Thirteen years after he closed the doors of Chess Records, Ralph Bass still camps out in an office on South Michigan Avenue. A gaunt, sprightly figure, 80 years old as of May 1, Bass helps his wife run the Sammy Dyer School of the Theatre. And for ten years he's been working on a book, the first draft of which is at a publisher. He's calling it "I Didn't Give a Damn if Whites Bought It."
The book's the story of Bass's years in the music business, his trips to Harlem, his experiences as an A&R (artists and repertoire) man at Black & White, Savoy, King, and Chess records. Bass, who was recently inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, discovered James Brown, T-Bone Walker, and Little Esther Phillips; he produced Charlie Parker, Etta James, Hank Ballard, and the Platters. He's a walking, cackling encyclopedia of the music that bears his initials: R & B.
Ralph Bass: I know what you're thinking.
Adam Langer: What?
RB: You're thinking what everybody else thinks about when they talk to me.
AL: What's that?
RB: How the hell did I get into black music?
AL: All right, how did you?
RB: I was a rebel. I traced my ancestry and I found that my father's father's name was DuBasso and he lived in Como in northern Italy and he fought the feudal system that existed there and he had to flee for his life to the southern part of Italy and changed his name to Basso. He met my grandmother and they moved to the States. My dad married my mom who was a German Jew, and do you know what it meant for a Catholic to marry a Jew back then? And my dad changed his name from Basso to Bass. A monsignor in the family and a rabbi in the family.
AL: You didn't grow up in Chicago, did you?
RB: No. New York. I grew up in the Bronx. I had to fight my way through school. I learned how to play games. When I saw a group of Christian kids coming at me I'd say, "Hey, wait a minute. My father's Italiano." If there was a group of Jewish kids I'd say, "Hey, my mother's Jewish." I was playing games back then. I was sent to a Baptist boarding school. One Sunday I went to church and the preacher got up and offered a prayer for Hoover's election against Al Smith, the first Catholic to run for president. So, I didn't go to church for three Sundays. After the third Sunday the dean called me over and said, "Hey, I understand you haven't been going to church lately." I said, "That's right. Anytime a preacher starts preaching about politics, I refuse to go."
I said, "I believe in separation of the church and state." I was punished. They picked out excerpts from the Bible for all of us who hadn't gone to church and we had to deliver them at the chapel in front of the student body, the faculty, and the dean. I checked them all out and found the one I wanted. I was the last one to deliver my speech and the other cats had been thee-in' and thou-in'. My turn came and it had to do with a father whose two sons were going out in the world and the father was telling them what to expect from the world. I got up and started pacing the stage, walking back and forth, and I got in front of the pulpit and I turned around and I pointed at the dean and the faculty and I yelled, Hear ye, children to the understanding of a father! And the dean tried to quiet me down and the students were cracking up at me. I didn't go to church anymore, but they didn't punish me anymore either.
AL: And that's about the time you started working as a musician?
RB: Well, I wouldn't say a musician. I gave my first concert when I was six years old during World War I. I gave it at a school PTA meeting when they were raising money for liberty bonds. My mother put me in a sailor suit and I played.
In my spare time and vacation time [in the 30s] I used to play in society bands in New York City. We used to play in hotels and we weren't allowed to mingle. I played violin and one time I said to this other violin player, Dusty, I said, "Dusty, let's go to Harlem." In those days, Harlem was like 100 miles away. I said, "Let's go to a club or let's go to a ballroom," because blacks weren't allowed in clubs. I said, "Let's go to a ballroom where there are black bands playing for blacks and listen to real black music." So, we went to the Savoy Ballroom.
AL: Who did you see there?
RB: Chick Webb was playing. And I stared at the audience and the people dancing. I said, "Look, Dusty. Look what that music is doing to the people. They're making love on the floor. That music is making them make love." From that time on I started collecting Duke Ellington records.
AL: And then you got into the music business.
