Fab Five: Top 5 Underappreciated Bass Players of the 60s!

Welcome to a new category here at Sixties Music Secrets! Today we’re debuting The SMS Fab Five! Naturally, we’ll always get things rolling by sharing our highly biased and personal favorites. However, we fully encourage you to chime in with your own ‘fab five’ in the comments below! We’ll kick things off with the Top 5 Underappreciated Bass Players of the 60s! It’s true that we were a little concerned at being accused of being redundant, since especially with the rise in popularity of drummers, the humble bass player’s contributions all too often goes unrecognized. However, in a truly great band, it is the bass player that delivers the drive, power and quite often perfect melodic counterpoint that takes everything to the next level.

Keep in mind that many of these entries are highly appreciated for other success that they’ve had, either as a vocalist, songwriter or simply from being in a famous group. But they rarely get the attention they specifically deserve for being virtuoso bassists!

Paul McCartney

Yes, of course he was and always will be ‘the cute Beatle’ as well as one half of the greatest songwriting team in music history. As a singer, his vocal abilities were incomparable to the extent that even many Beatles fans would struggle to identify him as anything beyond the lead vocalist. After all, Paul could’ve sung the phone book at us, and we’d have bought it. However, he is rarely recognized for his bass playing! Paul’s bass playing was the soul of the Beatles with a unique and melodic style that often created “a song within the song”. Listen carefully to his bass lines on “Penny Lane” or “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and you’ll hear that “Other song!” With his unique ear for counterpoint and innovation Paul took the role of a bass player from the ‘back line’ to the center stage spotlight!

It’s hard to believe that the future knight initially struggled with the guitar, as the left-handed Paul had a hard time mastering a right-handed playing style. However, after seeing a picture of Slim Whitman playing left-handed, Paul realized ‘he could reverse the guitar, reverse the strings, and pick with the left hand’! No doubt it helped to contribute to his distinctive, thrumming sound. We would have loved to put Macca higher on this list, but he’s already received enough acclamation as it is.

For those of you who still aren’t entirely sure just what a bass guitar is or how you play one, here is Sir Paul himself to show you in all his left-handed glory.


Jack Bruce

While most of us only remember Jack as the bass player from the super group Cream, it’s also that singular fact that slots Jack in at number four! Any musician (especially a bassist!) who can uniquely distinguish themselves while flanked by the likes of Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker is truly a master! He put the power in ‘power trio’. He could carry his weight with the lyrics as well – nearly every review of Jack’s work always included the word “Soaring” when describing his dynamic vocals! You only have to hear “Sunshine of Your Love” to appreciate just how much strength and depth that Jack Bruce brought into each set. He was a pretty talented songwriter, too!

In many ways, Jack Bruce was more than just a bassist. He could put together a whole track by himself, such as ‘As You Said’. It might have been credited to Cream, but this was all Jack Bruce all the way!

John Paul Jones

Another superstar bassist who, like Jack Bruce, had to command his place between the white hot spotlights that shone so intensely on his band mates Jimmy Page and Robert Plant!  Yet Jonesy’s incredible playing frequently stole the show tour after tour! What impresses us most about JPJ is not just his versatility. What sets him above Paul and Jack is his famous resume of being reliably brilliant – even before becoming famous. Before co-founding Led Zeppelin, John was the most sought after session player and arranger in the U.K. In 1964, on the recommendation of his friend Tony Meehan from The Shadows, Jones began studio session work with Decca Records. From then until 1968, he played on hundreds of recording sessions, including with the Rolling Stones (You can hear Jones’ string arrangement on ‘She’s a Rainbow’), Herman’s Hermits, Donovan (Killing it on ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ and ‘Mellow Yellow’), Cat Stevens, Rod Stewart and way too many more to list here.  Indeed, such was the extent of Jones’ studio work, amounting to hundreds of sessions, that even JPJ himself said years later that “I can’t remember three-quarters of the sessions I was on.”

The only reason that John Paul Jones isn’t higher on this list, is because he might just be the most appreciated bass player of all time by those in the know. He still deserves a solid place on this list for his unsung contributions to the success of some of the greatest bands of the Sixties. Here’s JPL providing the beating heart to Donovan’s soul.

Bruce Palmer

We know, your first reaction is Who? Which is precisely why Bruce must be number two! Bruce is the true enigma among our Fab Five, for all that he has a truly legendary claim to fame. Bruce was the original Bass player with the short lived, yet iconic Buffalo Springfield! Originally from Canada, Bruce had a difficult time with being a permanent member of the band as well as a residency in L.A. mainly due to multiple drug busts and jail time. It didn’t help that Bruce loathed the camera and his image, either. You may have actually seen Bruce on TV, but only accidentally. Buffalo Springfield did few television appearances, but when they did Bruce would stand in front of the band with his back turned to the audience and camera ( as pictured above) creating an odd, mysterious silhouette! In some ways, that incognito silhouette embodied generations of bass players who might not be as literally ‘unseen’ as Bruce was, yet just as often go overlooked. If you happen to be one of the rare few that own an original copy of the first Buffalo Springfield album, you’ll see a fine black and white of Bruce and more importantly hear the most beautiful, mellow and melodic Bass playing of the 1960’s! Sadly, because of his constant immigration problems Bruce left the band sometime after the second album and was replaced by Jimmy Messina! Yes the future partner of Kenny Loggins!

