An Interview with Chuck Rainey

[Editorial note: this interview was originally published at in December, 2006]

It’s not every day that you get to speak with a true bass legend. Since he entered the studio scene in the late 60s, Chuck Rainey has played on thousands of albums by famous artists including Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones, Roberta Flack, and Steely Dan. His influence on bass playing has been vast. Many of today’s top players cite him as an important influence. For the last several years, he has been focusing on his career as a solo artist. I (JM) conducted this telephone interview with Chuck (CR) in December, 2006.

JM:  First off, Mr. Rainey, I’d like to thank you for taking time out of your schedule to talk with us at  Your contributions to the field of bass playing are vast, and I’m honored to speak with you.  I know the readers will appreciate the opportunity to learn at the feet of one of the masters of bass.  Tell me a little bit about how you got started, where it was that you grew up and how you became a bass player.

CR:  Well, that’s a long story; I will try.  It’s a long story with many many sub-stories within it.  But I’m originally from Youngstown, Ohio.  That’s where I grew up.  I was actually born in Cleveland, Ohio.  But at a very early age, around for or five, we did move to Youngstown.  I basically come from a musical family, in that we had a piano in the house and everybody played the piano a little bit.  And I ended up playing the viola for a couple of years in middle school, and then I went to trumpet.  In playing trumpet, I guess it was a choice that my teachers and my parents made–or that my teachers made for my parents–and my generation basically did what the adults told us to.  Not to say that a lot of them don’t today, but you know where I’m going with that.

JM:  I hear you.

CR:  And so I played viola for a couple of years and then I played the trumpet.  And I played the trumpet all through junior high and high school.  Then I got a music scholarship where I played baritone horn.  While I was in the army, I learned to play the guitar.  I was in the army before I went to college.  Actually, I think I was first aware of my enthusiasm for the bass around 1957 or ’58 when I heard “The Sermon” by Jimmy Smith.  It was the first time I really heard that power in a bass line.  The town I’m from had organ bass and upright bass in it.  Once I got home from school and decided not to go back to school, I started playing guitar in a local band.  There where three guitar players and a drummer.  I played single notes.  There was no room to play chords or solos and I wasn’t that good anyway.  I didn’t know enough about the guitar to be in this group.  Since I was playing single notes, someone suggested that I get a bass.  And I did that; my parents got it for me.  I got a Fender bass, and I was the only person in Youngstown, Ohio at that time that had a Fender bass.  [Laughs]. And, of course, the band I was in got a lot of attention because of the instrument.  You know the Fender bass was a relatively new instrument. 

JM:  Yeah, I think in ’51, they started out.

CR:  Yeah, ’51 or ’52.  But nobody was really playing it that much except for the players in New York and LA.  So I would think that, probably, I was made aware of it mainly by hearing Jimmy Smith play the bass on “The Sermon.”  There are a hundred other stories in there, but basically that’s what it is.

Chuck Rainey playing a Fender Precision Bass, back in the day.

JM:  Well my second question was going to be if you play any other instruments besides the bass, but you already mentioned the viola and the piano.

CR:  Well, I play those instruments, but I don’t play them professionally.  I just play the upright and the piano I have here at the house.  I do it on my own private time.  But no one has ever paid or asked me to play those professionally.

JM:  I see, but you play the upright and the piano for your own amusement.

CR:  Yes.

JM:  As a professional session player, you have to cover a lot of styles.  Is there any particular style of music that you feel closest to?

CR:  Actually, no.  I love music very dearly. And, as long as it’s organized.  I guess it’s good if I start talking about that, because actually I don’t have a preference.  I mean, if a lot of genres were put in front of me and I had to choose one, I guess I would choose one.  But if I got thrown into any one of them, all my career I’ve just been happy to be involved as a bass player in any kind of music:  country, country/rock, progressive country.  It doesn’t matter:  bluegrass, pop, jazz, blues, funk.  I’ve had a tendency to stay away from the non-key-centered kind of music.  I guess they call it grunge, or metal.  I’ve sort of stayed away from that.  Not that I have purposely stayed away from it.  It’s just that I have not introduced myself into that environment.  And, if I get called to do it, I would do it, because I’m very interested in how these things work.  But I really don’t have a preference.

