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David Sanborn R.I.P.

Well, David Sanborn won’t be down for breakfast. He died of cancer a couple of days ago. He was an interesting, and very influential musician. Even if you don’t know his name, you’d recognize his saxophone playing on any number of pop, R&B, and jazz recordings. Like this one:

Sanborn was playing for money with Albert King when he was only fourteen years old. He did lots of session work, anonymous except for other musicians. For about twenty years after Young Americans, everybody making a record wanted someone who sounded like David Sanborn. In many cases, the quickest way to get someone who sounded like David Sanborn was to simply get David Sanborn. Here’s an in incomplete list of sessions from the Wikiup:

James Brown, Bryan Ferry, Michael Stanley, Eric Clapton, Bobby Charles, Cat Stevens, Roger Daltrey, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Jaco Pastorius, the Brecker Brothers, Michael Franks, Kenny Loggins, Casiopea, Players Association, David Bowie, Todd Rundgren, Bruce Springsteen, Little Feat, Tommy Bolin, Bob James, James Taylor, Al Jarreau, Pure Prairie League, Kenny G, Loudon Wainwright III, George Benson, Joe Beck, Donny Hathaway, Elton John, Gil Evans, Carly Simon, Guru, Linda Ronstadt, Billy Joel, Kenny Garrett, Roger Waters, Steely Dan, Ween, the Eagles, Grateful Dead, Nena, Hikaru Utada, The Rolling Stones, Ian Hunter, and Toto.

I remember him very kindly. I was a working musician in the late 1980s, and I was often awake at odd hours. Or more accurately, I was rarely asleep. Sanborn was the co-host and house band impresario of an after hours teevee show called Night Music that was about the only show I’d ever watch. The show was always jam-packed with interesting, often offbeat musicians, and sometimes assembled in unusual groupings. They had Conway Twitty, Miles Davis, and everybody in between.

Eclectic? How’s this for one night’s lineup: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Pharoah Sanders, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, The Platters on video tape from 1955, Van Dyke Parks, and Maria McKee. That’s out there, man.

Speaking of crosstown traffic and six degrees of separation, Stevie Ray Vaughn was friends with Albert King, who was friends with David Sanborn. Stevie also played on a David Bowie record. The music world is like that, sometimes. I remember Stevie doing that interstellar take on Albert King’s playing style when the show was first broadcast.

Sanborn got a rep as a smooth jazz dude, but he didn’t like it. He was good at it, but he was good at everything. He didn’t like the pigeonhole. He had plenty of heavy jazz dudes on the show, and he held his own with all of them, include guys like Wayne Shorter.

Sanborn had a serious bout of polio when he was a kid. One of his arms was kind of withered, and he had trouble breathing properly. A doctor suggested that he should take up a wind instrument, instead of playing the piano, to build up his lungs.

I ain’t no doctor, but I think it helped.

It’s a Groove Thang

Back in the ’80s, I used to play in blues and R&B bands, at least until I got tired of making no money. I surrendered to the zeitgeist, and started playing whitebread pop covers soon after. Happy Hour shite. I was instantly swimming in money and free beer and chicks, of course, but I still can’t hear three or four bars of a Beach Boys song without breaking out in hives. I specified three or four bars because that’s all I ever hear, before I plunge whatever’s making Beach Boys noises into the nearest tub full of water. This has led to problems when it’s a live band. Whatever. They all have it coming.

Da blues was really popular in the ’80s. Well, sorta. There was a lot of it, performed mostly in front of next to nobody. In the bar band world, the dividing line between straight blues and R&B was pretty much erased. I played electric bass, so I actually had something to occupy myself during R&B songs. The grooves were heavy on bass and drums.

We used to mine a weird little store that sold ’45 records used to load jukeboxes. It was cheaper to buy singles than whole albums when all you needed was an individual, audience-recognizable track. The original records were twenty or thirty years old already, and sometimes hard to lay your hands on back then. We were in cover bands, so we never played anything obscure, so the juke box guy always had what we were looking for.

