A collision of talent and opportunity put Scott Edwards on stage with Stevie Wonder in 1970. After the gig, he became Stevie's bass player, a position he held until 1973 when he turned his talents to session work. As a first-call Los Angeles studio pro, he found himself laying grooves for Hall & Oates, Donna Summer, Glenn Campbell and Smokey Robinson.
Session work is anonymous by design, which keeps the spotlight on the artists. That's why it was a real treat to speak with Scott, who has remarkable recall of the seminal music he played thanks to his method: humming basslines in his head before they hit his fingers. He shared some of his unique insights on playing with Stevie Wonder and crafting the hits as a session player.
Session work is anonymous by design, which keeps the spotlight on the artists. That's why it was a real treat to speak with Scott, who has remarkable recall of the seminal music he played thanks to his method: humming basslines in his head before they hit his fingers. He shared some of his unique insights on playing with Stevie Wonder and crafting the hits as a session player.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Where are you located, Scott?
Scott Edwards: I live in Long Beach, California.
Songfacts: Oh, that's gotta be nice.
Scott: Yeah. Kind of down by the water. The only thing is sometimes it gets foggy because of the water coming in. But it's about 20 miles south of LA proper.
Songfacts: Nice. How did you get into the bass?
Scott: Actually, I started playing trombone when I was probably five or six years old. I did the elementary school thing and then high school. I'm originally from Atlanta, Georgia, and back then a lot of the groups were based on the Stax sound, like Memphis Horns and all that kind of stuff. And Otis Redding. So they needed horn players.
But then they started downsizing the size of the horn section to where sometimes the trombone wasn't needed. The good thing about the trombone is, you have the same music as the bass. That means you can read. So on the gig, if the bass player couldn't read something or whatever, I would take the bass and lay it flat on top of the amp and play it the way country/western steel guitar players do, the slide guitar. I would play the bass part with my thumb. And after a while people started saying I should learn the bass.
I gradually started practicing bass at home while I was watching TV or whatever. Probably about 1967. I practiced for two years, and finally in '69 I started playing gigs around Atlanta and I got to be pretty good. I got a lot of attention.
In 1970 Stevie Wonder happened to be coming down South to do a tour. In those days they would bring their own rhythm section and then hire the horns in the local area. Part of the local horn group was my brother, my cousin, and my uncle.
Stevie Wonder's bass player was Michael Henderson, who sang "Valentine Love," but he was also a bass player. He had just quit Stevie to join Miles Davis. So as a consequence Stevie came down South for the tour with no bass player. He was flying in different bass players from all over the country, and I guess they weren't working out. So my cousins and brother told Stevie's director, who was a person named Gene Kee, that their brother/cousin played bass.
So they sent me a ticket and told me to meet them in Birmingham, Alabama, for the next performance. I flew and got there on time, but Stevie and his entourage were going by bus, and they were late. They got to Birmingham just in time to go on stage, so with no rehearsal, we all got on stage and played. Once the show was over they told me if I wanted the gig it was mine. That was it. So I stayed with Steve for 3 years, from 1970 to 1973.
Songfacts: What was it like ending up on stage at a Stevie Wonder show when you hadn't even met the man yet?
Scott: For me, being a small Atlanta musician who was used to playing juke joints out in the country and real cutdown type environments, to someone that would be on stage with Stevie Wonder, was totally unreal.
When I first decided to play bass, the best electric bass player around was James Jamerson, who played on all of those Motown hits. He was totally unsung and unrevealed, because they wanted to keep him a secret. I had studied all of Jamerson's moves, and he played a lot of unique items on Stevie Wonder songs. So I knew Stevie's whole record inventory pretty good. When you do a live gig there are certain changes that are not the same as the record, but because I could read music, I could jump right in. But it was totally unreal to be on stage with Stevie Wonder and being with who I basically had been practicing all those years.
The funny part about it is that I was going to Morehouse College, and when I decided I was going to be a bass player, I decided to quit. My friends at Morehouse thought I was crazy. My parents thought I'd had a nervous breakdown because I had a four year full scholarship - they thought I'd lost my mind.
I told my friends I was going to become a Motown bass player. This was two years before I got with Stevie Wonder. When I finally, in 1970, became a Motown bass player, they thought I had supernatural powers, because I had made a totally unrealistic claim, and it came true. So for me it was the best of everything. I couldn't do anything better. That was it.
Songfacts: What was your scholarship for?
Scott: I was going to be a physics major. [Laughs]
Songfacts: So it was an academic scholarship?
Songfacts: Wow. And you gave that up. That had to be maddening for your parents.
Scott: They thought I was nuts.
Songfacts: That had to be really gratifying to get that gig out of the way. You probably didn't even realize what was going on until that thing was over, because if you had thought about it, that would have been bananas.
Scott: Well, the real trick of it was that same Southern tour finally came to my hometown of Atlanta, and I got my parents to come to the performance. The Downtown Auditorium was the big performance place in Atlanta. My mother said when she heard how loud my bass part was - because it was basically Stevie and me and the drums - she was so proud that I was in that environment and able to perform, it totally made the whole thing that I hadn't gone to college disappear.
And then the good thing is once I started making money with Stevie, I paid off my parents' house. So the whole negative of me quitting college and all that, suddenly, I was the prodigal son. It worked out great.
Songfacts: So now you're in Stevie's band, what does that mean? Does that mean you're playing on his albums, you're touring with him; can you describe what life is like at that point?
Scott: All the Motown acts pretty much had to use the Motown machine, which was like the James Jamersons, the studio clique and all that. The road cats, we weren't on the records. And Stevie, in 1971, he turned 21. He had always wanted to do his own productions, so when he turned 21 he wanted to go his own route.