RB: People couldn't get bands because most of the musicians were in the armed services, so I said, "Hey, why don't we play recorded music?" So I went out and bought a PA system and started playing records. I said, "Damn, I can make better records than that." So, I started writing letters. I got a copy of Billboard and I wrote to all the record companies. One was Black & White records in Cleveland, Ohio, and they were moving to LA and I made arrangements to visit. I went to the black union and I said, "Can you give me a list of all the good black musicians in town?" And they did and there was a guy named Sammy Franklin, and he was very popular and he did a version of "The Honeydripper" and I heard it in the hall.
So, the guy from Black & White came to town and he said, "What would you record if I gave you the job?" I said, "The Honeydripper." It had been put out by a company that was just starting and he'd been in the record industry and he said, "Wow. You know what you're doing. You've got a gig."
I'd never been in a studio in my life. So, I started playing games. I went to this studio across the street from Technicolor and there was a set of buildings and a courtyard. When my time came to record I said to the engineer, "Look, I'm going to tell you the truth. I've never been in a studio in my life. I want you to do one thing. The guy from the record company is going to come in and watch me. Before he comes in make sure he's announced, so when he comes in if I act kind of crazy don't mind me." I said to the musicians, "I ain't gonna bother you. There'll be a time when I act crazy, but don't mind me."
I was taking a look at what the engineer was doing. I didn't know what the hell he was doing. A phone call came. Mr. Reiner is here with Mr. Cook, the sales manager. I said, "OK. Give me five minutes." I tousled my hair, rolled up my sleeves, had my shirt open, went into the studio. I said, "OK, let him come in." And when they came in, I started yelling the goddamn this, the goddamn that and started carrying on. I said, "All right, I'm going to listen and hear what you've got." In those days, you recorded on acetate. After about 30 minutes of this carrying on, I heard Paul Reiner saying, "It's OK. He knows what he's doing. Leave him alone."
AL: How many artists did you record and produce in your career?
RB: Over 200. I discovered 200 who made it. Everything from jazz to gospel to comedy. I recorded Bird, Dizzy Gillespie, everybody. Then, I went to blues. I recorded the first rap hit in the 40s--"Open the Door, Richard."
AL: How did that come about?
RB: I was recording with Jack McVea's band, and in those days you had to give them 12 sides a year. This was the war years and most of the best musicians were in the armed services. There was one decent studio in LA, on Santa Monica Boulevard. It took a year to get in, it was so busy. I had to do eight sides in three hours. We did seven sides and we had six minutes left and I said to Jack, "Let's do something different." I said to the engineer, "Valentino, how much time we got?" He said, "Six minutes."
We didn't rehearse or nothing. It was basically a rap song based on an act that the black comedian Dusty Fletcher did. Dusty did a thing about how he's knocking on the door 'cause his friend Richard is making love to his woman. "Richard? Why don't you open that door?" So, in those days, records were no more than three minutes long. Deejays wouldn't play them if they were longer and jukebox outlets wouldn't buy them. I gave it to one guy and he said, "I ain't gonna play that. No one's gonna pay a nickel to listen to somebody talk. I didn't think about it until six months later when Al Jarvis got a hold of it, and Al Jarvis, at the time, was the biggest deejay in LA. And he programmed it and he played it and the switchboard lights up. It got so big that Bing Crosby put it on his show. You gotta have faith even though nobody else agrees with you. Like the way I found James Brown. They wanted to fire me for finding James Brown.
AL: You found him when you were driving around looking for talent.
RB: Right. I was at King Records at the time. I was down in Atlanta and I heard a dub of James's group, the Fabulous Flames, and I was so impressed, I said, "Where is that group?" I was told there was a man named Clint Brantley who was their manager. Back then in the deep south in the smaller areas there was always one black cat who we used to say owned everything across the tracks. He'd have the nightclubs and the prostitutes and the booze and the gambling. He had everything, but he had to work with the white power structure. I used to play games down there. So I found his number and I called it up and Brantley's wife answered the phone. I told her who I was and what I was there for. She said, "Give me your number, he'll call you right back." He called me back and said, "I'll tell you what. You got a car?" I said yep. He said, "I tell you what, about eight o'clock drive your car down to the railroad station. Across the street from the railroad station is a barbershop. Park your car in front of the barbershop and when the lights go up and the venetian blinds go up and down, walk in."