This, I believe, is the granddaddy of all R&B groove thangs from that milieu. The Rosetta Stone of the genre. Junior Walker:

That’s James Jamerson playing the bass on the record. He’s in low earth orbit compared to the intergalactic stuff he played on later records. You could do worse than to learn Jamerson bass lines. He’s ranked Numero Uno on Bass Player Magazine’s 100 Greatest Bass Players list. Hmm. That’s news to me. Not that he’s number one. I’d rank him 1-10, and start the rest of the list on 11, but that’s just me. I’m only expressing surprise that a magazine thought bass players could read. And there are more than 100? I could barely play the thing, and I always worked. I thought there were only like forty of us.

Shotgun is about the first song I can remember learning on the drums, too. Big right foot, there. Of course the guitar part was also seminal. Learn that sharp 9, shangalang chord and you’re ready for bidness. It’s fun to watch Junior Walker sing and play, or at least mime Shotgun in that video. He was on Motown, and they were still in their Andy Williams sweater and business suit mode back in the early sixties. Everybody Frug!

It’s amusing to read that Junior was just supposed to play saxophone on the record, but the singer that Berry Gordy hired didn’t show up to the session. Junior offered to sing it to supply a reference track they could record over later. They liked it so much they released it that way. It was a big hit. Number One on the R&B singles chart, #4 on the Billboard chart.

People still recognize this song. They put it in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002. However, V-neck sweaters and skinny ties no longer need apply, I gather. Look what someone recently did with Shotgun using AI animation. Alice From the Hood Pulp Fiction Grand Theft Auto Wire in Wonderland:

Yikes. Hey, getting back to playing in front of nobody, the song made it all the way to RomCom movies in Norway. Let’s watch Public Enemies have a frosty go at it:

The song itself is truly a groove. There are essentially no chord changes. It’s all based on rhythms. James Brown would perfect this approach shortly after this. Lots of other musical people (who could afford the whole albums) mined the groove thang for their own sound back in the ’80s too:

So Shotgun was the Ur-Groove-Song for me, and I suspect plenty of other musicians. Not just Norwegians, either. That is, at least until Wilson Pickett showed up with this:

Lawd have mercy.

Ralph Bellamy, I’m in Love With You

I used to play in a Happy Hour band that played Stump the Band with the audience. We had to stop when Massachusetts made Happy Hour illegal. No, really, that happened. My life is one long list of vocations, jobs, life callings, and hobbies that were made illegal. If I were smart, I would have started out doing illegal things right from the get-go. Illegal pays better.

Anyway, we’d wait for the audience to get some tonsil polish in them to loosen them up a bit, and then I’d drag the microphone out front and start interviewing people like a game show host. If that wasn’t working out — because everyone was too rowdy, or not rowdy enough — we’d play Stump the Band. The drummer would challenge the audience to call out the name of any one-hit wonder band that had had a top ten song in the past thirty years, and we pledged to play a minimum of ten recognizable seconds of it. A lot of times we’d play the whole thing if one of us knew half the words.

People would really, really, really try to stump us, which was a fool’s errand. We were pros, and the 1910 Fruitgum Company, or Cannibal and the Headhunters held no terrors for us. Guys that had giant record collections and tape on their glasses would try to stump us over and over again, but that sucked for everyone. The rest of the audience had no idea what the song was even if we did play it, so we mostly ignored those guys and waited for a pretty girl to yell out TEE SET! or something. Truth be told, we always ignored guys for any number of reasons, and no girl ever asked for some dirge nobody would recognize. They asked for fun stuff, like THE TEE SET! PLAY THE TEE SETTTT WHOOOOOOOOO!!!!

They always asked for their favorite oldie, something their big sister or their mother listened to when they were little. And without fail, we’d ruin it utterly and forevermore for them by playing it perfectly but mucking around with the lyrics. Once you hear it perfectly wrong, you’ll never hear it right again.


You Got A Face With A View

Back in the day it was my job to figure out if a song “had legs.” A song with legs had a durable framework that would lend its familiarity to a cover version without requiring the authenticity of the artifact of the original. There’s a reason why there’s a DJ at weddings now. People don’t want an imitation of the thing they like. It’s fairly easy to make an improved version of most pop songs live, but most people don’t think improving things is an improvement. They have invested the original artifact with meaning and it’s hard to wean them off it. Otherwise someone that looked vaguely like Tom Hanks would be playing at every cinema in the world.

