By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
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."
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.
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."
Both Alvarez and Ken Smith manufacture a Chuck Rainey signature line of bass guitars. His kids run in and out of the house as he plugs one into a 10-pedal floorboard. "Of course, they didn't have these effects when I did soundtracks like The Pit and the Pendulum," referring to the 1961 movie with Vincent Price. Rainey demonstrates dramatic bass lines from the only two score basslines he can recall: Money, and For the Love of Benji (in which a little dog is hiding).
His fingers fumble before recalling some of his most famous Steely Dan parts. "Peg" has instruments playing simultaneously in different keys: "It breaks the law of theory, which jazz--and the blues--does do. On 'Peg,' you just have to not listen to it when you're playing it. I've had people try and analyze this in clinics," he says, finally hitting the riff, "and you just can't do it." He plays his remarkable bass parts from "Josie," incorporating his trademark three-note chords and tenths. The phone interrupts.
"A new book sale! Just sold my latest textbook," he says, hanging up. "It's called Interval Studies for Four and Five-String Electric Bass."
Steely Dan--named after a dildo in a William Burroughs novel--became the premier studio "band" of the 1970s. The only major rock group besides the Beatles that could buck the touring system, the studio creation of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker assembled a court of session cat royalty. Chuck Rainey was Steely Dan's primary bass player on Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, Aja, and Gaucho, as well as Fagen's Nightfly.
"Let me tell you: When you listen to Aja, those are some masterful songs. Those things'll be around for a hundred years, man. Walter does not read music, neither does Donald. They came to the studio with full-blown demos, but the demos would sound like punk rock. You talk about credit--Victor Feldman and Paul Griffin [keyboards], Larry Carlton [guitar], Jeff Porcaro [drums]--those are the people who sat down and put the chord changes on paper and made a road map for us to play. As always, the good guys fall through the cracks. I may be going back even to The Royal Scam . They should be as rich as Becker, Fagen, and [producer] Gary Katz. Paul Griffin was so good, they gave him songwriting credit for part of a tune."
Rainey doesn't suggest that he ever earned a songwriting credit with the Dan--which would be a lifetime pension. "If you're not a musician, you'd think Donald Fagen's the world's greatest writer. But if you're a musician, you know that he ain't it. He writes good melodies, he can play a little bit of piano. But if it don't be for Walter Becker, there don't be no Steely Dan. Seriously."
But then Rainey concedes that Fagen's solo Nightfly album does sound pretty much on a par with Steely Dan. "It had the same producer and family of musicians. Becker and Fagen had a talent for voicing things in ways you never heard it before." But Rainey believes Steely Dan--after Pretzel Logic in 1974--modeled their style from a group in England on A&M in 1972. "A horn band--I can't remember their name. The times I brought this up, I was made to feel that I shouldn't by Gary Katz."
Rainey got paid double-scale, and he played on tons of sessions. While Royal Scam was cut in two weeks, it took three years each to produce Gaucho and Aja. "They had budget up the yin-yang. I was very fortunate. For every song on Aja--with the exception of "Deacon Blues," which Walter played--as many drummers as are listed, I did the whole album through with that drummer. There were six drummers, that's how many albums of Aja I did. I would do a month with Rick Marotta, then three months later do the same shit with Jeff Porcaro, and then Paul Humphrey, then Bernard Purdie, or Steve Gadd." Steely Dan extracted favorite versions for the final release.
Rainey left Los Angeles for Texas in 1982, after he split from Ricki Lee Jones' band to tour with sax player Hank Crawford. Colleagues like Cornell Dupree and Fathead Newman kept homes in the Dallas area; after Rainey met his second wife, Susan, he decided to settle here. After he arrived, he gigged with former Blood, Sweat & Tears member and local restaurateur Bill Tillman. "The best rhythm and blues band I've ever been in--and I'm sayin' a whole lot here--has been the Rodney Johnson Blues Band, except he could not get more than $225 for his band." After a few years in town, Rainey claims a prominent Dallas promoter began referring to him as "the uppity nigger from up north" and screwed Rainey on a $1,700 contract as opener for a Herbie Hancock concert. "If he had gone down to $400, I would have taken it," Rainey says. "Because my band wanted to work."
Three days before the show, the promoter suddenly reneged on his $1,700 guarantee, saying he only had $200 left on the budget. Rainey pulled out. "I told him, you owe me one. It's not a matter of me suing; I don't sue people. You don't go into a new area--I'm new--and sue a prominent person over some bullshit.
"After that I was only offered a coupla little gigs for what y'all call 'Juneteenth Celebration.' I never hearda this shit till I came here. Juneteenth? Gimme a fuckin' break. That's the only time I would get action from three or four clubs. I been to one of these Juneteenth parades. Where I come from, when we have a parade, it ain't just a bunch of black people on horses."
When Rainey considers Quincy Jones--beloved to millions of consumers across the world--he again feels the glory and the injustice. "Quincy Jones is a great continuity director--that's it. He jobs out 90 percent of what he does musically. He knows how to get brilliant people. I have done six albums with Quincy. I've yet to see him write a note for me, or anybody in the rhythm section."
