Glory and injustice

Is bass legend Chuck Rainey falling through the cracks?

Asked if anyone in history has played bass more than himself--in terms of sheer numbers of successful records--Chuck Rainey shrugs. "I don't think so," he says. Rainey's bass work appears on essential albums by Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan, Quincy Jones, King Curtis, the Rascals, the Jackson Five, Marvin Gaye, and the Crusaders, and in a multitude of movie and TV scores--Midnight Cowboy, Lady Sings the Blues, Maude, Hawaii Five-O, MASH, ad infinitum.

You might safely figure that for every ticking moment during the last 35 years, half the world has been listening to something on which Chuck Rainey plays bass. Why, then, isn't Rainey working in his home territory of Dallas and Fort Worth?

"I'm 56 years old, and I've played in a lot of cities," Rainey replies, his blood pressure rising. "This is the only place on the planet where club owners have asked, 'Do you have a tape? What kind of music do you play? Do you have experience? Not just anybody can come in here. Do you have a following?'"

Well, not just anybody can play on classic albums by Aretha Franklin, the Rascals, Don Covay, or the Fugs, either. A tape? Would any number of Steely Dan albums suffice, up to and including the multi-million seller Aja?

"There is only one person in Dallas for whom my reputation preceded me," recalls Rainey. "And that was a guy named Lynn Smith, who booked Greenville Bar & Grill in the '80s. I was floored. I went to White Rock Lake to jog every day, got my weight down...I was happy. I said, 'Wow, I didn't even have to sell myself.'"

That a gig at GBG should so please Rainey is cruelly ironic. "He is the godfather of Fender bass," says Will Lee, himself a studio lion and the permanent bass player on the David Letterman Show. "Without Chuck Rainey, I would not have a career. He is a source of constant inspiration, and I try to listen to everything he does."

Nevertheless, that bar gig was the last steady work this renowned musician has enjoyed in his adopted hometown of 15 years. The record books rarely contain the gospel according to session cats like Rainey, whose bass weaves its way through decades of music heritage. As a double-scale, work-for-hire studio musician, Rainey suffered the poseurs, fakers, users, and no-talents who sometimes come out big winners in the music industry. He often cites heroes who "fell through the cracks."

"From 1967 to 1975, I spent a large part of my life on 60th and Broadway [Atlantic Studios] or at [Atlantic's sister studio] Mastersound on 42nd Street. Recording with Solomon Burke, the Rascals, Aretha, Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, Don Covay, the Fugs, you name it. There was a three-hour History of Atlantic special on TV, and of all the hits recorded there, they made not one mention of those two studios and all the New York musicians. Except for Ben E. King and Don Covay, who talked about how great Atlantic was. The program talked about all the Southern musicians, and Muscle Shoals [Atlantic's studio in Alabama] and Stax [Atlantic's Memphis acquisition]. And how it hurt them when Ray Charles left them--you oughta hear Ray Charles talk about their ass. Even with Aretha--they talked about her only at Muscle Shoals. This hurt my feelings. I don't understand how you could forget all those New York musicians and artists."

Chuck Rainey--raised in Youngstown, Ohio--was a college brass major who switched to bass at age 21. The only guy in Cleveland in 1961 with an electric Fender Precision bass, he joined an upward succession of bands, capped by jazz pianist Big Jay McNeely. From there, he rotated on the schedules of Sam Cooke, Etta James, Jackie Wilson, and the Coasters as touring bassist.

But it was King Curtis with whom Rainey bonded. Rainey moved to New York in 1962; in '63 he joined up with Curtis--the definitive rock 'n' roll studio sax player of the 1950s. "Whether it was a Top 40 gig, cocktail jazz, or a big band situation," Rainey says, "we did it well. The three years I spent with King Curtis I was never out of work. Never. Six nights a week."

"Chuck was part of one of the greatest rhythm sections I ever worked with--King Curtis and the King Pins," says legendary Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler with warm reverence. "Chuck's feature was those sliding tenths that he used to do; it put such a beautiful sound on record." The backbone of many hits on Atlantic, the King Pins were later canonized as Aretha's band: Rainey, Richard Tee on Fender Rhodes piano, Cornell Dupree on guitar, and Bernard "Pretty" Purdie on drums.

"Everyone in Curtis' bands ended up being a studio musician," Rainey explains, "'cause that's what he was. New York was a small community once you got a foot in the door. Nobody in those days used their own live band when they recorded." The Curtis band also became "family" to whomever they backed up on tour--the Supremes, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, or the Coasters (think of Curtis' trademark honkin' solo on "Yakety Yak"). As a band leader, Curtis was "the perfect dad" to the young Rainey. "He'd kick your ass when you needed it, and he'd love you when you needed it."

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