Friday, 2 December 2011

The history of a famous bass riff - from "Summertime" to "Black Night"

I gave up the dream of being a rock star when I was 18. I realised that while not being to sing or play an instrument or compose a tune didn’t necessarily represent insurmountable barriers to a successful career in music, being abnormally tall, rather overweight and not exactly a babe magnet might suggest a future as a roadie or minder.

And I was pretty sure I didn’t possess the capacity for violence, prolonged physical effort or the ability to tolerate daily contact with stupid people that such employment would no doubt have entailed.

As I approached my fifties, it began to dawn on me that, had I possessed genuine musical talent, my temperament would have made me suitable for was a career as a session musician (preferably responsible for the rest of the band – I’ve always enjoyed leading teams). As with consultancy, you may find yourself working for an untalented blister – but you’re ultimately your own man and you know you can walk away if it becomes unbearable.

Of course, it must be galling to be paid a relative pittance to create records which go on to make a fortune, in some cases, for talentless screw-ups whose only advantage is that they look cute – but it must be satisfying to know that their careers will be relatively short, and that their lives will probably end in alcohol and drug-befuddled desperation. It must also be a positive pleasure to help genuinely talented artists achieve deserved success.

I was watching a recording of a rather second-rate BBC 4 programme about the history of the George Gershwin classic, “Summertime”, last night (apparently the most-covered song in history – 25,000 versions and counting), when they played a bit of Ricky Nelson’s uptempo 1962 version. Pretty good. But what astonished me (I’m easily astonished) was the opening bass riff (see above).

Yes, indeed, it’s the self-same riff – note for note – which forms the bedrock of Deep Purple’s early Heavy Metal hit, “Black Night”. Contrast and compare:

Deep Purple’s bass player, Roger Glover has happily admitted pinching the riff for a drunken, late-night recording session after the band’s record company pointed out that there wasn’t a suitable single on their recently-recorded debut album, Deep Purple in Rock.

A late-night trawl of the web revealed that Glover wasn’t the only borrower. Between it’s first appearance on “Summertime” and 1967’s “Black Night”, the riff had turned up on two other records, both released in 1966. Impossible to tell which came  first, but The Blues Magoos’ “(We Ain’t Got) Nothin’ Yet” was the bigger hit in America:

The other one was “She’s Mine” by the wonderfully obscure British band, Liverpool Five (not one of whom came from Liverpool):

The man responsible for this fabulous riff was not (obviously) Ricky Nelson himself. Nor was it his guitarist, the legendary James Burton. The honour belongs to session bassist, Joe Osborn, a member of Nelson’s band at the time (he had previously played with Bob Luman and Dale Hawkins).  “Summertime” was by no means the high-point of Osborn’s career. After Nelson’s band split up in 1964, he went on to play bass on 53 Country chart-toppers, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water”, and records by the likes of the Mamas and Papas, Neil Diamond, The Association and Johnny Rivers.

2010 Signature Bass 
I’m guessing he did all right financially, and that he experienced a great deal of pride whenever he heard any of the records to which he contributed on the radio. After all, they must have looked good on his resumée, he got paid for doing the work in the first place, and often went on to work in the back-up bands of the stars whose sessions he attended.

But how did Joe Osborn feel – still feels, one presumes, as he enjoys semi-retirement in Louisiana – when he heard his riff on hit records by other artists, knowing that he wasn’t going to make a cent out of them?

I expect he shrugged and smiled, and added the fact to his glittering CV.

No, I can a lot of worse things to be than an in-demand session musician - including being a rock star. 

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