By Gregg Sutton
I just received an email telling me that Mike, who lives in Lunden Hollow, Pa. had received the bass I’d sold and sent him. It arrived in its indestructible pink and black anvil road case. I still remember the day I got that case…
It was 1980 and I’d been playing around the LA clubs when I auditioned for Tommy Tutone, a band from the Bay area, that had a small hit with a song called “Cheap Date.” I got the gig and the band became a national hit behind “867-5309.” We were in People Magazine and everything! The group’s roadies were impressed by my ultra Rock ’n Roll attitude as well as my badass 1964 Shoreline Gold Fender Precision Bass. Since we were going out on the road for a while (the 80s as it turned out) they insisted that I get an anvil case to protect my treasured beauty. Ultimately the band’s manager actually bought the case for me, asking only if I minded if it were painted two tones on the outside.
I thought about it a minute or so, picturing my bass in the cold of some old equipment truck in frigid Minnesota, its strings contracting and expanding, her fretboard freezing and her curvaceous body suffering inside the flimsy case we had at the time.
“How about pink and black?” I asked with a smile.
So pink and black it was, and barring any colorful ideas out of the new owner, it still is. That case protected my bass, and by extension me, for over thirty more years.
You see that’s the thing about musical instruments—they are not inanimate objects. They are imbued with your sweat and body oils, your style, your blood, and all your efforts to translate joy and sorrow into realized dreams. Being made of wood, they are organic from the start, just waiting to be brought to life by the caresses of a loving partner. And we were partners, that bass and I. She went everywhere I went and was with everyone I was with; lovers, bosses, idols and friends, enemies, roadies, toadies, co-conspirators and Gods put to the test. She knew how I felt the way only a lover and/or best friend can.
I first got my bass following the 1979 Arista Records Convention on Coronado Island, Mission Bay, San Diego, California. It was held at the super swank Coronado Beach Hotel, where Some Like it Hot was filmed. That seemed somehow appropriate, given the reverie going on there by the time we arrived. I was going to play and sing with my band, the Pets on the final night of the convention. You see, Clive Davis, legendary mogul and President of Arista Records was going to make me a star and this show was the first (mis)step along that path.
These were very loose times in the music business (as well as the rest of the world) and by the time I got to the hotel, all the Arista people were in full party mode, popping in and out of each other’s rooms, or inviting strangers into closets to split Quaaludes, snort cocaine, and go for the embraces sure to ensue. By the time we got on stage that evening I had been invited into so many rooms and closets, I felt like a very popular and beloved janitor!! Being the curious type and not wanting to unintentionally insult anybody I accepted most of my invitations. I’m not sure who all everyone was but I do know my manager and lawyer were there, as well as my wife and partner Fredo, and the late, great Rick Danko whose voice was as sweet as the man he was. Somehow despite the closeness of our situation (the closet), Rick never once looked me in the eyes—ever. We were all so high—havin’ a ball. Richard, my attorney kept coming on to Fredo who was, as always, looking pretty damn good! He thought she was my sister since that was who we were telling everyone she was. We didn’t want people getting the wrong idea. When I was onstage Fredo occasionally would find us a third for after the show and we were still selling the band to the people at Arista, which is just a fact of life when you’re trying to make it. And we were trying to make it, which meant making it first with our own record company. And that record company, like any large group of people was filled with folks of every sexual proclivity. Thus we thought it best to maintain as much mystery as possible. Monogamy has its place but we didn’t want it screwing up my career before it started.
That night we did an OK show meaning we could have been better. After the show when I came back to the dayroom we had been sharing with Danko and his crew, I realized that both of my basses were gone. Obviously Rick’s crew had just lifted my axes and disappeared with them into the night—the lowlifes. I was crushed. Usually after a show I am animated and full of opinions about this and that. Having exorcised all demons and seduced by my own brand of charm, I’m usually receptive and ebullient. However, that night in the back seat of my manager, Ron Stone’s car I was beyond incommunicado…I was catatonic. I was angry at myself for not doing my best show and getting too out there to even take care of my instruments and now I was coming down from all of it in a big way. Plus I was in a homicidal rage over the theft. In the front seat Ron and Fredo didn’t have much to say to each other as usual. All in all it was a long ride back to LA.
