Vocals In Perfect Harmony

I dig vocals. Great vocals. Especially multi-part harmony singing. Big time! As some visitors of the blog know, that’s why I sometimes can get a bit impatient when it comes to instrumentals. Don’t get me wrong, listing to such music can be very enjoyable. But after a while, I tend to start missing vocals. This gave me the idea to put together a post about tunes featuring great harmony singing.

Admittedly, this is a somewhat random list. I didn’t want to overthink it. Let’s kick it off with The Beach Boys. While I generally wouldn’t call myself a huge fan of their music, much of which sounds quite repetitive to my ears, especially their early tunes, I’ve always loved how these guys could harmonize. One example I like in particular is In My Room. Credited to music genius Brian Wilson and Gary Usher, an early outside collaborator, the track was included on the band’s third studio album Surfer Girl from September 1963. It also appeared separately as a single in October that year.

One of the first bands that comes to my mind when thinking about harmony vocals are Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Boy, when they get into it, they sound like they came from some other planet. Here’s Carry On, the opener to CSNY’s amazing second studio record Déjà Vu. Stephen Stills wrote this song. Harmony singing doesn’t get much better than that, in my humble opinion!

Perhaps the next choice may surprise you: Huey Lewis and the News. Say what? While undoubtedly that band primarily was known for slick pop rock and hits like I Want A Drug and The Power Of Love, these guys could also sing. Don’t believe me? Check out their a cappella version of It’s Alright  – and, yes, have a good time! The song was first recorded in 1963 by The Impressions and written by the great Curtis Mayfield. Huey Lewis and the News recorded their a cappella cover in 1993 for a tribute album to Mayfield titled People Get Ready: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield. No matter how you feel about Lewis, this take is just awesome!

Speaking of Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions, why don’t we throw in one of their other tunes and a clip of them performing it: People Get Ready. I’ve said it before and I’m not ashamed to say it again, sometimes music really moves me. And, yes, it can bring me to tears, depending on my mood. This is one of these tunes, which was the title tack of the band’s fourth studio album released in February 1965. It’s another composition by Mayfield.

A band I dig for both their music and their singing are the Eagles. One of the best illustrations of their vocal power I can think of is Seven Bridges Road. What I hadn’t known until now is that it’s not an Eagles tune, which for some reason I had always assumed. Nope, it was actually written by American country singer Steve Young in 1969. He also recorded it that year for his debut album Rock Salt & Nails. The Eagles version, which became the most popular cover of the song, was inspired by Iain Matthews’ take of the tune he recorded for his 1973 album Valley Hi. I realize, it’s a bit of a convoluted background story, but you have to give credit where credit is due. This finally brings me to the Eagles’ cover, which they recorded for their Eagles Live album from November 1980. It just sounds breathtaking!

If you looked at the image on top of the post, you already may guess what’s coming next – and last: The Temptations. I think to say that harmony singing doesn’t get better than that is not an overstatement. Their multi-part harmonies ranging from very low to very high are simply insane. Here’s Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).  And, no, this is not an illusion, though it sounds heavenly – is that a real word? In any case, co-written by Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong and produced by Whitfield, the song first appeared as a single in January 1971. The tune was also included on the The Temptations’ 14th studio album Sky’s The Limit from April 1971. It became their third no. 1 in the U.S.

I realize there are many more songs I could have included. Feel free to let me know which tunes featuring harmony singing you like.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Celebrating James Jamerson

Uncredited on countless Motown songs, Jamerson was one of the most influential bass guitar players in modern music history

If you had asked me as recently as a few weeks ago to name influential bass players in pop and rock, I might have mentioned Paul McCartney, John EntwistleJack Bruce and John Paul Jones. Then I read that McCartney, one of my all-time favorite artists, noted  James Jamerson and Brian Wilson as key influences for his bass playing. Admittedly, that was the first time I had heard about Jamerson.

While given my history as a hobby bassist I’m a bit embarrassed about my ignorance regarding Jamerson, I can point to one key difference between him and the other aforementioned bassists. Unlike them, Jamerson was kind of invisible for a long time – literally. While he played on countless Motown recordings in the ’60s and early ’70s, usually, he wasn’t credited, at least at the time. That’s even more unbelievable once you realize how revered this man was among other professional bass players.