This is one of the oddest songs I ever encountered that has legs. David Byrne is a very odd person to be producing pop songs. That’s what made them wonderful, I guess. They’re bent in an interesting way. Still, here we are, with the backwards chicken plucking getting over one more time.

My bandmates thought Psycho Killer had legs but it didn’t. It’s instantly recognizable so it gets played during a third down timeout, but people want the actual thing. There’s no there, there.

This song? It’s got a face with a view.

How To Play The Bass. Lesson One: Don’t Play The Bass, You Idiot, Play Something Else

[Editor’s Note: Written in December of 2008 and never used, then recycled twice. Not sure why]
Author’s Note: Don’t ask me; I just write the stuff. There is no editor]


Play That Fonkee Music, White Boy

I (used to) play the electric bass. It’s not a bass guitar, although everyone calls it that. There actually is an instrument called a “bass guitar.” It has six strings and is tuned lower than a regular guitar, but it’s not a bass. A bass is that doghouse with the four strings. The electric kind hangs on your neck and gives you a bad back (left side), deafness, and a couple hundred bucks a night for as many nights as you’ll show up, because every other person in the world is an unemployed guitar player. Own a bass and you’ll always work.

That’s what my brother told me all those years ago. He actually knows how to play the thing properly. Everything I learned about it he taught me in one afternoon in his freezing cold, decidedly downscale apartment in Providence RI. I never had to learn anything other than what he taught me that day, and I’ve forgot half of that, and I could still work every night if I wanted to. I don’t. No one owns one, shows up, and plays bass — instead of monkeying around like the guitar player they wish they were on the wrong part of the neck.

But you need bass lessons, and I’m busy and don’t know how to play, and my brother’s busy and in lives in LA, so we’re stuck with YouTube. I’ll teach you everything you need to know, right now.

The Blues Is A Chair. Sit On It First

You have to play the blues first. It’s easy. Just shut the hell up and never venture past the fifth fret. There are only three chords, and if you play with John Lee Hooker he’s not even interested in all three of those; I did, and he wasn’t. Muddy Waters will show you how:

That’s the first song I played for money three days after my lesson. I stunk, but everybody else did too, but they practiced so they had no excuse. The audience was drunk, what difference did it make?


Movin’ On Up To Interstellar Blues

You can actually practice, and you can hang all sorts of musical drapes on that framework. Like Miles Davis’ friend Paul Chambers.

This song is a mere bagatelle; hell, two or three cloned kids can play it.


Next Up: Gigging At Bob’s Country Bunker

But you’re a hack whitebread dude. You gotta eat too. Duck Dunn will show you the way to play in barbands where the all the fights are merry and the dancing is violent:

This Is Where Those Tuba Lessons In Fourth Grade Really Pay Off

Nuffin’ to it. But what if you want to play pop music? Well, it’s really just tuba parts from the music hall. Macca gets it.

He sings OK, too. Remember, no matter how bad you sing, make sure there’s a microphone in front of you or you’ll make less money than the other guys. Even Ringo figured that out eventually.

Now It’s Time To Join The Chest Hair Club For Men

But you need rock music, too. The thudding kind, not the Beatles kind. You only need to learn one song –any song– by any one of a dozen bands with guys that go to Chest Hair Club for Men. Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Lynyrd Skynyrd; makes no nevermind. This is as good as any:

At The Session, They Said Play Like James Jamerson. So I Left

If you want to play like a real bass player, you’ll have to devote your life to figuring out what the hell got into James Jamerson to make him play like that on all those Motown records. Good luck. How Einstein came up with the special theory of relativity is an easier poser.

Got all that? Me neither. I used to try to play like 10 percent of that and had to sing over it, too. The seizures are getting better, now.

Reggae: The Audience Is Blitzed, They’ll Never Notice If You Don’t Play On The One

Reggae bass playing is easy. Just play like James Jamerson, only backwards.

I Know What Boys Like. I Know What Guys Want. And I Don’t Care

But you’ve got to learn one lesson, and learn it fast: Girls don’t want any of that. They want to dance, and they don’t want it too sophisticated. This was the National Anthem of girls in a tube top right up to the present day: Easy, too. The song, I mean:

See, even Helen Reddy will have an extra sloe gin fizz and get jiggy when that’s going on.