The following day Ronny called to say that he and Eliot (Roberts, his boss) would buy me a bass if I didn’t spend too much and promised to stop being such a brat! I went out and found her (my bass) that very day, paid $500 and even though I never named her she was as much my partner as Lucille was to B.B.
Needless to say, the Pets didn’t break out and Clive didn’t make me a star. I had a shot with my solo record for Columbia (“Soft as a Sidewalk”) but it didn’t sell at all, despite having heavyweight management, etc. etc. I found that all I could control was my own creative effort
And through everything I was always playing. The Shoreline Gold bass and I did jingles and rented ourselves out as a sideman—all of which led to Tutone.
After they shot themselves in the foot enough times to insure permanent one-hit-wonder status, we (the bass and I) played a lot of clubs around LA and the South bay with some truly great musicians: Zigaboo Modeliste, legendary drummer with the Meters and one of the most sampled men in history; Leo Nocentelli, ex-Meters guitarist, Jimmy Roberts (sax Rod Stewart) and Eddie Baytos (piano, accordion) in his group the Nervis Bros. I was also backing up R&B greats when they would come through town as well as playing in a band called the Coup with keyboard great Barry Goldberg. Then we got the call to come out to Bob Dylan’s and audition.
Although I hadn’t smoked in over five years I picked up a pack of Marlboro red box on the way and, always wanting to put my best foot forward I stopped for my Shoreline Gold bass. We went out there, met our idol and eventually got the gig, going to Europe for the very first time in style.
Loads of pictures were taken of that gold bass and me onstage with Dylan and Mick Taylor (our lead guitarist and my favorite guitar player) Ian MacLagan, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Bono, Chrissie Hynde and others…My favorite of all those photos is in a frame on my desk. It shows Bob and me discussing what key “Maggie’s Farm” was in, while we were playing it. Bob had started us off in the key of G (A is the correct answer here) and after attempting his harp solo he realized we were not in the right key. He came over to ask me what key we were in and as the photo was snapped I am talking into the idol’s ear explaining the situation and he is asking me, “Hey Gregg, can we go to the real key now?”
We flew around on private planes and never had to submit to any kind of search, so we had a pretty high old time, all of us. I’d occasionally bring my bass up to my room especially if I had a nice one like my room in Paris. There I had a bidet in my bathroom (which was bigger than some entire rooms I had known) so I moved the bass in to keep me from getting lost. Also in London, where oil rich sheiks dressed in native garb bought overpriced jewelry for their concubines in the hotel lobby stores, I brought her in to get used to being around less fortunate beings, like London’s upper class.
Once the Dylan gig was over we kept on working. That last day that I had my bass to play before sending her off to the middle–of–nowhere, PA. I was amazed at the flood of faces and places that came to me every time I laid my hands on her. First I’d thump out a simple groove and I’d see Maria McKee to my right and my good friend Bruce Brody (a co-conspirator) to my left as all of us in Lone Justice played “Shelter” in Rome where they threw fruit, in New York City, charming the snake pit, and on SNL at Christmas time. Then I’d play something faster like “Burning Love” and tears came to my eyes, tears for all the years we’ve lost and for all that we won, too. Next I’d play a funky line and in my mind’s eye I’d be down in New Orleans playing at Jazz Fest with Rita Coolidge, getting’ down deeper than I’d ever seen her.
I took a little break, came back, played a double stop and suddenly I’d be hearing Jimmy Iovine’s voice coming through my headphones saying “Cut out the jazz, Sutton,” in his high pitched Brooklynese.