According to Bass Player magazine, which named Jamerson no. 1 on its 2017 list of The 100 Greatest Bass Players of All Time, “The most important and influential bass guitarist in the 66-year history of the Fender Precision he played, South Carolina-born, Detroit-raised James Jamerson wrote the bible on bass line construction and development, feel, syncopation, tone, touch, and phrasing, while raising the artistry of improvised bass playing in popular music to zenith levels.” In addition to McCartney, many other prominent bassists have pointed to Jamerson as a primary influence, including Jones, Enwistle, Wilson, Randy Meisner, Bill Wyman, Chuck RaineyGeddy Lee and Pino Palladino, to name some.

Jamerson was born on January 29, 1936 on Edisto Island near Charleston, S.C. In 1954, he moved to Detroit with his mother. Soon, while still being in high school, he began playing in local blues and jazz clubs. After graduation, Jamerson started getting session engagements in local recording studios. In 1959, he found a steady job as a studio bassist at Motown where became part of The Funk Brothers, essentially the equivalent of Stax  houseband Booker T. & the M.G.s, except it was a much larger and more fluid group of musicians.

James Jamerson 2

During his earliest Motown sessions, Jamerson used a double bass. In the early ’60s, he switched to an electric Fender Precision Bass most of the time. Like him, most of The Funk Brothers originally were jazz musicians who had been hired by Motown founder Berry Gordy to back the label’s recording artists in the studio. For many years, the members of The Funk Brothers would do session work at the Motown studio during the day and play in local jazz clubs at night. Occasionally, they also backed Motown’s stars during tours.

Not only did the musicians make substantially less money than the label’s main artists, but they also did not receive any recording credits for most of their careers. It wasn’t until 1971 that Jamerson was acknowledged on a major Motown release: Somewhat ironically, that album was Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Eventually, Motown put Jamerson on a weekly retainer of $1,000 (about $7,200 in 2018 dollars), which enabled him and his family to live comfortably. In 1973, Jamerson ended his relationship with Motown, which had since been relocated to Los Angeles. For the remainder of the ’70s, he worked with artists like Eddie Kendricks, Robert Palmer, Dennis Wilson, Smokey Robinson and Ben E. King.

But Jamerson did not embrace certain trends in bass playing that emerged during the ’70s, such as simpler and more repetitive bass lines and techniques like slapping. As a result, he fell out of favor with many producers, and by the 1980s, sadly, he essentially could not get any serious session work. Eventually, Jamerson’s long history with alcoholism caught up with him, and he died of complications from cirrhosis of the liver, heart failure and pneumonia on August 2, 1983. He was only 47 years old. Time for some music featuring this amazing musician!

I’d like to kick things off with an early recording that did not appear on Motown: Boom Boom by John Lee Hooker. Written by him, it became one of his signature tunes. According to Wikipedia, apparently it was Detroit pianist Joe Hunter, who brought in Jamerson and some other members from The Funk Brothers to the recording session.

Here’s one of the many Motown tunes on which Jamerson performed: For Once In My Life, the title track of Stevie Wonder’s album from December 1968. The song was co-written by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden.

Next up: The aforementioned What’s Going On, which I think is one of the most soulful Marvin Gaye songs. The title track of his 11th studio album released in May 1971 was co-written by Gaye, Motown songwriter Al Cleveland and Renaldo Benson, a founding member of The Four Tops.

I also like to touch on a couple of songs after Jamerson had parted with Motown. Here is Boogie Down by Eddie Kendricks, another title track. The fourth studio album by the former vocalist of The Temptations appeared in February 1973. The groovy tune was co-written by Anita Poree, Frank Wilson and Leonard Caston.

For the last track let’s jump to November 1975 when Robert Palmer released his second studio album Pressure Drop. Here’s the great opener Give Me An Inch, which was also written by Palmer.

James Jamerson received numerous accolades after his death. In 2000, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, one of the first inductees to be honored in the “sideman” category. In 2004, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award as part of The Funk Brothers. Along with the other members of the group, Jamerson was also inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tenn. in 2007.