He had several bands. The first band was just a rhythm section, bass, guitar and drums. After a while, Stevie got rid of that band, he kept me and then he hired another band that was composed of some horn players from Berklee School of Music in Boston, another drummer, and another guitar player. Then finally he got tired of that band and in 1972 he got a whole new band consisting of myself, a drummer named Keith Copeland, the horn players were the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which consists of Steve Madaio, Trevor Lawrence, Dave Sanborn, and a trombone player named Art Baron. But that's when he formed his band in New York.
We were rehearsing the band and he was kind of doodling with a song he had been working with. He gave us basic guidelines where we all kind of joined in, and it was such a great song that he decided that night in New York City he was going to go record it. And the studio he was going to record it at was Electric Lady Studios.
The song that we recorded was "You Are The Sunshine of My Life," and that was the first song that I played on record with Stevie. And later on another tune was "All in Love is Fair." So I only played on two songs on the record when I was with Stevie Wonder.
He was also beginning to get more into his self production computer orientation where it would basically be him and two engineers. Because all the time he had been in Motown, they hadn't let him be in control. The sudden possibilities that he could do his own production, his own drums, piano, everything, he wanted to totally explore that. So he did not use the band as much as he could, because he wanted to explore. Which is good, because he's a genius cat.
In the same band that I was in he had Ray Parker on guitar - who was "Ghostbusters" - and he had Deniece Williams, Lani Groves, Jim Gilstrap, he had prime people. But because he had been so deprived of being in control, he wanted to explore, which is understandable. But he was a cat who took me out of the South and put me on the road to where I've ended up. He is a good person.
Songfacts: So does that mean "You Are The Sunshine of My Life" was conceived during a band rehearsal and recorded that same night?
Scott: He had been working with the structure by himself. But once he had all of us together, he just started playing it. And then we all joined in and we all could feel that the vibe and the way the tune was going, it was a hit. He was so excited, he said, "Tonight we're going to the studio and record it." And that's what we did.
Songfacts: And when you're Stevie Wonder, you have the keys to Electric Ladyland and you can just show up and record?
Scott: He would block out months of recording time, so he had time blocked out. I believe he already had his synthesizer set up in the studio, so he could always go in. And you've got to know about Stevie, because he does not have sight, he's not controlled by daylight, so he may begin his night at midnight. Which is bad, because if they want you to come do an overdub or something, he may call you at 4 a.m. and say, "Come on in."
So because of that, he always would block out months of time. When we came to LA, there was a studio called The Record Plant, I think around Third Street or somewhere. He would block out months of time. So he could always, whenever he felt like, just walk into the studio. So that night we went to the studio and recorded it and the rest is history.
Songfacts: What was he like to work with?
Scott: Stevie was like a family member. He wanted everyone to really be his family. See, his family was close, but because we were of a similar mentality of musicians and creators, he treated us as family. The only thing that was bad about it was that when he would do other things separate from us, he would want us to still be available and around. And the funny thing is in New York he was paying humongous amounts of money for us to live and per diem and all that kind of stuff when he would go out to, say, LA. Now, because we were so young and stupid and inexperienced, we didn't realize the opportunity that we had with someone paying all our bills in New York City in the Village. We could have explored and still be available for Stevie, but we felt more wasted and just sitting around and not being able to do other things and be fruitful. So we didn't appreciate it.
He really wanted you to be a friend, but because he was Stevie Wonder, he was pulled away by various other necessities that at the time, and we being so young and inexperienced, we didn't understand. We just felt like Stevie's gone and he left us here. But he was one of the best bosses, best friends. I remember one time we did a gig in Jamaica. And after the gig we were wrestling in the room like we were little children, because he was basically just a regular cat. Can't say nothing bad about Stevie. I owe my beginning to Stevie Wonder, I'll say that.
Songfacts: What about when you're in a recording session with him; what is it like when he's producing one of those sessions?
Scott: Well, "The Sunshine of My Life," he had a basic groove and he might say, "Scott, do something on the bass," a basic structure. But then after that, because he respects you, he wants you to start embellishing and doing other things. So he's not very controlling.
There are some producers and writers who they write every dot of a note, and you've got to play every dot of a note, and sometimes it works. And I've been on sessions where they've had those kind of arrangers and the producer will note that it's not really working out and tell the musicians to go for themselves. And when they go for themselves, then you've got a hit.
But Stevie wasn't really hard controlling as a producer. He wanted you to input, because, remember, all the old Motown stuff was done because of those genius musicians, the Funk Brothers. James Jamerson would play right off the cuff as he felt like it. He should have been a prime stockholder in Motown, because without that unique bass, Motown would not have become as big as it was.
Stevie, though, he didn't try to be a Mafia producer. He wanted you to put your part in, because he knew that would enhance the production.
Songfacts: So he learned at Motown to surround himself with talented people and then let them contribute.
Scott: Yes. Because that's how the whole Motown machine was made. They had so many people competing with individual contributions, and that's when Berry Gordy realized he purposely wanted people to be in competition with each other, because he knew that would make them try harder, as opposed to him controlling. He would have a weekly meeting where they would all listen to what everyone had done and decide what was going to be the release of the week, but he knew their competition and individual contributions was what would make it unique.
That's why music today is so bland, because you've got one person in a bedroom or a garage with ProTools, and one mentality trying to think the part of 10 people. It can be passable, but it won't have the brevity and the humanity that all the older hits have. And one day it may get back to where it was, but now you have a whole 'nother aspect where you have people who don't know any music at all and don't have any music ideas. Particularly I'm speaking about people who did all the sampling and all that; they don't really have the ability to compose, but because they're in power and they have the connections, that's the new way everything is done.
