Good advice is hard to find, especially in the modern information age, where more and more successful artists use sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to offer their two cents. Fortunately, owing to the electric bass guitar’s relative youth, we bass players still have a few of our instrument’s pioneers around to offer us advice – like the session great Chuck Rainey. The most recorded bassist in the history of recorded music, his advice to players is based on concrete experience and critical reflection. But Chuck is quick to point out that even his guidance has to be weighed against what individuals know about themselves. “Start with yourself,” he says, “and use common sense. Think critically about the advice you hear before accepting it.” Not as easy as it sounds.
Chuck admits that, in today’s world, it can be difficult to sift through the vast swathes of available advice, so he offers the following tips: listen to advice from those who know, not those who think they know; don’t listen to those who talk too much, or who speak about things of which they have had little experience. If they’re talking more about dreams and goals than reality, be wary. If their advice seems overly complicated, it probably is. Good advice is often simple, short, and full of concrete examples, he argues. Finally, understand that you have to filter all advice through your own situation, not through that of the one giving the advice. “I am not you,” he says, “so you have to trust yourself first. If what I say makes sense, listen to it. If not, move on.”
With that in mind, below are five pieces of advice Chuck has for those aspiring towards a career in laying down the grooves for a variety of artists. A successful session player, in the studio or on stage, must be able to do much more than play well, he argues. He or she must navigate numerous and often complex personalities, situations, and tasks. On these matters, Chuck feels few people receive good advice. Given his experience and reputation as both a player and educator, we felt fortunate to have a chance to talk with him at his home in Dallas, Texas. Here, we gladly pass on his words of wisdom. As Chuck would say, “What you do with that advice is up to you.”
On First Impressions
“The first thing new players do sometimes is try to make too big of an impression. They talk too much, ask too many questions, or try to do something that will make people remember them. Be very careful here, though, lest they remember you for the wrong reason. For example, one time a well-known guitar player joined us [Quincy Jones’s band] on a session. During the recording of the song, he stopped to point out that I’d made a mistake. When we had a break I went up to him and said: ‘You’re new here. I’ve been here for a long time. Don’t try and impress people by pointing at me. If I make a mistake, I know it. So does the arranger, and so does the producer.’ You just don’t do that. You’ve got to mind your own business. There are a lot of people that are very successful but still a pain in the ass during a session. I’ve worked with people who are raising their hand every five minutes. That’s not the way to do it. People who are very successful and well-known in the studio seldom say anything. All they do is play.
“For example, the Atlantic studio band went into a recording session one time without Bernard Purdie [drummer], who was absent for some reason, and there was this other guy sitting in the room. Nobody bothered to introduce him to the band or even mention him, he just sat there quietly. We all listened to the demo and still nobody said anything to him. When it came to playing, he got up, sat down behind the drums and let it rip. After one take, everybody wanted to know who this cat was. It was Steve Gadd, who was already a famous drummer. He wasn’t imposing at all. He let his drums do the talking. That’s a real pro.”
On Session Days
“On the day of a new session, take one bass. Most engineers want to hear one bass, no more. Taking two basses is like taking two suits to the job to see which one your boss likes before you put one on. Be confident and take the bass that you think fits. Make sure you know the scene. Listen carefully to everyone. Defer and wait to be asked about things. When the recording is done, if the producer is satisfied then you should be satisfied. I’ve seen too many times when everybody’s satisfied but one particular player. He says, ‘I can also do this or that’, or ‘How about this?’ When the person in charge says it’s okay, it’s okay. They’ve got other problems, other things to do. Know your place. Also, don’t ever ask for a copy of the session afterwards. I see that a lot. That’s the most ridiculous thing in the world. Why would they give you a copy of a session before they mix it?
“In the session be yourself, even if you’re subbing. You cannot do what somebody else does. Jerry Jemmott was one of my subs at the beginning of his recording career. You know why? Because he was a great bass player; in my mind, as good as I was. I wanted to send my client the best bass player that I could. But Jerry is not me and never tried to play like me. I don’t play a lot of notes, but I do play a lot of rhythm on the notes I play. If you were to sub for me at a session or a gig, you shouldn’t try to play busy like that. I can get away with stuff that you will never get away with. You might say, ‘If Chuck can do this, then why can’t I?’ Well, because they don’t know you and you’re not me. I got called to cover for Stanley Clarke on a session one time. I didn’t prep by listening to Stanley Clarke records. I went there and did the best I could as Chuck. Be confident. Be yourself.”
