Glory and injustice

Is bass legend Chuck Rainey falling through the cracks?

Touring with Aretha was a "tuxedo gig," Rainey says. The upscale band also carried six horns, a local string section from each city, and an ever-changing list of conductors on keyboard. "We had an awful time when Bernard Purdie was conductor," Rainey says. "A drummer conducting an orchestra didn't work out, plus Purdie's an egomaniac, so he didn't last long.

"When we did Aretha's Amazing Grace album, there was a song, 'Oh Mary Don't You Weep.' We did it live in church, where the band builds with the intensity of the audience, and there's a reason why you arrive at the last verse. I remember them taking that track back at Atlantic. They wanted to build it up quicker, so they took out the second verse and made it the fourth verse. I observed Aretha straightening out those people quite a few times. 'Can you sing this song? I've been singing this song all my life. So this is the way I'm singing this song. I don't tell you how to sell records or push buttons. Don't tell me how to sing the song,'" Rainey remembers. "But when she wasn't there, she couldn't prevent them from splicing out verses. When we listened to Amazing Grace, it was almost sacrilege, almost disgusting."

Amazing Grace recently became the only Aretha Franklin album to go double-platinum. Incredibly, Rainey claims the legendary Atlantic team behind the making of so much music history--producer Jerry Wexler, engineer Tom Dowd, arranger Arif Mardin--was "not needed at all. It was just politics, someone from the company to be a boss over musicians. But Atlantic did do certain things," he acknowledges. At Atlantic's Criteria Studios in Miami, Wexler flew his musicians down and housed them in a North Miami Beach mansion with a swimming pool, several cooks, and chauffeurs. "One morning when the car picked us up to take us to Criteria, the only guy there was [assistant engineer] Gene Paul. We [the rhythm section of Rainey, Dupree, Purdie, and Tee] were elated no one else was there, and Aretha played 'Rock Steady.' We were always trying to get our heads clear so that we would have that thing--before the interference would come. Aretha is like Roberta Flack, Laura Nyro, or Ricki Lee Jones. When they play it the first time, the one thousandth time later is gonna be the same way. By the time they [the Atlantic execs] got there, we had it and had laid down a reference. Eight hours of bullshit later, 30 takes later, we went back to that original reference take. That's what became a hit, the first take, before they got there."

Semi-retired at 79 in East Hampton, Jerry Wexler feels no need to defend his place on music's Mt. Rushmore. Producers were usually not necessary for the likes of Miles Davis or traditional jazz records, he says. "But pop and R&B records are a whole 'nother thing, baby. I'm sorry, they required somebody to be at the helm.

"First of all, I would be in the studio before they'd arrive," says Wexler, who produced 14 Aretha albums. "And we'd hand out the chord charts. The whole thing was hiring great musicians and letting them play into the track naturally. Of course, they generated their own parts. If it ain't broke, don't break it--I'd let it play on and be a traffic cop. But there were many times I wanted to change something."

"Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun were great businessmen," Rainey maintains. "That company has taken a lot of credit for things that they have nothing at all to do with." Rainey dismisses even Tom Dowd, the pioneering engineer who pushed away office furniture to record Ray Charles and Big Joe Turner in the '50s, before Atlantic had its own studio, and later engineered Layla. Rainey credits Dowd's assistant: "Gene Paul, man, was the guy. All Tommy Dowd did was maybe remix or bring something up. I thought he was a bullshit artist, always talking ethereal shit like he was God's gift to musicians. By the time Tommy Dowd sat down at the board, Gene Paul had already gotten the bass and drum sounds.

"How do you write eight to the bar, and a shuffle at the same time, like 'Spanish Harlem?'" asks Rainey. "Richard Tee, who played Fender Rhodes, would be asked to overdub two or three different parts on top of the track. Then Arif would turn around and orchestrate it for the orchestra, but it was Richard Tee, who never got credit for orchestrations .

"But if I had to go through it again," Rainey wearily concedes, "I'd do it. Time heals all wounds. The end results were great, my reputation got greater, I got paid. Five years ago, I may have said, 'You dirty motherfucker, you ain't shit.' But today, I'd hug Jerry Wexler if I saw him."

Rainey does a solo act these days, which he calls "funky folk music, storytelling with my bass." He's performed solo as Al Dimeola's opener, and a recent Japanese CD compilation has two of his solo bass compositions. The CD cover displays gratuitous female butt. "That's disgusting," he says with uncharacteristic prudishness. "I can't even show this to my family."

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