lot of those songs, up to Aja. Jeff was a really good friend and we had done a lot of sessions together outside of Steely Dan. Warner Brothers had signed Toto and they didn’t want Jeff to be associated with Steely Dan because both groups were with Warner Brothers. So, while we were playing to the track on Peg, Jeff wanted me to slap the bass on the bridge of the song. We had done a lot of other sessions together and I did slap on some of those things, but I was not known to be a slap player like Louis Johnson.
A lot of people didn’t like slap bass because it was so tinny. Louis Johnson at that time was the known slapper and Billy Preston had many hit records with Louis playing. Louis was a good friend of mine, except that I did not care for the sound of his bass because it didn’t sound like a bass, it had so much treble. I came up with upright players and listened to them slap the bass and it just had the certain sound to it, not like the same slap technique on the electric bass. I played a Fender with flat wound strings and slapping it would sound more like a slap on an upright bass. I’m pretty sure that Donald and Walter were listening to all the things going on at times, and as I mentioned earlier, Billy Preston had several hit records right in a row and Louis Johnson was playing the bass, except that the bass sounded a little bit tinny, so I think that’s why Donald didn’t want me to slap.
Jeff and I had played together on many other sessions other than Steely Dan where I did slap the bass and every time we got to the bridge, Jeff would ask me to play it with slap, and I would say, “No”. Jeff said since they are only listening to my track and not listening to you why not go ahead and do it. So since we had to play it again maybe 3 or 4 more times, I agreed and placed the sound partitions up around me because I had a live amp in the room and slapped on the bridge turning away from the control room view so they couldn’t see me doing it.
After the break the rest of the band, bass, guitar, and the piano player, began to overdub the song. We had been playing the song for about an hour as they were listening to the drums and I knew now that they were listening to the bass. So when I recorded the bass part, I didn’t slap when I got to the bridge and after the second or third time, Donald said, “It sounds so much different than it did when you were playing with Jeff.” It does sometimes happen that way once you take away one element of an instrument in the rhythm section and begin to play it; it is going to sound a little bit different.
Jeff was in the control room and he said, “Well, he was slapping it”, which they didn’t know I was doing, so Donald said, “Go ahead and do what you were doing when Jeff was playing.” Finally it worked out to where it sounded better. All in all, that’s basically how that went. We did two tunes a day from twelve to six on all projects, some of the songs we would do over and over and over, and I think they were trying to sample me, which is impossible because I don’t play with the same touch constantly the same way. If they had told me they were sampling me, I would probably have made more of an effort to play specifically all the time.
What was it like in the 1970’s being one of New York City’s first call session bassists?
Well, it’s always great to know that you are a first call player; of course in a place like New York, you aren’t the only one. There were two or three other first call players and it took a while for me to get there, I didn’t just jump on the scene and become one of the first call players, it took about a year or maybe two years to arrive there. I was always highly recommended because of coming out of King Curtis’ band, most of the guys out of his band ended up being studio players, because he was a successful studio player himself, he did all of the ‘Yackity’ sax solos with the Coasters, etc. so playing with King Curtis and first doing a lot of demo sessions did help get me started.
Also once you get to the place where you are doing union stuff and making scale money, everybody wants to work with you or hire you. In the rhythm section, I was basically always working with some of the same people all of the time. It was of course great knowing that I was one of the first call players, making money, but it was also great that I was playing on a lot of records with excellent musicians that were very diverse in style and the music was successful.
Can you tell us a little bit about Rhythm Intensive?
John Anthony Martinez and I formed Rhythm Intensive and we are now in our fourth year. We started the company, basically for education. We use both my textbooks and his. What we have been doing is going to Universities and Art Magnum Schools doing seminars and clinics. We wrote a book last year around this time called, “The Tune of Success”, it’s an industry book and talks about a lot of things like ego, stress, and ideas that most young people today do not know about or consider, like how to conduct yourself socially or professionally in certain situations.
We are endorsed by a lot of people in this book, and the book also talks about overcoming obstacles, building your own personal brand, handling the business that you are engaged in, and things like that, the industry landscape. We’re doing pretty well, having gone to Spain and London, and we plan on going to South America this year. This April, we’ll be going to Ohio to do a summit there for the weekend and we are very excited about that.
You have done many great recordings with many great artists over the years and I’m sure there are a lot of great stories, is there one in particular that stands out for you?
