– This post is the second installment of ‘Singing Bassists,’ profiling four pioneering bassist/singers active roughly from 1960 to the present –
Paul McCartney – The Beatles (1960, Liverpool)
“Bass isn’t an instrument you sit around and sing to. I don’t, anyway.”
A Liverpool native, Paul McCartney was born in 1942. He learned a thing or two about music from listening to the radio with his father (who had been a trumpet player) before taking up the trumpet himself around age 14. McCartney soon switched to the guitar, citing his wish to sing and accompany himself at once in the plea to his dad for a trade-in. Following the example of left-handed guitarist Slim Whitman, whom he’d seen pictured with the guitar “the wrong way ’round”, he quickly found his new instrument more comfortable to play upon stringing it up backwards. As a lefty, this allowed his dominant hand to dictate the rhythmic pulse of the music.
He soon befriended future bandmates George Harrison and John Lennon, bringing George into the fold along with him after John asked Paul to join his beat-music band “The Quarrymen.” In 1960 and ’61, they paid their dues during extended visits to Hamburg, Germany where they were under contract as “The Beatles” to play several hours of live music each night for bar crowds (the new band name referenced the beat-music genre with an insect-inspired nod to Buddy Holly & The Crickets). During the first sojourn in Germany, Paul’s brand new electric guitar deteriorated and began to fall apart, forcing his initial move from the guitar to the piano.
Not Paul, but John’s friend and fellow art student Stuart Sutcliffe played bass in the band at the time. The others had convinced Sutcliffe to spend his prize money from a painting competition on a new Höfner full size hollow-body bass guitar instead of buying new art supplies. George Harrison at one point famously stated: “better to have a bass player that couldn’t play than to not have a bass player at all.” Sutcliffe, however, was in fact widely noted for having a singular & distinctive playing style all his own which helped prime The Beatles’ sound for its later global success (For more on the debate around this transitional period in the early days of the band, visit: http://www.daytrippin.com/2011/06/22/stuart-sutcliffes-bass-playing-id-like-to-set-that-one-straight).
But Sutcliffe met his soon-to-be fiancée, photograhper Astrid Kirchherr in Hamburg and, when the band returned to England, decided to stay behind with her to study art (until his tragic early death in 1962). Thus, McCartney was called upon once again to switch his instrument. This was apparently a short-term arrangement conceived to tide the band over until Sutcliffe returned to Liverpool or a new bassist was found. In a letter to Sutcliffe written in the interim, George wrote “Come home sooner… if we get a new bass player for the time being, it will be crumby as he will have to learn everything. It’s no good with Paul playing bass…that is, if he had a bass to play on.” The rest, of course, is history – McCartney’s melodic sense & experimental approach to his newly adopted instrument (honed by countless hours of playing & singing harmonies on- & offstage) helped to shape the sound of modern music as The Beatle’s popularity grew to infamous proportions.
Jack Bruce – Cream (1966, London)
“I tell young musicians to aim to write their own material”
Bruce was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1943 to parents who worked hard to support his music education. He learned to play the cello, later leaving home behind (along with his admittance to study cello and composition at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music) at 16 years old to travel Italy & England with dance bands as an upright bassist. His love of jazz and blues, inspired in part by his father’s record collection, guided this decision and set the tone for the further development of his career.
At 19, Jack Bruce returned to the UK, joining the British blues pioneer Alexis Korner’s band Blues Incorporated (later to include bassist Danny Thompson among many other notable players). He also played in the organ & saxophone-driven blues band The Graham Bond ORGANisation, with guitarist John McLaughlin and future Cream-bandmate Ginger Baker on drums. In 1965 he left these groups to join John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, an ensemble featuring the third member-to-be of Cream, Eric Clapton on the guitar.
In 1966, Baker, Clapton and Bruce formed the psychedelic rock band that brought Bruce’s songwriting prowess into the spotlight; With songs like “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room” Cream brought the blues sound into the rock idiom via Bruce’s songwriting. Tucked away amidst their repertoire, there was a cover tune called “Spoonful,” a song penned by another great singing bassist featured in part one of this series, “the poet-laureate of the blues” Willie Dixon.
Following the two-year long smash-success of Cream, the band split up in 1968. After the band’s farewell concert, Bruce went on to produce a couple of folk-rock records as a bandleader. These solo albums (Songs for a Tailor in 1969, Harmony Row in 1971 and Out of the Storm in 1974) were interwoven with work as a prolific sideman with big names such as Tony Williams and Frank Zappa until shortly before his death in 2014.