The good thing about it is because the music they're doing is so lightweight or temporary, the older music is being used so much, we still get reuse checks all the time, because they're still using it in commercials and movies. You hear all of the old songs over and over. When you hear those old songs, a bunch of the older musicians and writers are getting paid again. So that's the upside of it. But the thing is, you still want new music to be created that has the same depth. But I feel especially pleased that I was able to be part of the old machine, because that's what created some of this great music.
Songfacts: You were talking about how some producers would have every note written out for you and others you would be more open to improvisation. What were some of the sessions where you did do a lot of improvising?
Scott: Gloria Gaynor's tune, "I Will Survive," that was just a chord chart. There were no notes at all. Peaches & Herb "Shake Your Groove Thing," no notes, Peaches & Herb "Reunited," Donna Summer "Bad Girls," "Hot Stuff." Most of the stuff that was a hit was not written down.
Songfacts: Peaches & Herb and Gloria Gaynor, those were produced by the same guys, right?
Scott: Yeah, Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris. We were part of Freddie Perren's recording group. He was an old Motown producer - he did all the Jackson 5, "I Want You Back," all the Michael J hits. We were his section for all of his productions of Peaches & Herb, Donna Summer, the Miracles, Yvonne Elliman "If I Can't Have You," that was Freddie Perren's production with his rhythm section team.
Songfacts: Take me through a session. Let's take "Shake Your Groove Thing" for example. What happens in that session?
Scott: They had a basic chord chart. We were playing the changes that they had written for the song, and it wasn't working. So we took a break and while we were in the break, I was still sitting at my bass, and Boogie Bob Bowles on guitar, and James Gadson, the drummer, we were still sitting at our instruments. So I started doing a funny little thing on the bass, Bob joined in and the drummer, James, drummed in. Freddie in the recording booth heard what we were doing and cut on the tape recorder and recorded part of it.
Then when we came back from the break, Freddie said, "What you cats were doing a few minutes ago, do that same thing to the changes of the song." And that's what we did, and that became "Shake Your Groove Thing."
We actually were writers and composers, but because we had the name "musician," we were just players. But we actually were having to write, because the things that we came up with, the arrangers and the producers were nowhere in that direction for our particular instruments. As far as "Shake Your Groove Thing," we basically were jamming and we took that jam and applied it to the changes of "Shake." Which really is just two chords, that's how basic it was. But it was a big hit, that's the way it works.
A lot of the hits were basically the musicians jamming. The same thing happened with another tune for Freddie, The Miracles "Love Machine." Same thing. We were just jamming, and Freddie said, "Do the changes to these chords." So that's the way a lot of stuff was made.
And now that spontaneity, because the musicians are not just sitting around jamming, it's not happening like it used to.
Songfacts: At this point were you guys all playing together on the song?
Scott: We were on a break. We had a lunch meeting, we were gradually coming back from the break. So I think I started doing some kind of bass riff and then basically Boogie, guitar, he joined in. So we were just still on the break and jamming at our instruments. But a lot of times the producers, when they hear a groove, the first thing they do is cut on the recorder so they can have a sample of the groove. Now, technically, that's where they'll say, "You cats, this is a new tune, I want you to be partners on the song." But because they had contracted you as a studio musician to be there for that time period, you had no choice but to say nothing.
The only upside to doing stuff like that is once people knew in the industry that you did have the ability to sit down and come up with something unique that became a hit, then it meant you would get more calls to be on the session. You'll never get the million dollar check, but you'll be called for the session.
Songfacts: Were your tracks recorded individually, meaning that you'd put your bass line down and then the drum would go down separately?
Scott: No. They have a multi track tape recorders where you got 24 to 48 tracks. Now they even have like 100 some tracks where basically you all play together at the same time, but your individual part goes on its own separate track on the recorder. So they can individually play your part by itself, or they can play you in conjunction with everybody else. But your individual part is recorded by itself and consequently if you mess up while you're playing with everybody else, they can take you out and you can redo it again and be in sync. But everyone played all together.
Playing individually, that's what they're doing now. They may have me come to someone's studio and put my part on when somebody else left who just put their part on. So it's very sterile and you don't have the interaction - sometimes a musician will hear somebody do something over here, he'll do something to react to that, and that'll make someone else react. That's what's missing now.
But yeah, your part was put on with everybody else at the same time in the old days. Now it's not that way.
Songfacts: You wore headphones, I imagine.
Scott: Yes. And you were in booths that had baffles, so that if a particular instrument was being recorded with a microphone, your part would not leak into that microphone, which is really funny, because if you look at pictures of the old Motown studios, they would have Jamerson's bass amp in the middle of the room and it always leaked into everything, which is why, because he was such a precision player, they never had to replace his part.
But back then they didn't care about leakage, because it was all about getting the groove and the feel of the record. And now they've become so technically worried about isolation and leakage and sonic qualities that they've forgotten at times that it's about the tune and the feel, as opposed to the technical proportions.
Songfacts: When were the vocals added?
Scott: They may be added after the rhythm, they may add it after they put on the string section. Funny you mention that. I heard that Barry White's tune, "Love's Theme," which was an instrumental, after Gene Page, who's a great arranger, did his string parts, Barry White said it was so beautiful, he decided not to put on the vocal. And that's how it became "Love's Theme." It became a world hit because Barry White realized that Gene's strings were so beautiful, why mess it up with a vocal?
So it depends on each producer. Sometimes they want to put the vocals on early to know what type of arrangers they need to put on not to interfere with the vocals. It all depends on the overall plan of the producer/arranger.
Songfacts: But the vocalist wouldn't be singing while you were performing?