Well, everything stands out and I am totally amazed at what I can remember, but it’s just difficult to pinpoint at this particular moment something that stands out. I’ve done so much and I have been very fortunate and totally blessed in being able to work on so many different projects as well as touring. I was with King Curtis for three years, Aretha Franklin for four years, and Roberta Flack for three years and I also experienced a year tenure with Harry Bellefonte. It was steady work at that time and Aretha did not work that much while Roberta worked all the time on weekends. While playing in those three bands we never, ever had a bad performance in concert.
The music was always great and what I related to, as a musician, was we never had a bad concert. With King Curtis, as soon as things started going the way he didn’t think they should go, he would cut the song off and stop the song. I was very fortunate to play in those bands with those leaders but of course, before I got into those bands, I played in a lot of bands that were not very good. With Roberta Flack, and Aretha Franklin we never had a bad concert, although we maybe had some songs that didn’t go the way they would have liked them to go; good musicians were on board, everything always worked out well because the basic crew on the road with her also did their recordings.
One thing I will say in talking about recording dates is not so much a funny story but it is a good quick story. I did two projects with Rickie Lee Jones, who on the surface was not that easy to get along with and in those days she was not nice at all. Aside from all of that, I never had a problem with her because I liked her music; she was an excellent songwriter. One rule of thumb in the recording industry is the leader/artist should always know who their musicians are, even though they may not actually be the one hiring them for recording sessions.
For a session with Rickie Lee Jones, Andy Newmark didn’t present himself professionally and was replaced by Jeff Porcaro. Rickie did not know who any of us were, nor our musical history. Jeff Porcaro came the next day and Rickie Lee Jones kept referring to him as drummer and basically did not talk to him in a professional manner. At that time Jeff was a high profile player in Hollywood.
Rickie’s music sometimes sped up and slowed down, and sometimes you would have to wait for her to nod for downbeat time in continuing to play the song. Jeff was from a very disciplined musical family and was very experienced. Rickie unnecessarily kept saying to him you got to watch me, do this and then do that and then do this, etc. No one treats Jeff Porcaro that way. So after the first morning session when we took a break for lunch, as he was leaving, someone said, “Jeff, we’ll see you later”, and he said “Yeah, much later”. When we came back from lunch there was a drumstick sticking out of each drumhead and of course he didn’t come back. She should have definitely known who Jeff Porcaro was and not kept referring to him as ‘drummer’. The very next day Steve Gadd came in; it’s almost like it happened yesterday.
You have been quite an influence on many bassists, what advice can you give to them?
Well, it’s really hard to give advice because you don’t really know the activities of a young player and what their environment is, what their social environment is, or how they are as a person. What I do say, and I’ve always made it a point to be very clear in that I am really saying what I feel; I love music and I love to play the bass. I played several instruments before I played the bass. I think that that love perpetuated me into a lot of situations that I would have not gotten myself into. You can call it God, the Universe, other musicians, the sounds emitted from nature, etc. However it can be said, I am influenced by everything I see and hear to musically press on. I think because of my love for playing the instrument, love for music, and having a very exceptional interest in people, in just seeing how people are, what they do, what they say, what I think they should have said, what they didn’t say, is my influence to lay down the bass.
So I guess that what I am trying to say is that anything that you love, gives you back the same love. If you love to do something, if you love your wife, your children, pet, girlfriend, then they share the love back. So I kind of think that when you love to do something, you do it all the time for nothing. Because you love to play. At the beginning I played all the time, whether I got paid or not, of course that got kind of old after a while. If another player wants any advice from me, I would say number one, play as much as you can in all kinds of situations.
If you are young and you just started playing then of course you are not going to be in the best band. Very few players get into an excellent band when they first start playing. Playing in any band helps the player to understand what to do and what not to do and when to do it. A lot of people helped me at the very beginning of my playing with their advice, so I would basically advise every player to play as much as they can. Every time you play, something goes on in the brain to set you up for the future. There are a lot of good musicians that can’t play, they know theory, they watch bands, and they think they are a player but they are not. Most of us are not good players when we first start playing, but as time goes by, the more we play, the better we get.
What does the future hold?
Waking up in the morning, cereal and my coffee, going for a walk. I still put a band together every now and then, and I still play a lot, or as much as I can. I am very much involved in education and spend a lot of time with www.rhythmintensive.com, in which I am a co-founder. It is very much my main focus at this time in my continuing career in music.
Music education has always been a large part of my career and as time is counting down toward retirement as a working (for money) player in organized music, I plan to devote as much energy as I can toward education with my partners John Anthony Martinez and Jane Cheng. In saying that, I still love to play the bass and will always look forward to playing the instrument in professional and organized situations.