AL: What was he so suspicious about?
RB: It's just that he didn't want anyone in the white power structure to know he was dealing with a strange white cat. So that's what happened at eight o'clock. I had driven down to Macon with a deejay, and before I went in I told him, "In case I don't come out in a half an hour come on in and look for me." So there he was and he gave me some kind of story. I had $200 in my pocket. I said, "I'll tell you what. I'll give you $200 but I want the group now. I'll get the contracts." He said, "Deal." In those days $200 was a lot of bread. So, that's how we did the deal.
AL: Did you know James Brown at the time?
RB: I didn't know James from a hole in the ground. I didn't know who the lead singer was. We signed the contracts and then Clint said, "Why don't you come and watch them perform?" I said, OK. About ten o'clock we went to this club and James was there on his stomach, microphone in his hand, and he was crawling from table to table and every time there was a pretty girl sitting down he'd start singing, pleeeze, pleeeze. I made arrangements for them to come to Cincinnati, paid their expenses, and recorded them. And when it was all over I went upstairs, presented my expense account including the $200 I gave Clint, and they paid me the money and I took off.
AL: So, your record company, I assume, was pleased with your discovery.
RB: Not at first. No. They almost fired me. I was in Saint Louis, and two of the fellas who worked at King Records [in New York] were going to Arkansas, and they knew where to find me--at one of the black hotels in Saint Louis. They came up to my room and I said, "What're you doin' down here?" They said, "We got a message for you. Syd Nathan wanted us to find you to tell you you're fired." Syd Nathan was president of the company at the time. I said, Why? They said, "You better call him." And so I did and I said, "You're looking for me?" He said, "Yeah. What kinda shit you on?" I said, "What the hell you talkin' about, man? You know I don't take no shit." Shit meant drugs back then. He said, "How could anybody in their right mind record the worst piece of shit I heard in my entire life? Sounds like he's stuttering. All he says is one word." "Oh, you mean, 'Please, Please, Please.'" I said, "I tell you what, Syd, put it out in Atlanta, Georgia. If it don't sell in Atlanta, Georgia, you don't have to fire me--I'll quit and put it out all over the country and show you what a piece of shit it is."
AL: And the rest was history.
RB: You could say that.
AL: You hadn't had much studio experience before you went into production.
RB: That's right. In fact, I didn't even know what the hell I was gonna do until the group came in. I had groups like the Dominoes featuring Clyde McPhatter and Jackie Wilson. I had the Platters with Tony Williams, the Royals, and the Fabulous Flames with James Brown. So, when I was with King Records during 1951 to '58 it was very difficult to find a writer who could write good songs. So I would listen to what they had and then I would make changes. Many times I wouldn't put my name on the song even though I changed it around. For example, I remember Hank Ballard came into the studio and Hank always used to write sexy songs and in those days, deejays wouldn't play it. And he came in with a song called, "Sock it to Me, Mattie." And I said, "Come on Hank, that's too damn nasty. No one's gonna play it." So I'm pacing the floor trying to figure out how the hell to change the goddamn title 'cause I liked the song. And the wife of the engineer came into the studio and she was ready to give birth any minute. In those days, we used to have a pet saying. You'd go to a nightclub and if somebody was playing their horn real great, you'd say, "Work with it." Or if somebody was dancing real great--"Work with it!" Or if we'd go to town and we'd see a pretty girl on the street, you'd say, "Work time." I said, "I got it. 'Work With Me, Annie.'" And it was a hit.
AL: You've written a couple of songs that are considered standards.
RB: Right. "Dedicated to the One I Love" and "Kansas City."
AL: I thought that was Leiber and Stoller's song.
