Veteran bassist Jerry Scheff is best known for holding down the bottom-end in Elvis Presley’s fabled TCB Band.
But he has also been a fixture in the national recording scene for decades, and is heard on many recordings. He has always emphasized doing things his way, and the attitude has paid off in a long and admirable career.
Scheff is still active, and in a recent dialogue, the bassist recalled some of the more memorable occasions (musical and otherwise) he has experienced.
He grew up in Vallejo, California. His musical career began on tuba and bass violin, and we asked why he gravitated toward bass.
“I was an attention junkie,” Scheff said. “I looked at the tuba at eight years old, and bigger was better, bigger was louder – in my mind – and I just thought that big, shiny, brass thing was the coolest thing I ever saw.”
The budding musician played in his school orchestra and the Vallejo Junior Symphony, as well as the local municpal band. A move to Sacramento in his early teens didn’t affect his passion for jazz and R&B, and Scheff began making regular trips to the Bay Area in the late 1950s to perform at jazz clubs.
“I started going to San Francisco when I was 15,” he recounted. “I was influenced by the older musicians I met; they were the people that the Beat literary people were copying, for the most part. As far as I knew, the musicians I hung out with didn’t have much contact with the literary people, who wore berets, and recited poetry to bongo drummers. The musicians I knew, like vibes player Dave Pike and pianist Flip Nunez, were more into East Coast Jazz and hard bop.
“I played for a little at an after-hours club called Jimbo’s Bop City in San Francisco,” Scheff continued. “A very imposing black woman dressed like a longshoreman came in once about 3 a.m. She stomped a tempo, and dust flew up. She sang her ass off. Flip introduced her as Big Mama Thornton; I always remembered her because she was so big, and the first great blues singer I heard.”
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton had a “race record” hit version of “Hound Dog” (by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller) that was recorded in 1953. Three years later, Presley would “appropriate” the song, and over a decade after Thornton sat in with Scheff’s band at Jimbo’s Bop City, the bassist would begin playing “Hound Dog” on a regular basis with Presley.
Performing as an underage musician generated unique memories for Scheff, and the older musicians with whom he gigged in such an environment sought to protect him from the seedier aspects of the lifestyle.
“Drugs; none of the older guys would give me any. Sex; I was teased a lot by older women, but I was a skinny little pimple-faced white kid. I think they thought of me as a mascot who could play jazz bass. Violence; a woman got her throat cut in an alley behind a jazz club called Streets of Paris. We heard her scream, and I ran toward the back door with the rest of the crowd, but I couldn’t see anything. The band started playing before the police got there.”
Scheff also played bass and studied music during his stint in the U.S. Navy, and he has some fond recollections.
“The Navy School of Music was in Washington D.C. at that time,” the veteran bassist said. “When I arrived in ’58, it was men only. If you were in the Navy, you auditioned and were automatically sent there for nine months. If you were in one of the other services, you had to be exceptional to get sent there. The school was divided between concert band and jazz; mainly big-band jazz. We had an African-American big-band instructor, and he knew Count Basie; he used to bring in new arrangements. There was a faculty jazz band with all the best players from the faculty. My bass violin instructor was a mostly-classical player, and he was supposed to play in the faculty Jazz band, but he had been drafted into the Army from one of the major American symphonies, and had nothing to prove, so he recommended me for the job.
“I had a Theory teacher named Ron Ferry,” Scheff said. “He was a great piano player who had grown up with Bill Evans, the jazz pianist. He took me to a Washington jazz club to see and hear Miles Davis with Evans, Paul Chambers, Cannonball Adderly, John Coltrane… Blew me away! I played in small clubs around Washington until I was sent to Coronado, California, where I did the same thing… and I laid on the beach a lot.”
Following his discharge from the Navy, Scheff began attending San Diego State College and playing at local clubs. It was around this time that he began learning to play electric fretted bass, although he’d already been made aware of the instrument some years earlier.
“I first saw an electric bass when I was still in high school; I think it was in 1958,” he recalled. “I went to see Lionel Hampton’s band, and Monk Montgomery, Wes’ brother, was playing bass. I wasn’t moved to get one. I bought my first Fender P-Bass in about 1961. Ironically, I bought it to play at a club gig in San Diego, where I was playing touch bass with my left hand, and drums with my right hand and both feet. I had the snare and high-hat close together, so I could play the high-hat with the tip of the stick and backbeats or Bossa Nova rhythms with the blunt end, on the snare head or rim. I was using a Fender Bassman amp. We were a trio, and sang Four Freshmen songs and harmonies; it was actually pretty good. Alas, we got a great-paying gig in Palm Springs, and my P-Bass and drums were lost in a fire.”
Scheff still prefers Fender or Fender-style electric basses, and noted: “The oldest bass I have now is my black ’62 P-Bass that I used a lot with Elvis. I bought it from a security guard at the Hilton in Las Vegas for $150. I had a ’59 P-Bass I gave to (TCB Band drummer) Ronnie Tutt. I bought it in 1966 from some hippies who were squatting in an empty mansion in the Hollywood hills. When I went to pick it up, they were stoned, and were sitting around a fire built on a marble floor in the dining room. The ceiling was black, and I remember hearing them cough as I slipped five twenties to one of them and he handed me the bass.”
For all of his decades of experience with Fender basses, Scheff still has specific allegiances, however.
“I liked all of the electric basses just fine. I preferred – and still prefer – string-bass for jazz.”