JM:  Well most bassists, whether they know it or not, have heard and been influenced by your playing.  I’d say all of them have heard your playing and more than probably realize it have been influenced by your playing.  If I were trying to introduce someone to your style or to some of your best work, where would I point them?

CR:  Well I would think, mainly, in going back to Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones, Gary McFarland, and of course, Steely Dan.  And then I did a record with Lena Horne and Gabor Szabo which was called Watch What Happens!  And between that record and Gary McFarland’s records, especially America The Beautiful, which is a pop overture, I really got a chance (as with Roberta, Aretha, Quincy and Steely Dan in particular) to do everything that I knew, up to that point.  Those are the things that I think of when I go back to.  I’ve been on so many records that I have influenced many people’s playing.  I know that, but I never really looked at it that way, from the other side of the fence.  Every now and then, I’ll listen to some records and go, “Wow, I really like that.”  I do remember doing that with “America The Beautiful.”  I really did enjoy doing it because I played just about everything that I could.  And also with Steely Dan.  So I’d mention those.

JM:  Growing up in the 70s and 80s myself, one of your tracks that I know best is the theme from Sanford and Son that you did with Quincy Jones, “The Streetbeater.”  In fact, whenever I hear that on TV or something and someone else is around I point out that that’s Quincy Jones’ song and that’s Chuck Rainey playing bass on it, and they’re always astounded with that track.  Was recording that as much fun as it sounds like?

CR:  [Laughs] Well, that track was a lot of fun.  As a matter of fact that was in my early days in Los Angeles, and it was the beginning of my tenure with Quincy Jones.  I was in his band, which was the cause of me moving to LA from New York.  And once I got to LA, I began to do a lot of things with him besides tour with the big band.  Quincy is an excellent business man.  And he gets the music done very good and very easy in that he gets his contractor to call people that are known in the environment–a lot of the leaders are not quite aware of the people who are upstarts or new used a whole lot, so they all have a contractor.  And, of course, I came to LA with him.  Doing and Sanford and Son, we knew it was a comedy, it was a sitcom, and the very last note of “Streetbeater” is off key.  And it was a mistake!  Now Quincy doesn’t write for the bass.  He doesn’t write for the rhythm section at all.  He just gives a rhythm–a verbal rhythm, commands or feel–and chord charts.  So you make up the part.  Which I’ve always enjoyed working with Quincy because he very seldom wrote specific bass lines for me.  And, at the very end of this, I complained about it, but he said “it’s perfect.”  But I said that the last note is wrong, you know.  [Laughs] He said, “but this is a sitcom.  It’s comedy.  It’s perfect.  I thought you did it on purpose.  That’s why everybody’s going to think I’m a genius!”

JM:  [Laughs] That’s funny.

CR:  So, you know, I do remember it being a whole lot of fun, because the music was lively.

Chuck Rainey playing his Xotic XPJ-1T signature model.

JM:  Do people who hire you to play bass often throw charts your way and give you quite a bit of freedom, or are you reading notes a lot on tracks?

CR:  Well, most of my popularity comes form those situations where people just give me a chord chart or a number chart and I just make up the part.  But, of course you know, throughout all that are those dates and situations where you have to read the music.  Donny Hathaway, for instance, he insisted that you read what he wrote.  And, over a period of time, I became so very close to Donny that he began to give me liberties, but it was always after what he wrote.  I would say, more than often I’m known for creating a bass part as opposed to reading one.  When you live in New York, you have to do everything.

JM:  I guess it’s just the way different artists work.  Some of them have more of a clear conception of exactly what they want, and some of them would rather use your expertise.