Here is a very rare clip of Buffalo Springfield on American Bandstand in the 60s. It is painfully obvious (yet somehow endearing) as to just how shy Bruce was, when the host and the camera briefly turns their attention towards him (just after the 45 second mark).

Ray Manzarek’s Fender Rhodes Keyboard

Beyond Jim Morrison, Ray’s keyboard playing helped create one of the most distinguished and iconic sounds of the sixties. Although he didn’t write the song, it’s Ray’s keyboard part that really lit the rocket under “Light My Fire”, helping make it the signature song of the sixties and catapulting the The Doors into the stratosphere. As great and innovative as he was a keyboardist, Ray doubled as the band’s bass player! Creating original and powerful bass lines with the pedals and bass keys on his electric piano added a powerful and complex dynamic to Jim Morrison’s vocals. Ray wasn’t the only keyboard player to double on bass, Daryl Hooper from The Seeds attempted it and later Felix Cavaliere from The Rascals tried the idea, but unlike them, Ray thought and played like a bass player!

And yet, Ray Manzarek couldn’t have done it without his faithful Fendor Rhodes keyboard. Here’s Ray giving the credit where it’s truly deserved:

We auditioned some bass players, but always ended up sounding like the Stones or the Animals. It just wasn’t right with a fourth guy anyway. Four Doors. That’s it! But one night auditioning at a club in the South Bay we found our bass player, the Fender Rhodes keyboard bass. It was sitting atop a Vox Continental organ and belonged to the house band at the airport lounge where we were auditioning. I took one look and said, “That’s it! This is exactly what I’ve been looking for”‘ We didn’t get the gig, but we got our bass player! Three days later Robby’s father loaned us the $250 we needed and we went out and purchased a brand new piano bass at Wallach’s Music City in Hollywood. When we asked Robby’s dad how we should pay back the loan, he said, “Just make Light My Fire a hit and we’ll call it even.”

I also have a personal reason for making Ray (and his keyboard) number one on my Fab Five. In the summer of 1967, while I was still a kid who was barely old enough to drive, our band the Spyders were booked as the opening act for the Doors at the ‘World Famous Hullabaloo Club’ in Hollywood! As my band mates and I sat nervously in our little dressing room there came a pounding on our door. Our lead singer (as young and anxious as I was)  cautiously opened it and suddenly a complete, wild-eyed stranger barged into the already packed dressing room, reaches in his pocket, pulled out a large handful of joints, laughed and threw them at us, saying “HAVE A GREAT SHOW GUYS!” Yeah, that crazy stranger was Ray Manzarek!  Apparently, Ray knew that the Spyders were five green kids from Eagle Rock and wanted to help us ‘relax’. It might not be an entirely scientific rationale, but that mood lightening moment is just one reason why Ray takes pride of place on my list.

What about your fab five? Do you agree or disagree? Or a favorite bass player of your own that was overlooked by us? Let us know so that they can receive the credit and attention they deserve! 

~ SMS

12 Comments

  1. The session guys from down south were really good too. Duck Dunn on all of those classic Stax recordings and David Hood at Muscle Shoals. So much soul and grit.

    • Hey Mike and Hey Curtis! Both of your contributions to this weeks piece really got me thinking, and I was reminded of a Bass player that blew me away at the tender age of 16! In the summer of ‘66. My band, The Spydres did a series of club dates in the greater L.A. area! We were the opener for The Buffalo Springfield and THE MUSIC MACHINE! The Machine had a huge hit called “Talk Talk” But their live show was simply like nothing else going on! Sean Bonniwell was the lead singer, primary songwriter and spiritual drive of the band, but the soul of The Music Machine was their bass player Keith Olsen! Yes! That same Keith Olsen who would go on to become the most respected, successful and sought after record producer / engineer’sof the 70’s, 80’s 90’s and beyond! But Keith is a virtuoso Bass and Stand up player! In The Music Machine, he stood stoic, chewing gum dressed in black, wearing one black leather glove and rocked The Hullabaloo Stage In 66 – 67! Either of you guy’s ever see Keith work? Curtis, did you ever hang or play The Hullabaloo Club on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood, in the mid/late 60’s?
      For your comments and consideration Gents?
      Rick

      • Hi Rick. Unfortunately I wasn’t catching many live shows during the summer of ’66. After all, I was only 9 years old 🙂 However I was well into my love of music and would eventually take up the bass. Also, I live in Canada and have never been to LA. I know Jamerson’s name has been mentioned, let’s not forget his protege Bob Babbitt.