Now You’re Ready To Enter The Leo Fender Memorial Couch Surfing Pageant

There you have it. You’re qualified to make a crummy living from 8 PM to 3 AM three nights a week and two weddings a month. Hope your girlfriend has a comfortable couch.

What’s that? Country music? Which country? Our country? Don’t bother. There’s only two notes, and neither is all that compelling.

Mind If My Little Brother Sits In?

Roadhouse Blues was where all the action was in the retail music business back in the early eighties. Stevie Ray Vaughan came out of it, and it was buried along with him. That’s his big brother’s band, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, in their original iteration, I think. I recognize the left-handed junkie playing the bass, the one they had before they got a right handed junkie from Providence to play bass. I wasn’t a very good bass player, and I wasn’t any sort of junkie, so I never had a shot.

Bad players buy expensive guitars one after another because they figure a new guitar will make them better players. The entire music instrument industry is based on this concept. There’s Stevie Ray Vaughan, poised to be something more, but still a spare part on his more notable brother’s stage, with a borrowed Telecaster, a guitar as useful as a boat oar, putting the lie to that whole idea. People take drugs because they think it will make them as interesting as interesting people that take drugs. The entire drug industry is based on that concept. I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan drinking directly out of pitchers of beers while he played, and knew that sort of behavior is used to dial back whatever you had going on pharmaceutically, not get drunk; but I never dreamed he had dissolved his cocaine in the beer and was taking his yin with his yang as Cocaine Tang, but I gather he was. I just don’t have that kind of imagination, I guess. I once got invited by a mutual acquaintance to go backstage at one of their shows, after SRV had gotten notable, but I passed and just sat in the audience where I belonged. What could we have possibly talked about?

People think if they act like famous people they’ll get famous. I dunno about that. My experience has been that there are only two kinds of people in any room, and some face one way, and others face the other way, and that’s that. If the people on the stage try to sit in the audience, they implode, and if the people in the audience try facing the other way on the stage, they explode. I call it the Theory of Natural Self-Selection. Well, I just did, anyway.

The Sparkletones Is The Second Greatest Rockabilly Band Name Ever

I was in the Superfonics. That’s the greatest Rockabilly band name ever. We stunk, but man, could we name things.

The drummer was an ancient old dude, probably ten years younger than I am now, and he didn’t have a car or front teeth. I’m not sure if those two details are related. He got rid of most of his toms and cymbals, welded the remaining drums together, and bolted a big handle to the resultant apparatus. He’d ride the subway with it. He’d come in, plop the thing down, sit on a milk crate, and start playing. He was either a genius or a dullard.  The two guitar players were roommates, attending MIT. They were either geniuses, or very smart, I can’t remember which. They played everything  exactly like the records we copied. The singer — couldn’t.

[Oh, dear; look what I found in my junk drawer:]

I remember Chet’s. If I owned Hell and Chet’s Last Call, I’d live in Hell and rent out Chet’s.

Inside Baseball And The Beatles

We’re visiting the Hope and Anchor bar again, that magical nightspot where you can wander in and find Glenn Tilbrook, formerly of Squeeze, and a motley assortment of whoever’s handy banging out whatever tune comes to mind. Can’t Buy Me Love is a great tune to come to mind. It’s a hardy perennial.

Here’s the inside baseball for you. In the past I played music for money, often on short notice, sometimes among total strangers, so I notice such things: About eight bars into the song, Glenn realizes that the bass player doesn’t know the song. You can see him turn his torso towards the laggard, and his eyes recognize the mild sort of panic in the other musician’s eyes. He stays turned through one verse, making very deliberate chord shapes way down the neck, so that the bass player can see them. A good bass player knows something about the guitar, and by looking at the position of the fingers and the spot on the neck, he can sort out the chord changes. Once around should do it, and does. If you want to know what being a bandleader is like, Glenn is trying to sing like Paul McCartney, play like John Lennon, and coax George Harrison through playing the bass at the same time. If he’s like me, or most any other human, he’s desperately trying to remember the words at the same time.