CR:  That, too, is very important–to walk in and see if the client does not know what to do, which a lot of them don’t.  All they want is a bass line. Even for orchestrators, all they want is a bass part.  And sometimes I find it to be a bit arrogant for an orchestrator to write out a bass part, because they have no talent for the bass.  Maybe they have a talent for arranging or orchestrating sounds, but they have no talent for rhythm section instruments like the bass, the drums, and the guitar–in that those instruments are personal.  Unless the arranger is a guitar player or a rhythm section player, then it works out well for the rhythm section players.  But I’ve been in a lot of situations where the bass part was just mundane and dumb.  And that’s because the person who wrote it was not particularly talented, or what they should have done was just put down a chord chart and maybe indicated what they wanted.  Because that’s saying the orchestrator is God and knows exactly what the bass should do, he knows exactly what every instrument should do, and it’s not that way.  The successful people hire people to play, especially in the rhythm section.  As far as my career goes, I’ve noticed a lot of successful arrangers who just put down a chord chart and every now and then indicate a certain unison lick to be played.  But, other than that, they just find the player who plays the instrument.

JM:  Right.  That makes sense.  Mr. Rainey, you’re more known as a side man, but you’ve also done discs as a leader:  Chuck Rainey Coalition, Hangin’ Out Right, “Sing and Dance.”  Are you working on any current solo projects to put out there?

CR:  Yes I am working on a solo project right now, which should be finished really before the next ten days go by.  I’m crossing my toes and my fingers!  [Laughs]  These things are not that easy, you know.  I have essentially retired as a sideman.  I’ve been that way for the last five years.  However, because I love to play the bass and I love music and I have many good friends in the industry, I have gone out to play.  But basically I have retired from working for the money, if you know what I mean.

JM:  I understand.

CR:  I just don’t do that anymore.  I’m not that young anymore.  However, I have to keep on playing.  I just left LA on a project that I don’t know much about, but it was for a good friend.  So I will play as a sideman if I like the music or if the person is a longstanding friend and I need to play.  But I basically am not on call for hire anymore as a sideman.  I am trying to be a personality/character up front of the bandstand, which I have done off and on for the last ten years.  So that’s about where my career is going now–going a little bit further to the mic, upfront, where I do sing.  So I’m striving to find that part of my career.  And, hopefully, it’ll be as successful as the sideman part.

JM:  Has that been a tough leap, going from the sideman to the ringleader?  Has that been a difficult transition?

Chuck Rainey playing his Ken Smith signature bass

CR:  Well, you know, these kinds of things are always a bit difficult, but no more than anything else.  You just have to learn how to do all the things that you’ve got to do if you’re in that part of music.  And I think the major thing that everybody learns in any profession is what not to do, or what doesn’t work.  And I’ve been around on many, many tours.  And I’ve been around a long time to observe the basics of what goes on if you’re a bandleader.  I’ve done a few miniature Chuck Rainey tours with the music I had out, and they’ve been very successful.  I just haven’t kept it going because I didn’t have what I really needed.  I needed personnel.  And I also needed to be in situations–not that I’m all that, don’t get me wrong, but when you book a club for $1,500 and it should have been $3,500 and you pack that house, somebody needs to follow it up.  Being an artist is one thing.  But being an agent, a manager, and I can’t wear all those hats.  I don’t think anybody can.  So it’s just a matter of getting to a place where you get an agent or a management concern that has as much interest in me as I have in myself.  And also to find people that have as much experience [managing] as I have as a player.  I find myself in situations where everybody was doing what they were doing for the first time except for the band.  So I am striving to be the upfront artist.  With this record, I think maybe it will happen a lot more conclusively than before.

JM:  Great!  Well, I’m looking forward to hearing it.

CR:  [Laughs] I am, too!

JM:  [Laughs] How long have you been playing the five and the six string bass?  Why was it that you made that jump?  And does the four-string still have a real big role in your playing?