Scott: Sometimes they would come in and give us a guide, most of the time they did not. In the Gloria Gaynor case, I don't remember her being at the session at all. I didn't even know who the artist was, to be honest. We just did the track. So most times a singer is not there. If they are, they may come in, sit down in the booth with the engineers, and then maybe leave. But most of the time we didn't even know. We would see the name maybe on the charts, but we never heard the artist sing. We wouldn't even know who the artist had been until we heard the record on the radio.
Songfacts: That must have been interesting when the radio comes on and you could hear the finished product. And it was probably pretty thrilling when it was a hit.
Scott: Well, the thing is, most of the time when we did the rhythm track, we could tell if it was a good track. And then by the time they added all the strings, extra percussion, vocals, background vocals, all that stuff, it was amazing to see how the structure was built. And then the great thing would be if it would become a hit, then you felt like you were part of a whole process that was totally bewildering.
Songfacts: Did you know that "I Will Survive" was going to be a hit?
Scott: We knew it was a good basic track. But I didn't realize it was going to be as big as it became. You can tell when you do a song if it has that special something. And you can tell most of the time if you do a track and it doesn't have that something. So we as musicians, we had a little aptitude, I guess I would say. We had no idea that the tune would become such a big worldwide hit overall.
The funny thing about Freddie was originally when we became his so-called rhythm section, he said that we were going to be participants in his company. That was the goal of it. We originally started out that way.
One of the participants in the rhythm section jumped out too far and got egotistical and messed it up for all of us. But if he hadn't messed it up, we all could be part owners of "I Will Survive." Right now we get residuals and new use, where people use it again. But as far as the big percentages that the writers and the owners have, we don't get that huge amount of money. But if this person had not gotten egotistical and jumped too far without the consent of the rest of the rhythm section, we may be getting part of it. But that's the way it goes. You learn. And I'm just glad that the song did do great.
When you look at an old movie, you notice that they give credits to everyone - the person who just picks up the film and takes it to the set, they get credit. In the music business, up until Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, they did their best to hide who the participants were on the record end. And because of that, musicians sometimes want to take credit for other musicians' things. So you have to work hard to make sure you have ways to prove that you played on things.
That's one of the bad parts of being a musician, that you are part of the disrespect. A friend of mine, Ray Parker, when "Ghostbusters" was going big, he went to New York for some kind of big record convention and all the executives were there. Some executive came up to him and said, "Well, looks like you finally became smart and decided to become a real entity rather than be a stupid musician." Now, this is an executive whose whole existence is based on musicians playing music. That's what he told Ray.
In those days you used to play a record and they'd shake your hand give you a little packet of cocaine. That was your pay and go get lost. It's up to each individual musician to try to keep his own thing, because the industry tried to hide what musicians played on what. You have to make sure you get contracts or some way to prove that you played on what you played on. And thankfully after the Marvin Gaye thing, everybody started putting musician credits on albums, and that's how we were able to prove that we did play on certain things.
But being a musician is a hard way to go, because overall the executives don't respect you. The people love you, particularly in other countries. In Europe and Asia they love you more than people here in America. In America they love you if they see you on stage, but people in America just really relate to the artist as opposed to if you go to Japan, there are people who can quote you every song you played on, because they study it.
In fact, I remember doing the Boz Scaggs tour in '77, a world tour. It was me with Jeff Porcaro on drums. When we landed in whatever country in Europe it was, the reporters were running to me and Jeff more than they were to Boz, because we were heroes over there. So it was kind of unreal to see the respect that they give musicians as opposed to being here in the States.
Songfacts: You got paid pretty well, though, didn't you?
Scott: We did pretty good on that. When you talk about pay, I remember one time I did a session for an Italian artist, and he spent so much money that myself, the guitar player Dennis Budimir, and the drummer, Ed Greene, we all went out and bought brand new cars with the money from that one session, that's how good it was. So it can be very, very profitable once you get to that level. But initially as a record musician, it's a uphill fight, because you're just, as that cat said, a stupid musician.
Songfacts: Were you in the musician's union?
Scott: Yeah. The way it works is you've got scale, which for three hours might be $175. Now, once you get your reputation going and you start playing a lot of hits, then you start getting a thing called double scale or you can get triple scale. So once you get kind of good, then that $175 for three hours turns into $350 for three hours. Of course, they take out tax, worker's comp and all the rest of that crap. But you do that every three hours that you work. So if you do a double session, which is predominantly what they would book, you're looking at $375 x 2 for those two sessions.
Sometimes you would leave and go to a third and fourth session. So back then, the money was rolling. We were making great money to be musicians. You couldn't argue with it.
Songfacts: In a three hour session, how many songs were you expected to get done?
Scott: Well, Freddie Perren, he would do one song per session. And what he would do, which is questionable, he would just play the same song over and over and over. We'd question it when we thought the first time we played it was beautiful. He was looking for something else, and we didn't know if he was trying to deaden the excitement or if there was something else he was looking for. But he would play just one song per session.
Other producers, they tried to cram as many songs as they could into the three hours. So it all depended on who you were working with and what they were looking for.
Songfacts: Who would try to cram a bunch of songs in there?
Scott: Actually, all the big hits that I'm on, they were not done that way. Most of the cramming was done on the movie days. Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, they would try to get two songs for a session if they could. But overall, because there was so much money in the industry then, the cats who had the hits, their budgets were so big they would do one per session. But the new producers who still had to prove something, they would be the ones who'd cram as many songs as they could, and they never got the hit. [Laughing]
But most of the known big cats, they would take all the time. In fact, I used to do some stuff with Steve Cropper from Memphis who used to play with Otis Redding and all of them. They had such big budgets that we would go to the studio and they would book one song for six hours. All depends on the budget and who had the money.
