Glory and injustice

Is bass legend Chuck Rainey falling through the cracks?

The King Curtis All-Stars opened--then played behind--the American pop groups that played during the 10-city 1965 Beatles tour, kicking off with Shea Stadium. "We had a police escort by car from New York to the Philadelphia Spectrum," Rainey remembers. "Maybe seven big buses. It was like a parade along the route between the cities, people waving and screaming, trying to figure which bus the Beatles were on. The Beatles weren't even with us on that trip, but people didn't know that. We always stayed in the same hotels as them. I remember explicitly: George and John were great. They hung out on the airplane with our band, played gin rummy, joked--real people--they never stayed in their part of the plane. But Paul and Ringo were perfect assholes. We never saw either, and when we did, they had their nose in the air, aloof--or so it appeared."

Unlike other stateside groups who were squashed under the mass hysteria generated by the Beatles, Rainey felt that the Beatles tour was "handled real well, and the kids were listening." The entire show was 2 1/2 hours; the American acts had big records at the moment--Cannibal and the Headhunters, the Manhattans, Brenda Holloway--but did only two numbers each. The screaming didn't start until the second half of the show, when the British bands appeared. "We liked the Hollies," Rainey says. "But none of us in Curtis' band were familiar with the Beatles' music until the third show, when we realized the magnitude of people. We'd been playing jazz; we were more into what we did.

"King Curtis was known as a rock 'n' roll saxophone player. But during the years I was with him, he did four or five jazz records. At our matinee shows, he would play all the jazz standards. People like Fathead Newman, Willis Jackson, Red Prysock, Illinois Jacquet, and Ben Webster came to his gigs to get him, to kick his ass, to show him up--because he'd once been a jazz saxophone player and now played rock 'n' roll, and they said he'd sold out. But to their shock, Curtis ran everybody off the bandstand with his horn. Every living tenor saxophonist wished they could play like that and have his tone."

By the late '60s, Rainey's mentor had become the Hendrix of saxophone, using a wah-wah pedal on sax and pioneering the funky octave-divider sax effect (as featured on Quincy Jones' Sanford & Son theme, which Rainey played on). Before the days of digital rack mounts and LED foot pedals, Rainey's mentor defied the gods of electricity with his own hands: "'Soul Serenade' had an echo that could only be achieved live by him rewiring the PA," Rainey says. "Every club we played, Curtis had his little tool box, and he'd rewire the house mike with a soldering iron, then wire it back before we left."

Curtis was stabbed to death by a junkie on his Upper West Side doorstep in the summer of 1971 (legend goes, Curtis pulled out the knife and stabbed the attacker back). "He slipped through the cracks," says Rainey, bemoaning the musical knighthood that eludes Curtis to this day. "If he were alive, I think everything would have come full circle."

When asked about his role models for bass, Rainey reverently bows his head before the only poster hanging in his home recording studio--that of Motown bassist James Jamerson. His eyes light up at the mention of Doug Rodriques, with whom he played in the Voices of East Harlem in 1970: "Greatest rhythm guitarist I ever heard in my life! He fell through the cracks."

Others fell through the cracks quite literally. Jerry Wexler believed soul singer-composer Donny Hathaway was destined to stand equal with Ray Charles and Aretha, but the troubled musician mysteriously fell to his death from a New York hotel room window at age 33.

"Donny was not at all himself the last two or three years of his life. No one knows what happened, they weren't there, but you can guess what may have happened. Nobody pushed him. We all know that Roberta Flack had just left him--he did not like Roberta, very few people do. When he came to Atlantic he was forced to do duets with her. Roberta had been his teacher at Howard University, in choir. He didn't like her then, and he certainly didn't like her as a pro. He was extremely overweight. The Essex House [from where Hathaway fell in Manhattan] is an old hotel, has that chicken mesh between the glass. It may look sturdy, but you never know in an old hotel. Donny was always hittin' himself [demonstrates playing percussion on his body]. I'd witnessed him push himself against a wall, being mentally unbalanced. I'm thinking it probably was an accident; he made a mistake and put them 400-plus pounds against some shit that wouldn't hold him."

In 1971, King Curtis was fronting Aretha Franklin's live band with Billy Preston, Dupree, Purdie, and Jerry Jemmott on bass. At Curtis' funeral, Aretha hired Rainey as her touring bass player (he had earlier played on several of Aretha's numerous low-profile Columbia albums, before she hit big at Atlantic under Wexler's tutelage). "As a matter of fact, King Curtis was responsible for bringing Donny Hathaway and Aretha to Atlantic when he was head of A&R," Rainey says.

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