CR:  Well, the four-string is basically where I came from.  And I played it many, many years.  I’m really a four-string player.  However, as time goes by. . . .  You know competition out here is really fierce among bass players is fierce.  There are a lot of great players out here.  And before I played the electric bass, I played a little guitar.  And I’ve always been impressed with people like Joe Pass and Kenny Burrell who can play whole songs, completely, like a piano player can.  Now you can do those things too on the bass.  The bass is not known to do that; the bass is more of a support instrument.  But with the six-string instrument, I went to it first, because the five-string totally confused me at one time.  You know, I play by feel–everybody does–and when you have something extra added, it sort of changes your perspective on what you’re doing and how you do it.  So I started playing the six mainly because I found that I could take better solos because I had more strings vertically, as well as playing left-to-right horizontally.  And also, I’m not a huge guy, but I’m 6’2″, I’ve got a big hand, and I like to wrap my arms around the bass.  A drummer walks up to drums and he sits down to the drums.  You walk up to a piano and you put yourself to the piano.  With the bass violin, you wrap your arms around something big.  So with the six-string bass, I like the feel of it, the feel of something big that I can wrap my arms around.  The Fender bass is a big instrument.  A lot of people don’t realize that if they’ve never played a Fender.  But it’s a big instrument as opposed to a lot of the instruments they’re making nowadays.  They’re making them thinner and smaller.

I’ve been through several instruments over the past ten years, just looking for something that feels good in my hands.  So basically, I saw the six string as a challenge, and that’s what all of the young players are playing.  The five-string bass just has the low B and a lot of players are using that these days.  And even I like to use it.  So, although I’m a four-string player, I primarily play the six on Chuck Rainey gigs.  And I will play the five more than anything else nowadays.  But if it gets down to where I know I’m going to have to read something that’s intricate and if it’s a style like R&B, jazz, soul music, country, I will take my four.  I very seldom take two basses.  So I’m more-or-less in the habit of taking the five, because I can read with it fairly well.  But if I’ve really got to do something where people expect me to be who they thought I was yesterday, then I’ll bring both basses.  And if I do handle the four-string bass, I’m still very comfortable with it.  I’m comfortable with the four and the five but, with the four-string bass, I was born with it, so it still is one of my main instruments.

JM:  What kind of skills do you think are essential for new players–people just coming up playing the bass–especially those who might want to move into session work.

CR:  Well, session work is not at all like it was back in the day that I came through the system.  Technology has made it so that everyone has a home studio, or at least everybody has their own equipment, and they don’t call, except maybe in New York and LA where they do still have session work.  Outside of those areas, there’s just not that much of it around like there was back in the day.  What makes a good session player, just for the sake of this conversation, is a player who knows all styles.  Which simply means a player that’s coming off of the road in a top-40 band, where you have to learn top-40 music.  And, whatever instrument you play, you know what role that instrument plays in the music.  You’re able to play along with heroes and influences.  We only get better the more we play the instrument.  So I would say–number one–forget the idea of doing session work.  Session work pops up at the will of the environment that one is in.  And it only happens lucratively in New York and LA.  A lot of people think that in their local environment they can become a session player, but session players in New York and LA live very, very well.  They make a lot of money.  And those cities are unionized.  Which helps and I’m a good example of the good that can come from being in a union–the residuals and the royalties and things that are paid to me for past work.  However, that kind of thing is not going on anymore as much.

Number one is to have an interest in the instrument they’re playing.  A lot of people just want to play an instrument because it looks good.  Looking good is a part of the ego of being a musician on the instrument that you feel good with.  But I’ve basically played the bass my entire life.  Whoever I was emulating, I would emulate them.  When I had to do Motown work, I’d emulate James Jamerson.  And when I got into the studio, all of those Motown songs had to have an influence on everybody that was writing the newer material.  So you kinda know the difference between all the groups when you listen to music a lot–and I listen to every kind of music.  So they [producers] know they can mention an artist and say, “I want this to be like so-and-so” or “Like a Larry Coryell kind of thing from the record so-and-so” and then you know where to go.  You’ve got to be aware of how everybody plays.  Every now and then, when I lived in LA, I would do a Stanley Clarke gig.  Basically meaning that Stanley was somewhere else or whatever and they hired me to cover for a day or whatever.  And I know how Stanley plays–not that I could ever play like that–but I can get close.  I know the style.  I know it’s not my gig.  But what makes a good player is, James, basically that the player wants to play the instrument; he’s in love with the instrument and with music.  That’s the way I look at it. 