On Getting Along With People
“I have found that people in my career need to possess a deep understanding of how to get along with people. Especially if it’s a professional situation where people don’t particularly care for you, for whatever reason. I have worked for people who are unnecessarily rude, mean, or just don’t want you there for some reason. I’ve worked in a lot of situations where the arrangers would have rather had their own guy, but the producer wanted me there. You gotta be able to handle that.
“I’ll give you an example where I didn’t do that well. In Quincy’s band, Ray Brown was the acoustic bass player and I was the electric player. During that stretch of time, Ray Brown was also his manager. The New Bill Cosby Show [a CBS variety show that ran from 1972-73] was a hit then, and Quincy was the bandleader. We would go into the studio and pre-record all the music on a Tuesday and then show up at CBS for the show on Friday, where we would put on our brown sweaters and pantomime the music. We were not really playing, just pretending to play, although the artist would actually sing over the track we had recorded on Tuesday.
“I had been in Hollywood a couple years and was the electric bass player on everything Quincy did. One Friday I’m at CBS, in my seat with my bass, and they start playing the track that we’re going to pantomime to. Immediately I realised that the bass part wasn’t mine. Now, I’m like everybody else. I’ve got an ego, which is okay, but I took it too far that day. The first thing that came to my mind was ‘They’ve hired somebody else’, and I thought, ‘This ain’t cool’. I didn’t want my family and friends listening to that bad bass part thinking that was me. So I refused to play, and kind of made a scene. Now, think about that. Here I am with an all-star band, the Quincy Jones band – and Bill Cosby’s there too – but I don’t like the bass part and refuse to play. Dennis Budimir, the guitar player, sat right next to me. ‘Why don’t you take the guitar and I’ll take the bass’, he said. So we switched. On the break, Ray Brown walks up to me and says: ‘Rainey, we’ve got plenty of good bass players in Hollywood and Quincy has to share the work around. You notice that the horn section is not always the same? You’ve got to share sometimes. What happens if you get sick, die, or quit, and I suddenly have to hire someone else? A player might say to me: ‘Well, you never called me before – you always called Chuck’, and they might refuse. You gotta share.’ It was good of Ray to give me that lesson. I went back after the break and the first thing I did was apologise to the band. I was very embarrassed. I had a lot of nerve doing that in front of the orchestra, Cosby, the guest, and Quincy. I could’ve been fired. Not smart.”
“When it comes to getting paid, make a reasonable judgment on what to ask for or accept. Sometimes a gig or session pays nothing. At the beginning of my career, if I wasn’t working much, I’d sometimes do someone a favour because I just wanted to play. I know that times have changed though. Sometimes people say, ‘How much do you want for this?’ and I’ll say, ‘Just give me what you’re giving everybody else.’ If they tell me everyone’s getting different sums, I tell them to pay me what they think is right. Other times people will tell you exactly what to expect, say a hundred dollars an hour, fifty dollars a session, or something like that. Sometimes people will tell you what they want to pay you. If it’s a new client, I will accept what they are offering. If I’ve been working for them a while and don’t think it’s enough, I’ll say I want more. In the end, you got to do it your way. A lot of people will work for a client and then the cheque bounces. Don’t get on the phone every day bothering them about the cheque. If it bounces it’s because they don’t have the money. You calling them isn’t going to help you get the money faster. The next time they call you, though, you can remind them that they owe you money and they’re going to have to pay you before you’ll play again.”
“A lot of people bring unnecessary baggage to the session, gig, or rehearsal. They bring a bad attitude because they just had a fight with someone. Or they bring a sour attitude because of a previous gig, or they show up high or drunk. Bringing baggage is not good for any gig: leave it at home. Problems with your previous gigs, your home, your past? Leave it all at home. And don’t bring your people either. Not your girlfriend, your room-mate, your fans. Just show up with your bass and play. If you do that, you’ll be starting out right.”