I learned the knack of watching the guitar player’s hands out of self-defense, mostly. Many guitar players can’t tell you what they’re playing. They learn things by rote, or by ear, but they can’t tell you beforehand what they’re about to do. They often don’t know the correct key of the song, they can only tell you the first chord, and if the first chord of the song isn’t based on the tonic note of the scale, they’ll misidentify the key to you, and you’ll end up chasing them around and playing majors and minors wrong because of it.

A very long time ago, I wanted to play the drums. The public school wouldn’t let me. When I was a man, I could do what I pleased, so I went to the drum shop, and bought the set of drums you see my ten-year-old son playing in Unorganized Hancock music videos. I took a few lessons, and then got a job playing drums in an open mike night at a disreputable Irish bar. The impresario that ran the show paid me fifty dollars a night to come, on two conditions: I had to bring the drums; I had to keep the fact I was the only one being paid a secret — no one else got paid except him. I played the drums for the first few songs, and then I played the bass, which was my natural instrument, and then when more people came in I’d just play darts all night and drink Black and Tans for free. It was a great job for a Monday night, which is a graveyard in the music business. My liver and hearing might have other opinions.

The impresario, who I’ll call “J,” had a very fine Irish tenor voice, could play nearly any instrument you could produce, and was some form of an insane person. He liked taking drugs, drinking, and having sex with lots of ugly women. He was as reliable as phone service in a tunnel. But he could sing, and run things, and he got work. He started hiring me for all sorts of jobs, after he found out I could more or less follow along with him on the bass by watching his left hand on the guitar neck.

I was broke at the time, had no regular music jobs, and would play with anybody for a few bucks, so I was game. But man, some of those jobs beggar description. I started doing an Irish duo thing with him. It was in another, much more disreputable Irish bar, and there were glasses and tables and fists flying around the joint with a regularity that bordered on boredom. He would sing and play busker tunes on the guitar, and I’d follow along as best I could, which wasn’t very well, partly because he would turn away from me mostly. It was every man for himself with that dude, morning, noon, and night. I couldn’t sing harmony with him on a good day, and there were no good days, because it was all I could do to just follow along with him. It was like chasing a moving musical bus.

When the crowd got really unruly, which is really saying something, he’d sing Carrickfergus, or Danny Boy, in a lilting operatic tenor voice he owned, but hoarded, mostly, and it was so compelling that he’d stop traffic outside and everyone would weep and sway in each other’s arms for a bit. Then he’d tell the audience if they had a request to write in on a twenty and send it on up, and it was right back in the mosh.

One day, I showed up to the job, and he wasn’t there. There was another fellow holding a guitar, and staring at me. “J couldn’t make it, so he sent me.” I set up my equipment, hung the bass around my neck, and looked at the other fellow. And he said, “J said you know all the tunes, and all I’ve got to do is watch your hand on the bass neck and follow along.”

It was a very long night, and I never laid eyes on J again.

Pure Pop For Then People — Crowded House

Neil Finn’s entry in the “Men that look like old lesbians” sweepstakes. He’s been going to the beauty parlor with Ron Wood and Jeff Beck, I see. Neil’s fronting the current iteration of Crowded House in the video. They were semi-big in the eighties. Big enough to still be working, at any rate. They’re from New Zealand and Australia and other upside-down places.

He can still sing, I also see. Before Auto-Tune, if you wanted to make money in pop music, you sort of had to be able to sing. It wasn’t absolutely necessary, of course. You used to be able to mumble into a microphone, then the producer would put all sorts of sturm und drang all around it, and you could have a hit; see: Don’t You Want Me Baby, by Human League. But crooners have an easier time of it, and have less trouble having more than one bite of the top forty apple.

Crowded House was one of those eighties bands — A Flock of Seagulls;  ABC, The Bangles; Thompson Twins; Duran Duran; Escape Club; The Fixx; Simple Minds; Simply Red;  Howard Jones; XTC; Dan Hartman; Icehouse; Level 42; Psychedelic Furs;  Hair Cut 100; Tears for Fears;  Wang Chung; World Party — bands that are growing interchangeable with the decades slipping by. If you put them all on the same bill, and they all wore matching suits, they could all play each other’s tunes and not many people would notice. But you always notice when people sing well.

Tag: 1980s

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