I’m in love with music; I’m in love with my bass.  So I play it all the time.  I emulate the Victor Wootens and the Chris McBrides and the Marcus Millers, and James Jamerson.  And, of course, like anything else, when you try to emulate the heroes, you never quite do it the way they do it, but you get closer to who you are by playing the instrument.  James Jamerson has meant a lot.  He’s meant so much to me and my career, my style.  Because I think the style is incredible.  And I’m not blowing my own whistle here, but the style is incredible because it crosses all genre lines.  You can play the style in any genre of music and it works.  Most people that want a bass player, sometimes they want the person to play, but mostly they just want the music to have a good bass part.  And a lot of younger players go in and they want to put their signature on it and they want to do special things.  And, a lot of times, they don’t want you to come up with something really fantastic, they want you to play something that makes the music work, which could be something very mundane sometimes–something very simple.  Experience is what gets everybody closer to the door that they’re looking to go through.  The more you play, the more different kinds of music you play, they more you’re ready, when that opportunity comes you can step into something that’s new.

JM:  That’s great advice all the way around.  Besides your role as a player, you’ve also made a contribution as a bass educator.  You have a series of method books out there:  The Complete Electric Bass Player and several videos and a lot of articles in magazines.  What is it that inspired you to teach?  And what is it about your approach to teaching that sets it apart from other things out there?

CR:  Well, I wouldn’t say that it’s so different from other things, although I could [laughs].  The thing is that it’s coming from me.  It’s my point of view.  I wanted to write books because most of the books that I read, when I was looking at bass books, didn’t really work for me.  I had to take a lot of my own ingenuity and take what I read in those books and reshape it for my use.  Any book is good for a player who wants to learn how to read something or understand something.  Everybody basically does the same thing in their books.  Some of us go further, depending upon our ability.  A lot of us have other people write the book and then put our name on it.  You know; it’s easy.  A lot of people do that.  I wanted to be a little bit more one-on-one with anybody that reads what I’ve done.  My books basically started out when I was in LA.  I did the bass curriculum for the first BIT [Bass Institute of Technology, part of Musicians Institute] school of bass.

JM:  Oh!  Yeah, I’m familiar with that school.

CR:  They had wanted, I think, Ray Brown or maybe another player.  I’m not sure who.  But the first two players they asked turned it down.  And, at that time, I just happened to be at the height of my career in the LA area and took on the job.  So I had to write a curriculum.  What made it very heavy for me is it’s hard to write a curriculum and teach it at the same time.  And I did have to teach most of it as I was writing it.  By the time the summer in the year went by, I had come up with a tome.  And I went there from Dick Grove’s Music Workshop.  That’s where I was before I went to MI.  I did classes over there.  And also, I never thought about this until now.  During that time I was going to Jackson, Mississippi with Benny Powell.  His wife, Petsey Powell’s mother was the head of the depart of music at Jackson State University.  So we went there, every other year, about nine of us, to do a three-day music clinic. 

And so, in doing all these things–the classes, the Dick Grove thing, and MI with BIT–I eventually came up with a tome of information.  And, of course, in teaching and using that information, it was all in a big, thick, book.  And then I began to really finish it when I was offered a graduate degree at Jackson State, the music department, for the work.  What she wanted me to do was spend–I think–eighteen months to finish my undergraduate degree.  And then, while I was doing my undergraduate degree, I could be doing a graduate program.  Now, if you live in Los Angeles, which is Hollywood, and you have an opportunity to go to Jackson, Mississippi, for eighteen months.

JM:  [Laughs]

CR:  [Laughs] You got to make a choice.  Now I’m at the top of my career, so I chose not to go though the system, and stayed where I was as a player.  So, as time went by, I began to look at this tome, which was much to big to publish as one book.  I broke it down into five books and then was able to get a publisher.  And I like to teach.  And I look at how other people teach.  Some people know what they’re doing; some people don’t know what they’re doing.  Plus, they have this old adage that if you play, you can’t teach.  And, if you teach, that means you can’t play.  Which is not true.  Some players can teach very well.  And some teachers can play very well.  But, as a whole, this thing does have a little weight to it in that most teacher don’t play well and that people don’t hire them.  And most players don’t want to teach unless they’re doing it to subsidize the income they have coming in [from playing]. 