On your movie dates, they're definitely trying to do as much as they can, because they've got 60 people in the room, so they don't want to pay. They would run through it three, four, five tunes, just bam, bam, bam, bam, because they were more into getting something to put behind the movie then worrying about the quality of the song.
Songfacts: Tell me about the first time that you heard the word "disco."
Scott: It kind of creeped up. We'd be playing a song, and somebody would tell the drummer to do that basic four-on-the-floor, and that would be the basic beginning part. They would have a chord chart, but the chord chart wouldn't have any notes on it, so the musicians could start just making up stuff.
But the name "disco," I don't think it really hit me until some of these tunes started making it, like "Love Machine." But it was always dance music. When it started having that bass drum, then you started hearing a lot of bass parts. The bad part was a lot of the musicians weren't that creative, and rather than trying to figure how to make it more melodic, they just relied on these traditional parameters, and that's what made disco start sounding the same song to song to song, which eventually lead to the death of it, because the creativity was gone.
You also had other people who wanted to get into the disco craze, and they would take all kinds of songs that should not have been disco and put the beat to it, and it didn't fit. The disco thing, it killed itself, because like any craze, everyone jumps on the bandwagon. Some people know what they're doing, most don't. And it dies.
Songfacts: You were part of some very creative disco songs. Do you have any memories of those tracks that you recorded?
Scott: Myself and another bass player named Henry Davis, we were on most of the disco stuff. Drums was either James Gadson or Ed Greene. We're the ones who played on "I Will Survive," "Shake Your Groove Thing," "Reunited," "Bad Girls," "Hot Stuff." Even Yvonne Elliman, "If I Can't Have You," which was on that Bee Gees album. In fact, I guess it all really started with Saturday Night Fever with John Travolta. Me and Gadson, we were on probably half of that album.
The story about it is, Gadson and I - Freddie's rhythm section - we got a call one Sunday to come to Freddie's Mom & Pop studio in the valley of LA to record some songs [Perren owned a recording studio called Mom & Pop's Company Store]. Gadson has more memory than me, but he believes that on Saturday Night Fever, one song that they say is the Bee Gees is actually a song that we recorded at Mom & Pop's. But of course we weren't paying attention and we weren't in the loop. But that's when the disco thing hit. And then we played on half of the orchestral part of Saturday Night Fever.
Songfacts: What was the Bee Gees song that he thinks that you guys are backing?
Scott: "How Deep Is Your Love." It's a slow one. He believes that is us, because Freddie was in a panic. The producers of the album, they had called him, and because he had done all the good stuff on other things, they asked him could he do it, and he said, yes. We think it's us. We can't prove it, of course, but we think it was us.
Songfacts: How was disco different in terms of playing?
Scott: Well, in my case as a bass player, if they had a disco song that had a melodic, good melody, had a good chordal theme, I would try to figure out a bass part that would be rhythmic and at the same time, melodic. I've had a lot of bass players write to me on my website and say, "The melodic stuff that you played on a disco record was totally beautiful and unusual," because up to that point everybody was doing the usual sound, the jump thing. So if I had a tune put in front of me that possessed good melodic and chordal characters, I tried to figure out a melodic chordal bass sound that would go with it. If it was some basic song and somebody had just sat down and had not put any thought to it, I tried to do what's best. But sometimes all you can do is the usual sound, and that's what killed disco.
And the bad part was, we played on the big disco hits, so certain producers would call us to play on the bad disco stuff. You didn't want to turn it down, because it paid the bills, but the bad stuff was so bad that it killed itself. As a musician, I would try to look at what was put in front of me and see how it could be done the most musical and interesting way possible, and sometimes the producer would say, OK. But if they really didn't know what they were doing, they would say, "Do this" or "Do that," and turn the beat. Most times if we didn't get to do what we wanted to, it turned out not to be a hit. But we were basically the pawns of the producer and the arranger, and that's our job to make them happy. And once they're happy, that's it.
But most of the time they didn't really know what to do. In fact, one time I did a session with a real big producer. I won't say his name, but the song he had chosen was so messed up, that he told us all to take a break while he sent his secretary to a record store to get records to listen to to see what we might want to record. That's how bad it was.
Songfacts: Was there a good producer who wrote out all of your basslines?
Scott: Hall & Oates: "Sara Smile," "Rich Girl," "She's Gone." The arrangement for that was a person named Chris Bond, who was very, very controlling, but he was a great musician, so pretty much everything that's on those songs, he wrote.
But the ones that I came up with myself were the ones like "I Will Survive," "Shake Your Groove Thing," Reunited," "Bad Girls," "Hot Stuff," "Love Machine," "If I Can't Have You," "All Is Fair In Love," Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams, "Too Much Too Little Too Late," Smokey Robinson, "Being With You." Most of the hits were stuff that we came up with ourselves. We'd have a basic chord chart, because at the time the people who were arranging had good ideas for the strings and horns. But as far as the rhythm section, most people, if they were smart, they left the rhythm section alone. Because to get the drums and bass to really lock and still be functional, you really can't control them too much if you're not a drummer or a bass player yourself.
Songfacts: I see. It sounds like the Hall & Oates stuff was mostly written out for you.
Scott: Yeah. It was very written out. Chris Bond was the real impetus behind "Sara Smile," "Rich Girl," "She's Gone" for Hall & Oates. But he was never given the accolades he deserved. He's the one in my mind that was really responsible for their success. They may have written the lyrics and the chords and all that, but Chris was the one who figured out the production and the projection of it. He was a really good arranger and he wrote out note for note. He knew exactly how long he wanted you to let a note ring, how to hit it, how to release it. He was a good guitar player, but he played all the instruments. So he was one person who really could write out everything and it would be great.
