Singing Bassists – Part I

– This post is the first installment of ‘Singing Bassists,’ a three-part series profiling pioneering bassist/singers active roughly from 1930 to the present –

Slam Stewart

Slam Stewart –

Born in Englewood, New Jersey in 1914, Leroy Elliot Stewart went on to become the most recorded bassist of the 1940’s. He later adopted the nickname “Slam” when he joined up with guitarist and vocalist Slim Gaillard in Harlem, forming “Slim & Slam,” an acclaimed duo of radio-renown. Rumored to have had perfect-pitch and perfect intonation, Slam came to the instrument in his high school years. Like many notable bass virtuosi (i.e. Domenica Dragonetti, Harold Robinson), he first learned the violin and moved to the bass when he was a teenager (a.k.a. tall enough for the bass).

Though he was noted for his great ability as a member of the rhythm section, Stewart’s lasting mark on the music world would be the combination of bass and voice he used in his solos: Stewart would improvise arco (bowed) bass solos while simultaneously singing what he played an octave higher. Stewart got this idea from violinist & alto saxophonist Ray Perry, who hummed along in unison to his violin solos with, among others, Lionel Hampton’s band.

major holley

Major Holley –

Born in 1924, Detroit native Major Quincy Holley jr. began playing the violin and piano at age 7. Along with notable musicians Milt Jackson (vibraphone) and Howard McGhee, Holley attended Detroit’s Cass Technical High School. He later learned the tuba and picked up the string bass along with every other bass wind instrument as a Navy serviceman in the 1940’s. Afterwards, he became a fixture of the Jazz community, working regularly with the bands of Zoot Sims & Al Cohn, Woody Herman and Duke Ellington as well as maintaining an active career as a studio musician.

Like the elder Slam Stewart, Holley (aka “Mule” in the Jazz community) also sang what he played while bowing solos on the bass. The major difference between their approaches was that Mule sang deeper than Slam, choosing to sing in unison with his bass notes instead of harmonizing them an octave above as Stewart did. In the liner notes to a CD featuring both Slam Stewart and Major Holley as frontmen, Dan Morgenstern describes their individual senses of humor, “Major’s being more earthy and funky, Slam’s more oblique and sly. They go together like bacon and eggs.”

Willie Dixon

Willie Dixon –

Described as “the backbone of postwar blues writing” (Keith Richards) and ‘the poet laureate of the blues,’ William James Dixon was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1915. Growing up surrounded by gospel, country and blues music with a mother who was a religious poet, he was practically raised on rhythm and rhyme. In Mississippi, he sang bass in a gospel quintet called the Union Jubilee Singers, appearing reguarly on a local radio program with the group throughout the early 1930’s.

In 1939, at age 21, Dixon moved to Chicago to pursue a boxing career while continuing to sing harmony on the side. A year later he had earned himself the Illinois Golden Gloves Heavyweight Championship title. Shortly thereafter, following some trouble with his manager, Dixon became a bassist on the advice of his friend, fellow boxer & guitarist Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston.

Dixon played bass with a few groups including Caston, recording for Columbia Records before he was recruited as a studio musician by the Chess brothers. He would go on to become a producer and the main talent scout at Chess Records, helping big-name blues artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Rogers from relative obscurity into the national spotlight. The early Rock & Roll records of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley included Willie Dixon on bass. He was also featured on several recordings with blues pianist Mephis Slim.

Dixon’s major contribution to the music world, however, is the treasure trove of music and lyrics he penned for other recording artists to sing and promote: “Hoochie Coochie Man” (Muddy Waters), “Evil” & “Spoonful” (Howlin’ Wolf) as well as “Bring It on Home” (Sonny Boy Williamson) are all Willie Dixon compositions. As Chicago bluesman Johnny Shines put it, “Yes, sir. You want a hit song, go to Willie Dixon. Play it like he say play it, and sing it like he say sing it, and you damn near got a hit.” Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Cream, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers, Queen, The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan and Megadeth have all famously covered Dixon’s material.

When Dixon was finally able to get some compensation for the widespread use of his work, he devoted himself to furthering his career as a performer, educator and spokesman of blues music, helping to organize the American Folk Blues Festival and touring Europe and the UK together with a host of American blues luminaries in the early 1960’s. A down to earth man who raised 14 children, Dixon believed singing the blues was really about telling it like it is: “When you involved in the facts of life, that is the facts of life – people! Yeah. People have to be born, just like everything else.” He similarly viewed the blues as the roots of all American music, saying that taking proper care of the roots insures the tree will bear fruit. The reach of Dixon’s songwriting is a testament to this view of modern music.

Honorable Mentions:

Coleridge Goode – UK bassist (originally from Kingston, Jamaica) who performed with Stephane Grappelli & Django Reinhardt in their postwar reunion concerts.

John Clayton – “The Walking Bass”, a tune with music and lyrics composed by the last bass player with Ella Fitzgerald’s band, Keter Betts.

Jay Leonhart – “It’s Impossible to Sing and Play the Bass”, from the song cycle “The Bass Lesson”, written and performed by Jay Leonhart.


Slam Stewart –

Major Holley –

Willie Dixon –—willie-dixon-when-wrong-is-right/27298