RB: They wrote it. It was my idea. Leiber and Stoller were young kids and I was in Kansas City and I'd spent half of my life living out of the trunk of my car going from place to place, town to town, especially in the Bible Belt. So I was on the road looking for talent. That's where I found most of my talent. On the road. They didn't come to me. And I was in Kansas City for the first time and there was a big black nightclub that was great, right off 12th and Vine. And I got permission from the owner to audition singers. So after the show, after we close down, I'd have some musicians come to my hotel room. I always stayed in black hotels because if I didn't I'd have problems having friends of mine, musicians and deejays, coming up to my room. And then we'd party a little bit and find out if there was anybody with talent. I stayed there for almost a week. One morning, about four o'clock, somebody knocks on my door and I woke up. I said, "Who's there?" and it was a young lady. I opened the door and it was one of the dancers from the show. I said, "What are you doing waking me up at four o'clock in the morning? What do you want to do--make love?" She said, "No, I need a favor." I said, "What kind of favor you need at four o'clock in the morning?" She said, "I needs five dollars." "What you need five dollars for?"
"Well, my boyfriend, he ain't working and he lives with his ma and I got to have him tonight. I need the five dollars for the hotel room." Well, I said, that is soulful. Any time a strange lady wakes a stranger up about five dollars so she can meet with her old man, that's soulful. I got dressed and said, "You show me where he lives." I'll never forget it. It was snowing. He was living upstairs on the second floor and I made a couple of snowballs and hit his window and woke him up and said, "Come on down, your woman's here," and I drove them to the hotel.
So when I got back to Los Angeles, I said, "Lester, you got two young cats who can write. Bring them over. I got an idea for a great song." [Lester Sill was an LA record producer.] Now the original song we recorded with Wilbert Harrison was, "Goin' to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come. They got some crazy lovin' there and I'm gonna get me some." They changed it to "women" later because the white jocks wouldn't play it.
AL: Were you always inspired to write by the situations you encountered?
RB: Oh sure. You always have to be inspired by something. I did anyway. No two men are alike, but I had to be inspired. I'd have to have a gut feeling. I'd put myself in the shoes of the public, not musicians. For example, I brought Etta James to Chess Records. I'd known her since she was 14 years old out in California. There's one thing I believe about recording. All this 4-track, 8-track, 16-track, 32-track--it's jive. Not for great singers. You don't put headphones on a great singer and expect them to be soulful and to give their best. They got to be in the studio, listening to the live music. It's a different kind of a sound and they get inspired by it and they give you more, give more of themselves given the live sound of the band rather than the earphones.
And back then, stereo was just coming in. I didn't do stereo and the reason was I knew that most blacks didn't have stereo sets and some of them had old-fashioned roll-up phonographs. They didn't have much outlet in the Bible Belt for entertainment, especially in the smaller areas. But they all had record players. That was their source of entertainment and they would play those records. If you had a hit, it would take a year to go from LA to New York. So knowing that, I would record both mono and stereo and then we'd compare the mono to the stereo and we can never get the same kind of excitement from stereo that we could from mono.
We had a band there live with Etta and she sang "All I Could Do Was Cry," and after we recorded it one of the musicians came to me and said, "Let's do it over." I said, "What for?" He said, "We made some mistakes." They hadn't had a chance to even rehearse and look at the charts. And the studio at Chess Records had a very exciting, live sound. And I said, "Let me ask you a question. Do you buy these kinds of records?" "Nope." "Do the cats in the band buy these kinds of records?" "Nope." I said, "I ain't making these records for you. I'm making them for the public. They don't know a sharp from a flat, most of them. Did you see what happened with Etta after she got through singing? She was crying. That's how much soul she put into it. If I did it again, I don't think I'd get the same thing out of her. No way." The rest is history. It was a smash hit. It's that feeling you have to have, that gut feeling.
AL: Did you ever have a gut feeling about somebody and it didn't work out?
RB: Oh, of course not everybody I recorded hit, but I had a damn good average. There weren't too many.