I’d like to close with Paul McCartney, who during a 1994 interview with bass book author Tony Bacon said: “Mainly as time went on it was Motown, James Jamerson—who became just my hero, really. I didn’t actually know his name until quite recently. James was very melodic, and that got me more interested.”

Sources: Wikipedia, Bass Player magazine, Reverb.com, YouTube

Paul McCartney, Accidental Bassist Extraordinaire

When it comes to Paul McCartney and his accomplishments, where do you even start? Co-founding member of The Beatles, which in my book was the greatest band of all time; a man who has written hundreds of songs, including timeless classics; multiple award-winning two-time inductee in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; and great musician who after more than five decades is sill hungry to perform live are some of the highlights that come to mind. This post focuses on something folks outside musician circles may not fully appreciate: McCartney’s significance in pop and rock music as a bassist.

As frequent readers of the blog know, I used to play bass guitar in my late teens and early twenties. As such, the topic should be right up my alley, so what the heck took me so long to write about it? Frankly, I don’t really have a good answer. I included McCartney in a previous post about some of my favorite bassists, and of course I’ve also covered him on other occasions. Still, as one of my all-time music heroes, Macca and his remarkable bass playing certainly deserve more attention.

The interesting thing one may sometimes forget is that McCartney not only started out as a guitarist but did not have any initial intention to become a bassist. A long interview with Macca, which Tony Bacon conducted in November 1994 as part of his research for a book about the bass, provides some great insights. It was published by online music gear and news website Reverb in January 2018. I’m relying on this interview for quotes throughout the remainder of the post.

The Beatles 1960 Lineup
The Beatles’ lineup in 1960 (from left): John Lennon, George Harrison, Pete Best, Paul McCartney and Stuart Sutcliffe

“The bass player was normally a fat guy who stood at the back,” Macca told Bacon. [Note: This bassist was skinny, and while he has developed a little bit of the belly over the years, he’s far from fat. In fact, his dear wife still says he’s pretty handsome!😆] “In our minds it was the fat guy in the group nearly always played the bass, and he stood at the back. None of us wanted that. We wanted to be up front, singing, looking good. That was what we wanted, to pull the birds. There’s no other reason, basically.”

The above photo shows an early lineup of The Beatles. It must have been taken during the second half of 1960, after Pete Best had joined the band as a drummer. Stuart Sutcliffe, a friend of John Lennon from art school, had been added in January that year, after John and Paul had persuaded him to use prize money he had won for art to purchase a Hofner bass guitar. “So, Stu was suddenly there just because he could afford the bass, and none of us could,” Macca said. Ouch…

“The Hofner kind of dwarfed Stu a bit,” Macca further pointed out. “He was a smallish guy. But it looked kind of heroic—he stood a certain way, he had shades, he looked the part—but he wasn’t that good a player. And that was the problem with me and Stu. It was always much reported that we didn’t get along. There were two reasons, really. One, I was very ambitious for the group, and I didn’t actually like anything that might hold us back. There’s enough stuff holding you back anyway, without someone in the group who’s not that good, you know?”

Stuart Sutcliffe with Hofner
Stuart Sutcliffe with his 1959 Hofner 500/5 semi-hollow bass

In July 1961, after The Beatles had returned from one of their engagements in Hamburg, Germany, Sutcliffe decided to leave the band to pursue painting. “So it was like oh-oh, we haven’t got a bass player. And everyone sort of turned round and looked at me,” Macca recalled. “I was a bit lumbered with it, really. It was like, well, it better be you then. I don’t think you could have caught John doing it—I don’t think he would have done it. ‘No, you’re kidding. I’ve got a nice new Rickenbacker.’ I didn’t have a guitar [at the time], see, so I couldn’t really say, ‘But I want to be a guitarist.’ They’d say, Well get a fucking guitar then—that might be a start! As I say, I’d been playing piano, which was on the stage, and that was quite good for me, gave me a lot of piano practice. I couldn’t really play but I learned. So I was quite glad to get back in the front line.”

Sutcliffe ended up lending McCartney his bass for a short time. “Eventually I saw a bass in the window of a shop in Hamburg, this violin-shaped bass, the Hofner. It was a good price, because my dad, as I say, had always said I shouldn’t do the never-never, but we were earning reasonable money.” And so McCartney essentially became the bassist of The Beatles by, well, accident. “That was it. I had the bass. I was now the bass player in the group, and I kind of took it from there.” Well, he certainly did.