I can still see the great Herb Alpert standing in the shadows of A&M studio C (where carol King recorded Tapestry) practicing his trumpet! Humility is one of the great lessons music teaches us. Herb Alperthas money, power, fame, thousands of people at his beck and call yet there he was trying to keep his chops up. I must have done close to a hundred sessions in that very studio thanks mainly to Herb’s largesse and his policy that the studios never be empty. That meant that if a room was not booked he wanted the time given to someone who could use it, rather than the room go unused. That is the kind of attitude and policy that foster creativity and sadly, really do not exist in today’s music business in the mean spirited 21st century. Those sessions that I got to do helped me to advance my songwriting career by furnishing me the means to make great sounding recordings (i.e. great engineers and fine equipment to capture the music). On every one of those sessions was my Shoreline Gold bass holding down the bottom.
I have had more than my share of good fortune and good gigs, including some really bizarre ones and altogether unlikely happenings. I grew up with the comic genius Andy Kaufman and we were close friends our entire lives until his sad and untimely demise. I was his musical director and played the gold bass behind him, schedules permitting, for years. We played Carnegie Hall, the Merv Griffin Show and numerous nightclubs and college concerts across the USA and it being Andy, the shows were always memorable. But one fateful weekend in San Francisco at the Warfield theatre really stands out.
The Marquee read something like “Rodney Dangerfield With very special guest Tony Clifton”(who was Kaufman’s alter ego; a bad, bad nightclub singer with a big old paunch and toupee, who wore a peach tuxedo). I was the bandleader for both acts. During the very first show of the very first night of our run Tony delivered the worst version of “I Left My heart in San Francisco” imaginable. Word got out with lightning speed that he was disrespecting ‘the City’. Tony wanted to do whatever he could to piss off his audience but the vitriolic response his singing that song caused was a surprise to all of us.
Beginning the very next show people began bringing in missiles to throw at Clifton. An apple thrown from the balcony hit him in the head and would have killed him had it not been for the motorcycle helmet he had jokingly put on his head only moments earlier. That apple took a two-inch slice out of the helmet! This insanity grew until Bill Graham had to erect a curtain made of chicken wire to protect Clifton (and me and my bass) from the savage onslaught of those crowds. Clifton/Kaufman loved it, Bill Graham didn’t understand it and the bass and I were at once fearing for our life and limb and loving every second!
Another gig we did in Manila, when Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos ruled the Philippine Islands and the country was under martial law, fell into the realm of psychedelia. We were there playing with Lani Hall, a fine singer who had been part of Brazil ‘66 and was (still is) married to Herb Alpert. She is immensely popular in the Philippines and when we first arrived there at around 3AM you’d have thought the Rolling Stones were in town, from all the press that was present. In fact our drummer, ‘Handsome’ Art Rodriguez even queried “Hey who’s here?”
The entire atmosphere was ‘different’ there in Manila but the bizarre part actually came on the last night of our engagement, when Imelda herself arrived at the theatre with her phalanx of 200 bodyguards and then invited us to the Palace for a party after the show. Attendance was mandatory. The party started around one AM with Imelda taking us on a walking tour of the Palace, closets excluded. When we finally got up to leave at five AM after a night of dining and dancing (on her lit-up disco dance floor)with the cream of Philipino society, Imelda treated us to not one but three farewell songs, sung by her in Tagalog, accompanied by an organist who appeared out of nowhere, seated at his instrument at the ready. We stood there trying not to laugh or do anything rude, while she sang and sang and exchanged dirty looks with the hapless keyboard player every time she departed from the key she had started in.
So you might ask, after all of this ‘Why sell the bass if it’s causing you this much angst?’ Well that is a good question especially factoring in that despite having gone through several bouts of drug addiction I never sold an axe for drug money. That’s a promise I made to myself way early in the game. I always keep my promises. The answer is simple: I am now 63 years old, I’m not rich, and the music business I lived my entire life in simply does not exist anymore, but I still write and I do get to play (albeit without my Shoreline Gold beauty) live and in person for real people in clubs with a great band and I need the money to finish the CD I’m making with them.
Btw, the same week Eric Burdon’s single that I co-wrote came out (some months later) I saw an ad for my bass and the guy was asking double what he paid after complaining to me about a tone knob…..May the Year of the Snake bring you all the karma you deserve……