Another great arranger was Gene Page, who would write out everything. He wrote out like a symphonic score. But sometimes it may not be quite right, and that's when the producers will say, "Musicians, go for yourself." That's what happened on Johnny Mathis and Deniece "Too Much Too Little Too Late," and that's how you got your rep. Because if you could do a Gene Page session and play everything he wrote, then he may tell you, "Do what you want." But the fact that you could read it, that qualified you to be on that session. And that qualified you to be on other sessions, because Gene was like the graduation of college for musicians. And he wrote everything.
Songfacts: The Donna Summer song, "Bad Girls," has an interesting story, because it was written so long before it was actually produced. What do you remember about that session?
Scott: I remember we cut it at the studio just north of Sunset on La Brea [Rusk Sound Studios]. We went in, and they just had chord charts. Georgio Moroder was the producer, but he wasn't even there. The cat who did the music for Eddie Murphy's movie - Harold Faltermeyer - he was the one that we saw. Faltermeyer was the guy who actually came up with the concept and everything. He didn't have any parts, he just had the chords. But he told us to go for it. And sadly, the drummer who played on a lot of that stuff was Michael Baird, and somehow they forgot to put his name on the contract. And once they didn't do that, he doesn't get paid for new use. They basically said, "Musicians, do it." And we did it. That's how all that stuff came about. But there were no written parts. We didn't know until later that Harold Faltermeyer could do what he did electronically on computers, because he just let us do our thing, and it turned out pretty good.
Songfacts: Was "Hot Stuff" like that, too?
Scott: Yeah, but on "Hot Stuff," they had the chord charts. They said on that one, "Do the traditional disco thing," bass wise. It tried to have a little more musicality, but it was getting into that standardized disco mode, the usual drum and bass part. The earlier stuff was more musical, and I guess that's why I count it as a little bit better.
Songfacts: The Tavares stuff seems musically distinct from your typical disco. What were those sessions like?
Scott: That was Freddie Perren, who did "I Want You Back" and other Jackson 5 stuff. They used to be called The Corporation back when they were Motown. He knew how to do a production, and he wanted the musicians to come up with a good track. But he was always listening. He always had something in front of you that you could look at, but note wise, he knew by the time the session was over the notes would not be nowhere near what he had written. So he wrote very little, which was good, because the musicians knew that his music always had a little more musical involvement, which meant you could be more musical in your playing. So it was a good mix, Freddie with us. He would say, "Change a little bit here, change a little bit there," but overall he didn't have a hard hand on it. He would let you be a musician. And it worked out pretty good.
So all the stuff we did with him, those became good feeling songs because the musicians didn't feel locked into "I've got to be the electronic robot and do standardized disco moves," which was with some other producers. I mean, one time I did a session for some brand new producers, and I guess my tone was so big they told me I have fat fingers, whatever that means. All kinds of people who somehow get some money decide, "I'm going to become a music producer," and they try to do it but they don't know what they're doing.
But Freddie, he just let the musicians jam. If you look at most of the hit producers, they would leave the rhythm section alone. They'd try to give them a basic chordal direction, but whatever groove developed from that, which really was a jam, that became the song. And if you look back to the old stuff, the '50s and '60s, that also was jams, too. Jams that finally worked out.
Now, if you're in the movie date, they tend to lock you down and write parts. Because you may have a part on bass with the trombones or something, so you really can't be flying all over the place, because you'll collide. But on a record date, they pretty much leave the rhythm sections to create, and then they will go ahead and build the top part of the record with the strings, horns, on top of that.
Songfacts: Was it ever difficult coming up with an original bass line, especially since there must be so many established ones running through your head?
Scott: You've got two different kind of musicians. You've got musicians who let their fingers think for them, and then they just play what is standardized or whatever. But in my case, I would try to hum something in my head, and then whatever I hummed, I would figure out how to play. Most times it worked out pretty good. A few times it didn't. But that's the way I try to do it.
That's how I know a lot of things that I played on, because I hummed it in my head first, and then figured out the notes. When I heard the song later I could say, "I played on that." Whereas I have talked to some other musicians who are more like machines: they see the notes, they play the notes, it comes in their head, it goes right to the fingers, but it doesn't stay in their head. So they don't have any emotional involvement with the part, which is why they just read it, play it, and go.
So you've got two different musicians. Some who really think about what they're playing, and then others who are just mechanical reproducers.
Scott has a #1 hit to his name as an artist. He was part of the group Rhythm Heritage, whose 1976 album Disco-Fied contained the chart-topper Theme From S.W.A.T. The song was a full version of the TV show theme, which was recorded by a completely different set of musicians. S.W.A.T. lasted two seasons on TV (1975-1976) and was made into a movie in 2003.
Songfacts: "Theme from "S.W.A.T." was a #1 hit. That was by Rhythm Heritage, which was a band that you were a part of. Can you explain how it happened?
Scott: Michael Omartian and Steve Barri were producers, and Michael was also an arranger. You had the TV series, and Steve and Michael, they said, "Well, let's do an album of movie or series songs." And all of the musicians on Rhythm Heritage were the players that Michael Omartian and Steve Barri used for all their other sessions. We had done a whole bunch of other stuff together already as a section.
They came over with a bunch of songs that had been on TV series and we went into the studio and recorded them. Now, arrangement wise, Michael Omartian was great. He wrote out a lot of the parts, because he was a great arranger. You could play what he wrote and it fit. But also he knew what else he wanted in other places, so we didn't want to overplay Michael's stuff.
But Rhythm Heritage was nothing but a studio band that did some tricks. After the songs went big, Michael and Steve came to us and said, "We're going to form a band," and we would all become a real band, go on the road, tour and do the whole bit. We were feeling like it would be pretty good, be exciting.