It’s fair to say that McCartney didn’t become a brilliant bassist overnight. He started out largely playing root notes, which probably wasn’t that much different from Sutcliffe. But McCartney liked to push himself forward by experimenting. “The thing with the bass on a lot of this stuff was that you’ll try anything once,” he explained. “So, I’ll try a capo on a bass…I often used to tune ‘em down, too – tune the strings down a tone, so the E would become a D. You’d have to be careful how hard you hit them, but it was kind of interesting. I would just mess around with any experimental effects, just to try it.”

Macca with Bass and Capo
Paul McCartney on the cover of Beat Instrumental magazine, with his Rickenbacker 4001 bass and a capo, together with George Martin and George Harrison

After The Beatles had stopped touring, the studio became a major enabler for experimentation. Advances in technology also allowed the separate recording of instruments. By the time of Sgt. Pepper, Macca would oftentimes record the bass part as one of the last tracks. This allowed him to hear all other instrumental parts and take the bass beyond it’s traditional role of timekeeper to becoming an additional melody-driving instrument. And this is where Macca’s true magic as a bassist happened. From a strictly technical standpoint, his playing is nothing extraordinary, which he himself has stated in various interviews I’ve read over the years.

When after the breakup of The Beatles Macca formed Wings, many things changed, including his bass playing. Not only did he now consistently use his Rickenbacker 4001S he had been given by Mr. Rickenbacker himself as a freebie during The Beatles’ 1965 U.S. tour, but his playing became more traditional again. Asked about it, he said, “I think it was OK, but I think I never quite had the interest that I had during that sort of dream period around Sgt. Pepper and Rubber Soul, when I was doing something.”

Macca Key Bass Guitars
Paul McCartney with his two signature bass guitars, a Hofner 500/1 violin bass and a Rickenbacker 4001S

“See, with Wings, I was now the band leader, the business manager, the this, the that, the this,” he went on. “We didn’t have Apple, we didn’t have Epstein, we didn’t have anything. It was me doing it all. That was the biggest headache – that’s difficult. In The Beatles, I’d been free of all of that. We had a manager, we had three other great guys.” Macca also could have added that unlike The Beatles in their later stage, Wings was not set up as a studio band.

Asked about his influences for the bass, McCartney said, “Mainly as time went on it was Motown, James Jamerson—who became just my hero, really. I didn’t actually know his name until quite recently. James was very melodic, and that got me more interested. Actually he and Brian Wilson [from The Beach Boys] were my two biggest influences: James just because he was so good and melodic. Brian because he went to very unusual places. Brian would use, if you were playing in C, he might stay on the G a lot just to hold it all back, and I started to realize the power you had within the band.”

I’d like to wrap up this post by highlighting some of McCartney’s great basslines during his time with The Beatles. I apologize to the non-musicians, who may find the following clips a bit geeky. I think the best way to hear Macca in action, especially on a computer or other non hi-fi device, is to listen to his isolated bass parts. First up: Rain, the B-side from the non-album single Paperback Writer, released in May 1966. The song was written by Lennon and, as usually, credited to Lennon-McCartney. This is quite a busy bassline that provides a nice complementary melody to the tune. Since I couldn’t find a YouTube clip with the original isolated part, I’m relying on a chap called Norby Hofner, who does a pretty decent job.

With A Little Help From My Friends from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is an example of a melodic bassline where McCartney nicely varies between sparing and busy playing. The tune wasn’t only credited to Lennon-McCartney but was also written collaboratively.

Another great example of a busy Macca bassline is Hey Bulldog, a song off the Yellow Submarine album, primarily written by Lennon and again credited to Lennon-McCartney. I dig how the bass is pushing the tune forward.

The last bassline I’d like to call out is one of my all-time favorites by Macca: Something. Should I ever go back to playing the bass, this would be on top of my list to learn. This bass part represents such great melodic playing that one can easily enjoy listening to it all by itself. I also think that Something, which appeared on Abbey Road, is one of George Harrison’s best compositions.

Sources: Wikipedia, Reverb, YouTube