Phil Lynott – Thin Lizzy (1969, Dublin)
“If you’ve got nothing but a sense of humour, you will survive”
Philip Parris Lynott was born near Birmingham, England in 1949 to a mixed-race couple (his mother an Irish-Catholic & his father from British Guyana). He came of age as one of very few black kids in his home country of Ireland; in the absence of his father, he was raised from the age of four in Crumlin (a suburb of Dublin, Ireland) by his maternal grandmother and two uncles, Peter & Timmy. He learned a great deal about music from his uncles, who collected & listened to soul and rhythm & blues records at home.
Relatively popular in school, Lynott first began to perform live music as a vocalist, joining a local band from Crumlin called The Black Eagles as their lead singer (after his uncle declined their initial request). Here he joined his old school friend & drummer Brian Downey, who would later become the drummer for Thin Lizzy. A few years later, in another band called Skid Row, Lynott began learning to play the bass. He was ousted as lead singer by bandleader Brush Shiels, who decided the band sounded better without his singing while covering lead vocals himself during Lynott’s temporary leave of absence (due to a tonsilectomy). Thereafter, Shiels helped him out with learning to play an instrument, teaching him his first few bass lessons.
Following this came a period for Lynott of coming into his own as a bandleader. Lynott called one of his first bands “The Orphanage,” a loose collective of beat musicians featuring a shifting lineup. Here, Lynott acted as singer & frontman, ocassionally playing rhythm guitar while bass player Pat Quigley showed him the ropes on the bass guitar. Lynott’s style as a musician and singer / songwriter, however, really came to fruition with the formation of Thin Lizzy in 1969: Experienced showband musicians Eric Bell and Eric Wrixon attended an Orphanage show at the Countdown Club in Dublin, approaching Lynott and drummer Brian Downey to start a new project. With Thin Lizzy, the youth of Ireland had a local homegrown hero to look up to in Phil Lynott. He continued spinning tales of his absent father into his songwriting over the span of his career until meeting a tragic end at 37 years old in 1986.
Sting – The Police (1977, London)
“It’s not like strumming a guitar…” -Sting
Born Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner, Sting’s life began in 1951 in Wallsend, an industrial shipyard town situated in northeast England. The son of a milkman, he began playing classical guitar at age seven and later played upright bass in school. Beginning with his involvement as a teenage gigging bassist on the local British jazz circuit, his early musical activities saw him performing with jazz groups including The Phoenix Jazzmen, The River City Jazz Band and The Newcastle Big Band. Here he learned to read music on the fly while playing the regular jobs these popular groups enjoyed. In an interview, he stated, “I like rock’n’roll, but my musical background is much wider.”
At teachers college in Newcastle, his jazz-rock band Earthrise (and his work with various other groups) was the focus of his attention. In fact, in an excerpt on this period from Sting’s memoir Broken Music, he describes his studies to become a primary school teacher as ‘completely secondary’ to music. Pianist and college friend Gerry Richardson described Cream and Jimi Hendrix as the major musical influences that helped raise their awareness of older blues & jazz artists, leading them “back to the originators…. straight back to Ray Charles, Mose Allison, Jimmy McGriff, Jimmy Smith…” In 1974, he teamed up with Sting as songwriter & singing bassist to form the band Last Exit (for an impression of Last Exit featuring Sting visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qUVH1unGyI).
In a conversation about his early years, Sting stated “you could tell what somebody was by looking at their record collection in those days.” He cites both Paul McCartney & Phil Lynott, but in particular Jack Bruce as a big influence on his own efforts to sing and play the bass: “There are not very many bass players who can sing because it’s quite difficult.” Elsewhere, he explained: “It’s not like strumming a guitar and singing, which is very natural. Playing the bass, you play counterpointed lines against the vocals, so you have to do some work.” ‘Doing some work’ sums up well how he taught himself to play, speeding old 45’s up to 78 rpm on his record player in order to hear & imitate the bass lines. Sting describes singing and fronting the band while playing the bass as a position of great control, navigating the melody while driving the harmony at once.
Larry Graham (Sly & The Family Stone) 1967, San Francisco
Born 1946 in Texas & raised in California, Graham began playing “slap bass” in the early 60’s in a duo with his mother at the piano, imitating bass drum and snare with slap & pop. He became known as a singer upon launching his solo career in 1979 after a six year tenure with Sly & The Family Stone: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6q1vAa0br0w
Me’shell Ndegeocello –
Born 1968 in Berlin & raised in Washington D.C., Ndegeocello has collaborated with Herbie Hancock, Madonna, Chaka Khan, The Rolling Stones & Alanis Morissette: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7JXxFUjx6Vw
Note from the author:
While I don’t promise exhaustive and inclusive journalistic coverage of the topic at hand, I’ve taken the time to highlight a few of my favorite bands by researching the bassists & bandleaders who defined their sounds. I hope to have brought some new information to light for anyone interested in this period of music history.
Jack Bruce –
Phil Lynott –