So I just like having conversations with people who want to do what I do.  Because, really, nobody teaches anybody anything.  What we basically do is show them the possibilities and what’s going on and they teach themselves how to accommodate what you’re showing them or how to put it into their life.  And there are a lot of things you can say to young people, or young musicians not matter what age they are.  There are a lot of things you can say without really touching the instrument.  And a lot of good players are not good people people, if you know what I’m saying.  There are a lot that are and there are a lot that are not.  Just like my teachers.  I had some teachers that I did not care for at all.  I did not think that they were good teachers.  And now that I’m the age that I am, I know they weren’t.  But, still, I did learn something.  I did get something going on. 

So I do like education.  People have put me into clinics and seminars because of my work, my recording work, and that experience helped me to go forward.  As a matter of fact I’m on a big bandwagon now along with my work as an artist to be as much involved in education as I possibly can, because it does help.  You know there’s not much bass in the music today.

JM:  Yeah.

CR:  Especially the popular music.  And it’s because we have no individuals.  We don’t have very many Stanley Clarkes, Marcus Millers, James Jamersons in the music today.  So I’m trying to produce those kinds of people when I go into education:  individuals.

JM:  All right.  Let me talk just for a moment about gear, I guess.  What are you playing these days?

CR:  You mean as far as my basses?

JM:  Yeah, your six string is a Spector, isn’t it?

CR:  My six string is a Spector, yeah.  And my five string is a Skjold – Pro Series/Signature Five.  They’re here in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, a very good bass.  And then I play a Tradition Signature Four [Model MTB4 CR].  That bass is made in Korea, but it’s a Chuck Rainey Signature.  The four and the five are signature basses and the six is that Spector.  I love the way that Spector feels in my hands when I want to play a big bass. 

As far as amps and cabs, I’m a Genz Benz player.  I play all of the heads: I basically like that 350.  And I’ve always been a fan of 2×10 cabinets.  I’ve had Bag End cabinets most of the last twenty years of my career.  They’re very heavy but have very good bass response.  Here recently I’ve played the Genz Benz 2×10 cabinets because they’re light and they put across the same kind of sound, while being very light to carry. I’ve been with Jeff [Genzler, founder of Genz Benz] close to twenty-five years.  Of course, I’ve gone though different companies from time to time.  But here I’m back where I started in a way.  It’s very good equipment and I’m very satisfied with the sounds that they make.

JM:  Do you do any home recording at all, just on your own?

CR:  No.  I do projects that are sent to me, but I go into a studio to do it.

JM:  Well, Mr. Rainey, that’s all the questions I have. It’s a real pleasure talking with you.  Is there anything else that you want to get across?

CR:  Well, James, other than it’s been a pleasure to talk to you, and to say to anyone who wants to know anything about me, is, first of all, I love music and always have, from when I was a child.  I love it to day.  I’m just excited today about the bass as I was when I was twenty-two.  I started playing the bass when I was twenty-one.  I was very excited then, but I’m still just as excited.  Except now I’ve gone through these years and now I want to do it my way [laughs].  But I love what I’m doing.  I don’t have any inhibitions about it.  I have no second thoughts about it.  I love music and I love playing the bass.

JM:  That’s great to hear.

CR:  And it’s always great to have an opportunity to say what I just said in a forum where somebody is listening.

JM:  Well, they will be really excited to hear it on the site.  In fact, several of the players recommended that I try to get an interview with you and I thought “Chuck Rainey?  We can’t get Chuck Rainey!”  [Laughs].

CR:  [Laughs] Of course you can!

JM:  I was really excited to get a chance to talk with you, because I know they’re going to enjoy it and I know we’re going to enjoy your new solo disc when it gets out the door.

CR:  Thanks.

More Interviews

If you enjoyed this interview with Chuck Rainey, you’ll likely also enjoy my interview with bassist Billy Sheehan.