Behind the scenes, Quincy Jones farmed out a lot of his arrangements to the great arranger Billy Byers, his secret alter ego. Rainey imitates Q shuckin' and jivin' a rhythmic pattern while recording the score for the film Money. The Record Plant session included Lee Ritenour, Eric Gale, Harvey Mason, and Donny Hathaway.
"On everyone's music stand was a blank paper and pencil, which Quincy never touched. After five minutes, we all wrote down two pages of some kinda chord structure. But Donny didn't touch the piano. And Quincy stops the band for the fourth time, asking Donny what's the matter. And Donny says, 'Hey, Q, you don't have nothin' written here. The other guys can do this for you, but I am an arranger, producer, and writer. I'm not gonna do your job." So Donny sat out. He told me on the drive home, 'You guys are fools. He's making a whole living offa your creativity. When you work for me, I've got something for you to play.'
"I sit and listen to what me and Eric [Gale] did with Money. Stuff nobody could write or arrange, just two cats gettin' down. Then you hear these trombones and tubas, horns, the whole thing written off of this thing. He's very smart. Like Arif Mardin, he doesn't create. They hire the people who create the parts, orchestrate into what you created, put their names on it." To remedy such injustice, Rainey believes--in theory--that there should be a production company that pays out royalties.
"When I saw Miles Davis' last concert in France that Q did, Q almost had to force Miles to hug him onstage. Miles didn't respect him. Everybody's either had a lawsuit against Quincy, or cause for one. I've had a cause for a lawsuit against Quincy, from Guess Who's Coming To Dinner. Me and Paul Griffin were writing partners, and we started fooling around on a song we wrote during break. And Quincy comes in, says 'Wow, man, sounds great, let's put this in the film.' So we trust Quincy, it's cool. Film comes out. The longest piece of music in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is me and Paul's song. But when you look at the credits, everything belongs to Quincy Jones. And on the soundtrack, that song's not included. I had to go to that film three times to time this piece of music. We didn't chase the lawsuit. Quincy is sneaky, sly and fulla shit, but he's the kinda guy who's sneaky, sly, and fulla shit and you wanna be in his corner, cause he's successful.
"But one thing Q has done--every film that I did with him, my name is on the credits for playing bass. And I was always paid double-scale, always. Hit records are very important to your career, to people liking you. If I could push a button and change everything? I would take whatever animosity, bitterness, or negativity that was in me at any time in my career and get rid of it. When I go to Germany, France or Japan, whatever good happens on my bio, happens because of the Quincy Joneses, Jerry Wexlers, Arif Mardins.
"If I had been [session bassists] Jerry Jemmott or Gordon Edwards, they'd say, 'Y'all stuff it. You got the wrong motherfucker here.' Get his bass and go home. I never would do that, my mother would roll over in her grave. As a consequence, I've been on more records, had more success. You can go in the backyard and bitch about injustice. But you go in the front yard, people are sayin', 'Hey, this guy played with Quincy Jones,' pattin' you on the shoulder, and maybe one guy hires you for somethin' else."
Rainey no longer leads the charmed gypsy life of an elite New York-L.A. session player, cabbing from Joe Cocker to Perry Como to Van McCoy to Paul Simon to Lena Horne, studio to studio, coast to coast. His oldest son, by his first wife, is 20; he is now raising three young kids and a new puppy in a mainstream American household in the bland heartland of Bedford, Texas, far from the fast track. The great bassist becomes most animated discussing his son's 7th-grade football games; he'd like his children to become great athletes. They are several generations removed from the hit records their daddy has graced.
These days, Rainey has a penchant for playing prisons: Huntsville, Angola, the Boys Correctional Institute in Shreveport. He doesn't get paid, but often fits in a nearby bass clinic. "I'm doing it as a service," he explains. "I'm trying to get points for heaven, but I'm not a preacher. Kids in prison aren't grown; they listen. At Riker's Island last month, out of 400 people who started out, 50 were left. Most of those guys don't wanna hear nothin'."
Chuck Rainey also does 30 gigs a year with Herbie Mann and joins other all-star bands with his circle of fellow session players: Fathead Newman, Tom Scott, Ralph McDonald, Hugh McCracken, Cornell Dupree, and Les McCann. They tour France, Germany, and Japan. He has six bass guitar textbooks (and a seventh sold during the course of this interview), and six instruction videos.
He might headline the Majestic Theatre as part of Herbie Mann's group, but he can't score a gig at the Caravan of Dreams, Terelli's, Club Dada, or the West End--joints where even amateurs can cut their teeth, and the lack of hometown gigs is a thorn in his side. If Rainey were hard to work with, or unreasonable, he couldn't possibly have done decades of elite session work, the most delicate craft in the music industry. His local jazz-fusion trio flies to resorts far out of town.
"I'm a player," he says, "so I want to play.