But somehow they decided not to take us on the road. Instead, they got some other musicians and took them on the road, and they played it out. I don't know if they couldn't play as good or what happened, but it didn't last more than a couple of months.
But originally Rhythm Heritage was supposed to be a studio band that ended up becoming a real band and going on the road, but it never happened. But it did some good songs and it's still out there. It was a disappointment when we didn't become a real official band and tour.
Songfacts: But the difference between being an official band member and being a studio musician has to be pretty big financially.
Scott: Well, if you are a band, that means you get part of the gate and all the incidentals that go with it. You get the tour money. Whereas a studio musician, you made good money, but the most you probably make would be $300 to $350 every three hours.
Look at the Rolling Stones: they're still touring, making big money. Studio musicians, because the new way people record with ProTools and electronics, there are no studio entities going on now. The whole thing in LA, if you're not doing a movie date, there is no real recording studio. Studios are closing up because it's a dead entity. As a band, though, you can still perform and earn great money until you conk out.
And we all knew we could play well together. We were professional, we could play anything because we were a studio band, we were the perfect group. We were really looking forward to it, and when it didn't happen, we were disappointed. We thought about just becoming our own band, but then you've got to figure out the songs, cut the hits and all that. Then one of the members - Ray Parker, the guitar player - he got successful on his own with "Ghostbusters." Lee Ritenour, he got successful, Jay Graydon, he produced Al Jarreau, so we all started peeling off from the team, so to speak.
Songfacts: How did the sound change from when you started in the business?
Scott: Well, when I first came out to LA I was working with Lamont Dozier and McKinley Jackson. We were doing more Detroit related items. It was more earthy, it was more heavy, it was more drums and bass, it was more a continuation of the Motown sound, Philadelphia sound, which was real earthy, pulsy - more real, I'd say. And gradually, the disco thing came in, it got a little lighter, a little less complicated, less musical would be one way you'd put it. And then once disco died, it got even more watered down, because then you started having less bass. That's one of the ways today's music sounds different. If you listen to the old music and listen to some of the new music now, they don't have any real bass parts. They've got like an organ bass, like a sustained bass. But as far as a real good bass part, it's not there.
So to change the sound of music so that one generation of music doesn't sound like the next generation, they've modified some of the elements. They've made it more trebly and high end.
Disco died around '80 or '81. Then in Europe, you suddenly had techno dance music, which was once again disco, but without the bass. So it was always these mechanicalized aspects to try to change the sound. It went from the '70s and earlier from real earthy, full, emotional music into now, where it's almost like a Cirque du Soleil performance. It's more about the visual presentation as opposed to the music. In those days you could be in your car and listen to a song and totally relate. Now if you heard those same visual things on the radio, you wouldn't know what was going on.
So the drive is to try to be different, but they're not really trying to improve, they're just trying to be different. And then you look at the new person, I forgot his name, he wears the sunglasses.
Songfacts: Oh, the Korean guy, Psy.
Scott: I mean, what is that? [Laughing] But it's a hit. So everyone's searching for what's going to be the next thing. He's basically just doing disco, and it looks like he's doing some kind of exercise to it. But whatever, he's a hit, he's the cat. So hey, what can you say?
Songfacts: You played on the Smokey Robinson song "Being With You." Tell me about doing that.
Scott: George Tobin, he went to Smokey Robinson and he told the Motown Machine that if they let him cover all the expenses for the session, play with the musicians, be totally economically responsible, then he wanted some huge percentage of the profit. And Motown, thinking, "This cat doesn't know what he's doing," and "How can we lose?" they agreed to it. So he went in the studio and cut these tracks on Smokey and one of them was "Being With You." In the session, he would give us basic guidelines on what he felt different times. We'd throw things at him and he'd say, "Yeah, do that." So he was not a musical person at all, but he had a helper, a co-producer named Mike Piccirillo who was a guitar player. So between the two of them, they would let you know what they wanted.
He came up with the tune and he said, "Do this, Scott." So I did it and chordally it worked out. Then later on when I heard it, I said, They knew what they wanted. I didn't, but they did. And it worked out. But they would give you guidelines and then if you had something better, they would leave you alone and let you go with it.
Smokey wrote the song, but as far as the interpretation of it, it was totally George Tobin and Piccirillo.
But that turned out to be one of Smokey's biggest tunes, and Motown had to fork over part of that big percentage that they just knew was not going to work out.
Stevie Wonder's Sesame Street appearances were brought to you by the letters F, U, N, K and Y. Thanks to YouTube, we can see the value in exposing children to a 6-minute jam of "Superstition," which as Scott explains, was treated like any other gig (excepting a mention of Cookie Monster in the lyrics). If you own any Kidz Bop CDs, please replace them with Talking Book or Innervisions. Kids dig Stevie.
Songfacts: Scott, when you did that Sesame Street gig, tell me about that day. What was going on?
Scott: Well, Stevie had quit Motown, he didn't have any real hits, so we were just doing things here and there. Stevie really didn't get awakened again until we did a Rolling Stones tour in 1972. We were the opening act for the Rolling Stones. But before that we were doing little things. And one of the things we did when we were in New York was Sesame Street. We went on the set and basically we just played what we were doing on the road.
I've gotten a lot of feedback from other bass players saying that the band and everything we were doing was totally fantastic, but we were just playing the gig like always, because there was nothing special going on in Stevie's thing. But from everyone who's seen all those Sesame tracks, they are totally knocked out by them. When I go back, I can see and feel the energy there. It was a unique thing.
