Long time visitors to the website will know that I used to have a complete archive of everything I ever wrote for the late lamented Bassist Magazine. From the middle of 97 to about 2000, I was one of their main contributors, writing interviews, gear reviews and two columns – the gadget guru and bluffer’s guide to jazz.
Via archive.org I recently found stored versions of all the articles again, so I’ll start reproducing some of them here over the next few weeks. – we’ll start with the first interview I ever did for them, with ‘Ready’ Freddie Washington, who was in London playing at Wembley Stadium with Michael Jackson… this one is of particular note because my dictaphone didn’t work, and I had to write the whole interview from memory – I took it to Freddie at the gig to get him to check that I hadn’t misquoted him. He changed two things – both of which were direct quotes from his bio!
anyway, here it is – enjoy!
If you’ve ever experienced the ‘Ready Freddie groove’, whether live or on one of the hundreds of albums he’s played on, then you’ll understand only too well why Freddie Washington has been a first call session player for nearly 20 years. With a CV that includes many of the biggest names in soul, funk, pop, blues, country and just about any other style that you’d care to mention, Freddie’s credits read like a greatest hits of the ’80s and ’90s. From Lionel Richie to B.B. King, Anita Baker to Whitney Houston, and George Benson to Kenny Rogers, Freddie’s laid down his trademark lines with all of them, spreading the Gospel of Groove whenever he picks up his bass.
Freddie’s latest gig is holding down the bass chair on Michael Jackson’s HIStory tour, and while in the UK, Freddie took time out to present clinics in London and Birmingham, sponsored by SWR and The Bass Centre, and it was before the London show that Bassist caught up with Freddie for a chat.
So, what exactly is the ‘Ready Freddie groove’, then?
“Well, I feel the pulse of the song in half time, which gives it a much more laid back feel. In the clinics I always point out that I have technique, but I’m not a technical player. I focus in on the groove and then work with that rather than against it. Every style of music has to have its groove, whether it’s soul, funk, fusion, pop or whatever, and that’s what I focus on – the groove.”
Freddie’s path to becoming a full fledged ambassador of the groove began when he was in the eighth grade at school, in his home town of Oakland, California.
“I started playing when I was 14, and took bass lessons at school. I played upright in the school big band and orchestra and that’s where I got my classical training and learned to read. When I was in the tenth grade, I attended the U.C. Berkley summer music program for some further training and was practising like mad, day and night.”
How did you make the jump from the summer school to taking up bass professionally?
“About the time that I was finishing school, Herbie Hancock was looking for a bassist to replace Paul Jackson, Herbie had auditioned a lot of players but wasn’t happy with any of them. So he asked James Levi, his drummer, if he could recommend anyone and James said ‘There’s this kid in Oakland I think you should hear.’ I’d known James for years, so I got the call and Herbie liked what he heard and hired me.”
The Hancock gig lasted for several years and Freddie cut three albums with the band before moving to LA to further his session career. That was in the early ’80s just as synth bass was moving onto the scene. Wasn’t it a little worrying for a ‘real’ bass player?
“Not really. I don’t think I ever felt threatened by synth bass, I just learned to work with it. A lot of the sessions had electric doubling the synth line and as my thing has always been the groove and I had worked hard on my timing when I was studying as a kid, I have never had a problem doubling synth lines and taking that programmed feel and making it groove. That’s also where playing 5-string is so necessary. Synth bass goes down to a low Bb so you need the low B to be able to compete. I first got a 5 string right after doing Anita Baker’s ‘Rapture’ and I’ve used it on most of the work I’ve done since.
“With Michael Jackson, It’s a real mix. Sometimes I’m doubling synth lines, sometimes playing synth bass and I even pull out my old Precision for the Motown set. When you’re doubling keyboard bass, you don’t have to just follow the synth line, you can work with it and develop it – that’s one of the things I like to demonstrate at the clinics.”
The Michael Jackson tour must be every session player’s dream. How did that come about?
“I was actually first up for the gig in the late ’80s, so it’s been a possibility for about 10 years. When the call came in this time, I was working with Kenny Loggins, so I think they had a little difficulty getting hold of me. When I eventually got to the phone I was told that Michael’s guitarist, David Williams, who’s been a friend for years, had recommended me, so I went up and met the musical director, and they offered me the gig and gave me the tapes to learn the set. I went home and talked it over with my family, because it’s a long time to be away, but my wife Annette is really supportive so I decided to do it.
“This is my first time out on the road since ’84, and that was only three months with Patrice Rushen, but I’m really enjoying it. I’ve always loved playing live and I see that as being where I get a lot of my new ideas from. If you spend all your time in the studio, you could get sort of stale, but when I’m out playing live, I get inspired and then take a load of fresh ideas into the studio with me.”
What about the clinics?
“This clinic tour is sponsored by SWR and we tried it out in New Zealand and Australia, where it went so well we decided to put them on in Europe as well. So far they’ve been really well received. This is my first clinic tour, but with the profile of Michael’s tour it seemed the right time to do it. I’ve been using SWR gear for over 10 years, both live and in the studio, so I approached them about sponsoring the clinics and they were all for it. I guess when I’m up there at the clinics with a room full of bassists, playing and talking about what I do, that’s really where it’s at for me. I always joke that I haven’t worked in 20 years, I’ve been having fun. I don’t think bass playing will ever be work for me. It gets me excited. I love to do it because it brings me joy. It’s overwhelming. It’s just a great part of my life. And doing the clinics is really the result of 20 years of having fun. I’m really grateful to everyone who comes out to the clinics and I like to stay around and talk afterwards.”