      • Show Man, I am well aware of Keith Olsen…I loved the music machine, I have their Vinyl…”Talk Talk” was a great record and he was a stud, for sure. That bass part was one that was mastered by myself and used many times. Never played the Hullaballo But did play Gazaarris on the strip, with my High school band, “Dark Carnival”. As a 16 year old or 17 year old, I was thrilled. It was like we made the big time. We even opened for The Box Tops..good trivia question might be what was their big hit..So many great tunes and records from the 60’s. This string of comments could go on for days…I hope it does…

    • Hey Mike,
      Great call with Jack! We think he is one of the primary reasons for San Francisco’s credibility and reputation as a rich resource for great musicians! And the so called “San Francisco Sound!
      Thanx Mike, don’t be a stranger!
      Rick

    • Jack Casady..Brilliant, I can’t believe I forgot him..I remember going to a Jefferson Airplane Concert, back in ’67 or ’68. He slayed it. Also the opening band was a little know group, at the time, Hot Tuna, (Jorma and Jack’s alter ego). Some idiot from the audience jumped up on the stage and rushed Jack..Jorma ran over and kicked the crap out of him. Little 60’s memories. I was impressed that a “hippie peace loving band’ mate” had a limit to what he would tolerate. Jack Casady, great tone, great parts and what a vibe. How could I have forgotten him.

  2. Well well well..All choices are brilliant bass players. Carol Kaye and Larry Graham are awesome. Entwhistle inspred much of my bass playing, as did all of the above bassists. I submit for your perusal..Chris Hillman of the Byrds, who went on to play with Steve Stills and Manassss and The Dessert Rose Band, one of my Favorite country bands, although he left the bass behind, bummer.. LA Session cat Joe Osborne. I Stole many of his licks. CTA (Chicago’s) Peter Cetera, who also has left the bass behind. All those horn lines in Chicago played off his chop, and oddly enough, Larry (The Mole) Taylor of canned heat. He had a great bass solo on Boggie with Canned heat. I have used oarts of that over and over again. AMD Mark Andes of Spirit, in the 60’s. Went on to play Firefall, Heart and Jo Jo Gunne. Actually saw him play once with Mickey Rooney’s wife at the Palomino Club. Strange but true. I have lifted bass licks from all the bass players menitond from McCartney, Bruce, Palmer ( very inspiring) Jones to Manzerak. You are correct Rick, bass is the least noticed of all the parts of a band, but, to me are the grounding. Excellent suggestion to ponder. It took a while. I know I forgot somebody, but I will make additions as they comed to me.

    • Hey Curtis,
      I was hoping you’d “Chime” in on this topic! I believe it’s appropriate here to say “It takes one to know one! “ I gotta tell you, it was a challange to keep this list to five! Then you show up with several more who can’t be denied…Mark Andes from “Spirit” Great Call! And your mention of Peter Cetera who most folks only know as the lead singer “Pop Star” from Chicago, That was a perfect call! He’ll his solo introduction to Chicago’s version of “I’m A Man” grabbed my attention and made me a Cetera fan day one!
      Lastly it was particularly great that you were influenced by Bruce Palmer, a name virtually no one knows!
      All coming from one of my favorite Bass Players you always bring a great level of credibility to SMS!
      Thanx Curtis,
      Rick

      • Rick, most welcome, my friend. Ya know, Larry Graham was one of the first players to start that slappin’ poppin’ style. I never thought it would catch on, but before ya knew it, almost every bass player on was slappin’ and poppin’. Brothers Johnson, really took it to a whole new level, and Dennis Belfield from Rufus.Then disco totally over used it. But the non slapper and poppers are my favs. Four stringers. Melodic bass parts. Mcartney, Sklar, Gordy. 60’s style. The best.

  3. Putting Ray Manzarek and his indespensible left hand at #1 was a brilliant touch!

    After that, I almost expected you to include a baritone vocalist in the mix like The Temptations’s human sub-woofer Otis Williams or The Walrus Of Love himself, Mr. Barry White.

    While all lists are subjective, but few would argue including The Who’s John Entwhislte, Motown’s James Jamerson or The Wrecking Crew’s legendary Carole Kaye as worthy additions to your killer kollection. Larry Graham (Sly Stone’s resident double threat – a bass slinger AND baritone vocalist) would surely approve….

    • Hey Dr. Robert, always entertaining when ever you weigh in! Among your many “Pithy” comments, your reference to Carole Kaye grabbed us! There’s probably another Fab Five out there that would include Carole, Karen Carpenter, and Nancy Wilson! If you get my drift?
      Thank You Doctor!
      R.S.

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