On Youtube they get looked at so much, so something good must have been there. You had that musician interaction and spontaneity. With Stevie, when you see him and he's moving his head, he's listening to what everybody's doing, and if he hears something here or there, he's ready to do something. It's total interaction of musicians: Stevie/us, us/him. And that's what made the magic. When that is gone, that's when you have bland and no response.
Some bands are trying to do it, they're going back to using old tape, because old tape has a bigger, fuller sound. They're not doing so many overdubs and fixing mistakes. Because it's the mistakes that made the hits. So I think a certain percentage of people are starting to say, let's backtrack. And who knows, maybe they'll resurrect the performance part.
Now, the bad part of the new business is digital and download and copies and all that. A performer, if they do have success, how much of the success will they make, because there are so many ways to copy it and plagiarize. In the old days, it was real hard for someone to bootleg a 45 without having a pressing plant. Now, somebody in their bedroom, they can shoot out 1,000 copies of the best quality and the artist will not get paid. If the artist doesn't get paid, why should he do it? Because he's still got overhead and people to pay and expenses.
Even though people love music, it still is a business, and it has cause. Once you can't profit from your enterprise, then the only way I can see the business going forward is all music entities stop recording music. You strictly do live performance, like in the old days when the street musicians would be on the street playing and people would be there. Prince, when he did one of his tours, he gave the album in the cost of the ticket for the show. He realized he can't control that.
Songfacts: I went to that. They handed me a CD on the way into the concert.
Scott: Because he knows he can't control the plagiarism and the download.
Looking to expand his audience, Wonder opened for The Rolling Stones on their 1972 North American tour. The Stones were at their most hedonistic around this time, and Wonder didn't share their indugences. "I was glad to split," he said. "I could see that we were on two different levels, I never went and got high with them because I don't get high."Songfacts: When you were talking about the Sesame Street thing, I think one of the reasons it does resonate with people is because there is this spontaneity to it, and it's so raw. And you can see when Stevie's moving his head, you guys are following along. Was that something that would typically happen when you were playing with Stevie, that you never knew what direction it was going to take, but you had a feel for it when it did?
Scott: Well, with Stevie, that's the one thing about him being a genius cat: He would always throw something in. That worked in my favor, because I had studied all the old Motown stuff that he played on. I could sense where he might have been coming from, because everyone is the sum of their parts and what they've done in the past. So I might have heard part of it. Being with him so long, when he would make a left turn, if he could tell I was there with him, he'd do a little smile, because he realized you knew what he was doing. And I'm the loudest one tonal-wise. So if I'm there, then the other instruments could join in subtly.
The real trick with Stevie is the bass player has got to be where he is. If he's not, then it sounds disappointing. But he was always throwing in surprises, because that's Stevie. He's got a million different songs; right now he probably has thousands of songs that he's recorded that are just sitting in a warehouse somewhere waiting to be released if he wants to. He could flood a new track every day on the market if he wanted to.
But he will instantly come up with something spur of the moment. And most of the stuff you hear is where he's suddenly gone off and said, "I'm going to throw this out to you, cats. Jump on board." And that's what made it spontaneous and exciting. We had to suddenly be on it, then we would be excited. You never would get bored or mundane, because you never knew where it was going to end up.
Sometimes, if we all weren't energetic or we had flown all night or rode a bus all night and we were tired, it may not happen. But most of the time there was a sudden difference to make you feel excited. And the public could sense that excitement, which was on that Sesame Street thing. He threw things out, we reacted, and I guess that's why it resonated with the public.
Songfacts: What was it like recording on a set with puppets?
Scott: We really didn't pay that much attention, because we were so busy watching Stevie. In one clip there's a little boy who was going crazy. I don't remember that little boy, because we had to be ready for what direction Stevie might go. You couldn't be distracted. If you look at the clips, we're all keeping an eye on him or listening to what he's doing. And in my case, I had to be listening to his left hand, because that's where his chordal thing would be leading. You wanted to make sure he looked good, and me being the bass player, I had to be accurate. So I really don't remember those puppets and stuff.
Songfacts: Scott, this has been tremendous. One thing that you cleared up which I could never figure out, early on when you were talking about how the trombone leads into the bass, a while ago I was talking to the Muscle Shoals cat, David Hood.
Scott: Oh, yeah. He's a great bass player.
Songfacts: There's that famous session where Aretha Franklin came down to the Shoals and her husband got in a fight with a horn player.
Songfacts: Yeah. Aretha only made one recording in Muscle Shoals [I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)]. She came down to Alabama and her husband got in a beef with a guy in the horn section. So Aretha never came back to the Shoals, but Atlantic Records took the Shoals musicians to New York. They'd pay to fly them in, because they needed them. But in this session, David Hood was on the trombone when another guy in the horn section caused the problem.
Scott: You know, I heard that Ray Brown, the bass player, he played trombone. A lot of bass players have played trombone before they switched over to bass, so maybe it is a common thing. What was good about it, when I was trying to learn how to play bass, there are a lot of great trombone music books, technical music, symphonies and all that kind of stuff, that as a bass player, if you practice out of those trombone books, you'll be playing a whole bunch of different kind of stuff that a typical bass player would not play. So the trombone is an excellent medium to go to the bass. Even Chuck Rainey, I believe he played trombone or trumpet. He played a lot of Aretha's songs, too.
But we talk about musicians - the drummer, Ed Greene, he used to play violin. Which is why sometimes when we would play sessions with Gene Page where Gene had written out every part, Ed Greene, with his foot, he would tap my bass part totally in conjunction with me, because he was a violin player.
One thing about today's musicians, because the schools are cutting back on bands, that real musical training that would keep the development going is lacking. That's a sad thing. But the trombone is an excellent segue to the bass.
April 2, 2013. More from Scott at scottedwardsmusic.com.