Indeed he does. Freddie was signing autographs and chatting to people for 45 minutes after the clinic at London’s Bass Centre, giving his time and full attention to everyone that came to say hello. The clinic itself was largely a question and answer session, with Freddie fielding questions on every area of his career, from the highly appreciative audience. Freddie also demonstrated a few tunes including Patrice Rushen’s huge hit Forget-Me-Nots, which he co-wrote and is currently being giving a fresh airing as the title track to the Will Smith film, Men In Black. The movie version features Smith’s reworked lyrics but still uses the original rhythm track, which showcases Freddie’s patented groove-tastic slap ‘n’ pop workout.
Freddie also demonstrated Smooth Criminal from the current Jacko show, slapping the sixteenth note line in unison with the synth with such precision that you’d have thought he was tracking himself with a MIDI pickup – if there had been a single effect in sight. If anyone was under any illusion that this man is a one-trick slap monster, that was put to rest with his unaccompanied demonstration of the ‘Ready Freddie Groove’ that had everyone tapping their feet and swaying despite the absence of a drummer.
So which drummers have best tuned into the ‘Ready Freddie groove’?
” That’s a hard one as I’ve played with so many great drummers. I think one of my favourites would have to be Steve Gadd. When we get together it’s like a machine. We play like one big unit, just locked into the groove. I also love to play with Ricky Lawson and Bernard Purdie. And Jeff Porcaro was one of the all-time great groove players.”
In the early years, was it ever intimidating going into the studio with these legendary drummers?
” I don’t think I ever felt intimidated by them. I mean, I knew they were great players but also that we were both there to do a job and I had the confidence to get in and do it. My attitude has always been to be totally into whatever it is that I’m playing at the time. If I’m doing a country session, I want to sound like I was born to play country. And if I’m playing blues, I want you to think that that’s all I know how to play. I just did a blues album with Bozz Scaggs, and blues is such a gut level thing that it’s all about feel. That’s why I love blues so much; it’s a total feel thing.”
After the HIStory tour, what next?
” When I get off this tour in September, I would like to do my own record. I have a studio at home and I’d like to start doing some more writing for the solo album. I’ve been wanting to do this for some time, after having written for other people, like Forget-Me-Nots for Patrice, and Someone For Me which was on Whitney Houston’s first album.”
With Freddie having been on tour for so long, Bassist wondered whether or not the calls for session work dry up . At this point Annette, Freddie’s wife, interjects.
“Even when Freddie’s away, the ‘phone never stops ringing. Mostly they want to know when he’s going to be back so they can book him for then. Freddie gets booked because he can play whatever is asked of him but also because he’s good to have around, and that counts for a lot.”
“That’s right,” Freddie adds. “For any gig you need to have all the skills to do whatever’s asked of you. That’s why it’s important to learn to read and to play by ear, and also to develop your sound so that when you play, it’s you that they hear – that what’s inside of you comes out in what you play.”
Which players influenced your sound when you were starting?
“When I was growing up, there was Motown, with all the James Jamerson lines, though no-one knew who he was back then, and there were all the James Brown bassists, as well as Larry Graham with Sly Stone and Graham Central Station. I used to play along with a lot of their records. Larry was a big influence. When he started doing all the popping it was like, whoah! I recently bought some of the Graham Central Station CD reissues in Japan and hearing them again now after more than twenty years, his playing still sounds amazing! Willie Weeks was another big influence, his playing with Donnie Hathaway was awesome. And Chuck Rainey, he could be so busy but under it all there was this huge groove holding it all together. I knew Paul Jackson, who was in Herbie Hancock’s band before me, when I was growing up. I had his old amp in my loft to practice through, and knowing him meant that there was no sense of being overawed by taking his place in Herbie’s band.
“All the great players have their own voice on the instrument. Here in Britain you have Pino Paladino, who I met while doing Michael McDonald’s ‘Blink of An Eye’ album. He’s a brilliant player and has his own sound, you immediately know it’s Pino on a track. I met Jaco Pastorius around ’79-’80, and he was really cool. He showed me a thing or two, and I really liked his style but I never tried to copy him. His sound was him and as I said, I’ve always had my own sound, from really early on as a player. If you compare my sound now with when I was with Herbie there will be some differences because the technology has changed but the essential sound is still the same because it’s in my hands.”
On stage Freddie is the consummate professional; offstage he’s friendly, approachable and obviously totally loves his job and is a delight to meet. For those who were at the clinic, it was a night to remember, and for those who weren’t, one to regret.
‘ Thanks to Nick and Martin at the Bass Centre for setting up the interview.
The HIStory Show.
The British leg of the Michael Jackson tour was four dates long, with one show in Sheffield and an astounding three nights at Wembley arena. Bassist went to the final Wembley show and witnessed Freddie demonstrating the kind of professionalism and versatility that he had talked about at the clinic. Being the HIStory tour, the set included material from every stage of Michael’s career, from I Want You Back up to Blood On The Dancefloor, including plenty of tunes from ‘Thriller’ and ‘Bad’. Freddie played his Ken Smith 5-string for the lion’s share of the material, but switched to a Precision for the Motown set and played synth bass on Thriller, Billy Jean and Blood On The Dancefloor, Freddie’s bass, along with Jonathan Moffett’s bass drum, shook the whole stadium especially on the bass-heavy Earth Song and slap-happy Smooth Criminal. It’s just a shame that the huge venue meant the band was barely visible at the back of the stage and even Michael was just a manic dot on the horizon. Most of the evening was spent watching the not-so-giant screens, which focused on Michael and the dancers, so clear views of Freddie were few and far between.
Though a tad tasteless at times (Michael refusing to move from in front of a tank? Do me a favour!) the whole show was spectacular, for those of us tall enough to see it. The vertically challenged members of the audience had to make do with seeing the top third of the video screens with brief glimpses of Michael when he swung over the crowd on a crane.by