AL: Did you run into trouble with the white establishment because you were working in black music?
RB: I'll tell you the one great accomplishment of my career is I brought young white kids and black kids together through music. We didn't have to depend upon laws or preaching. They used to sell a ticket called a "white spectator's ticket" because whites weren't allowed in black clubs and blacks weren't allowed in white clubs. One night, a bunch of white kids were going past the black clubs on the outskirts of town and there were all these cars parked and all these people. They said, "Let's go and see what's happening." The promoter would be at the door with a gun in his belt for protection. Kids came in and he'd say, "You kids can't come in here. You know it's against the law." They said, "Look out. We're coming in." So he called up the police. He said, "Do you know so-and-so's son is here?" They called their parents. "Do you know your son's in that nigger joint?" They said, "Well, if my son wants to be in a nigger joint, well let him be."
So what they did was they roped off a section where whites could come in. They paid less money for their tickets than blacks did because they couldn't dance. Pretty soon they started jumping over the rope to dance. Next thing you know they put a rope in the middle of the floor--whites on one side, blacks on the other. And then the twist came, and the rope came down. We first did "The Twist" with Hank Ballard. So, I played a very important part in my lifetime bringing white kids and black kids together.
AL: Were you ever threatened because of the role you played?
RB: No, I was never threatened. I played games. I played games so I wouldn't get my ass whipped as a kid and I played games when I was on the road. Like when I was with Johnny Otis. Little Esther was only 14 years old. She was the Michael Jackson of her day and Johnny Otis, the leader of her band, was a white guy, Greek. We played New Orleans and one time we played Biloxi, Mississippi, one night. She was so big. We got there a little late and we were gonna meet Johnny up there. The place was jammed and the promoter came up to me and said, "Are you the manager?" I said, yeah. He said, "The police are here and you're all goin' to jail tonight." Why? They said, "Is Johnny Otis white or is he black?" I said, who wants to know? He said, the police. I said, "Tell the police to come and see me." They said, "What're you doin' with these niggers. I said, "These are my niggers; I own them. Anything wrong with that? I'm here to protect my money." They said, "Well, what's that white boy doin' with them?" I said, "What white boy? I don't see no white boy." They said, "Johnny Otis? Is he black or white?" I said, "He's black." They said, "You don't know this because you're from the north, but down here we got all kinds of ways of telling niggers." And he's explaining it to me and while he's talking I'm stalling for time, trying to figure out how I'm gonna get out of this. I said, "Look, his granddaddy was white." That was a common thing down there. "His grandma was a nigger. He could pass, sure, but suppose someone like that in your hometown here in Biloxi ate in your best restaurants, stayed in your best hotels, and married your women." The cop said, "Come to think of it, there must be dozens of niggers just like him passing." Those are the games I had to play in those days and I never got in trouble. I never was put in jail. I never got mugged. I never carried jewelry and I never carried a watch.
AL: Do you listen to any contemporary artists?
RB: I try not to get involved. Not that much anymore. I have to relax so I stay away. I had the first rap record, but I don't know how much longer rap is going to last. When I used to audition talent and when they'd audition for me they'd start performing and dancing and I'd say, "Wait a minute! I can't put that on a record. I am selling a round disk with a hole in it. They can't see you do that. Just be cool and stay still." Today in rap there's no melody and the few singers they have, unless you saw their video, you'd never record them. They don't have that talent. I've got to hear melodies, words, and today half of it is visual. But if kids like it, great.
AL: Do you regret that you came in contact with so many people who did so well and you weren't as successful financially?
RB: It was a hell of a life. Exciting. Rewarding. Every week I see something in the media that brings my life back to me and tells me about something I was responsible for. At the Blues Fest, they opened with a tribute to T-Bone Walker. Well, I discovered T-Bone and recorded his first hit, "Stormy Monday," on Black & White Records. Financially, I should've made millions with all the hits and all the songs, the artists, the hit records. But that's another story.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.