As for amps, Scheff told us, “I bought my Ampeg B-15, which I still use, in 1964,” Scheff said. “When I went to work for Elvis, I had a big Sunn. I used it through ’73, and gave it to a kid on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia (where Scheff was residing at the time). About five years ago, my son, Jason, who plays bass and sings with Chicago, received an e-mail from a guy in the Midwest who had bought the amp. He said he would sell it back to us for what he had paid for it, a few hundred dollars. That blew us away, so Jason suggested we send him a vintage P-Bass he had. We both signed it, and Jason has the amp in his studio.”
“In ’75, I went back to work for Presley, and used twin Music Man amps from that era,” Scheff continued. “Now, I have my little B-15, and that’s it. I request certain amps when I play live, so I don’t need to bother with owning them, even if they are given to me. Usually, I ask for a vintage Ampeg tube amp with eight 10″ speakers.”
Following the aforementioned Palm Springs fire in which his P-Bass and drums were destroyed, Scheff moved to Los Angeles, and began gigging in that area, and attempted to get into the studio scene. His big break came when he played bass on the Association’s 1966 debut album, And Then… Along Comes the Association, which included the hits “Along Comes Mary” and “Cherish.” While Scheff pronounced the Association to be “hippies… the oddest people I had ever seen,” he also admits that the hit version of “Along Comes Mary” has a “…big, fat, bass mistake in the middle of it. But they liked the take.”
Among the legendary musicians Scheff worked with in that era were guitarists Barney Kessel, Tommy Tedesco, and James Burton, drummers Hal Blaine, Jim Gordon, and Earl Palmer, keyboard player Larry Knechtel, and sax player Jim Horn.
“I didn’t meet Carol Kaye until about three years ago. Jason and I went to her house and had lunch; wonderful woman,” Scheff said when asked about other legendary L.A. session bassists. “I met Joe Osborn a few times over the years. We got along great.”
And, recalling some of the more intriguing sessions he did, Scheff noted, “Some of the most fun recordings were done with ethnic artists. I did an album with Spanish Flamenco guitar great Carlos Montoya. They put plywood on the floor and mic’ed it. When we recorded, two or three sultry Spanish women danced on the plywood right in front of us, sweat streaming off of them; very erotic. I also did an East-meets-West project with sarod player Ananda Shankar.”
Scheff’s favorite recording from that time in which he participated? “The Doors’ L.A. Woman.” The worst?
“Many tasteless sessions where I was bored to death.”
His selection of L.A. Woman is intriguing, since he has asserted that he was approached about joining the Doors following the completion of that album, but singer Jim Morrison’s death cancelled the plan. Nevertheless, he continued his association with at least one ex-Door.
“I did an album with Ray (Manzarek) called Golden Scarab,” he said. “I had a hard time on that album; in fact, I have never heard it. Mostly drummer problems; Ray had hired Tony Williams, but his jazz grooves – which I like, by the way – were not right for some of the material. They had to get another drummer to play the grooves, and then Tony could stretch out on top. I think Ray and Robby Krieger are wonderfully talented people, but sometimes people right in the middle of things miss the point of what they’ve done in the past.”
In all of his decades of experience, Scheff has some favorite guitarists – most of whom he worked with. But there is one with whom Scheff never gigged.
“My favorite guitar player of all time was Jimi Hendrix in his prime,” he said. “I never played with him, but always thought I would’ve been a perfect match. Of the guitar players I’ve actually played with, I like the more inventive players like Richard Thompson and Mark Rebot. I worked quite a bit with (Tommy) Tedesco, and his genius was being able to adapt to whatever kind of music was being recorded. And I worked with Barney Kessel for two years in the mid ’60s, and he was great! To have someone who backed Billie Holiday and played with the great Ray Brown like my playing really boosted my confidence.”
Around the time of the L.A. Woman sessions, however, Scheff was gearing up for an extended association with Elvis’ acclaimed TCB Band, having been tapped for the bass position by James Burton.
Curiously, a term that Scheff has used himself is utilized by acclaimed musicologist Peter Guralnick in his book Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Little-Brown), which is the second part of a definitive two-volume Presley biography. Guralnick proclaims Scheff “…a red-headed ‘hippie’ with alternative ideas and a taste for the alternative lifestyle” who committed to the TCB Band after experiencing Presley’s commitment to music at the audition. Scheff’s recollections confirm such.
“I have no idea why James thought of me,” he said. “We came from completely different musical and cultural backgrounds, and I hadn’t worked with him that much. We all got along extremely well. I was the only Yankee in the bunch at first, so I had to adjust to some things, but I learned fast. I never felt like anyone was a best friend, and I was sort of a loner, but everyone, including Elvis, treated me well, and with respect.”
Scheff also detailed how the TCB Band would collaborate with Presley during rehearsals.
“To work up a song, someone would play a demo,” he noted. “Then the band and Elvis would make it work; we’d listen to how Elvis sang, and craft the arrangement around him.
“Sometimes they’d play a song from an album we didn’t play on. But we were free to change parts, tempos, and anything else. I don’t remember Elvis ever telling someone to ‘Play this’ or ‘Play that.’ Once in a very great while, he might ask someone not to play something… never me, though!” Scheff said with a laugh.
“After the arrangement was made, Elvis would bring in the vocalists, and they would add their parts. Then someone would write string and horn parts; many times it was our pianist, Glen D. Hardin. (Conductor) Joe Guercio would call the orchestra, and we’d put it all together. Joe’s main job was to keep the horns and strings with Elvis and our band.”
“The Elvis job was only about 25 to 30 percent of my livelihood,” Scheff clarified. “I recorded in L.A., toured with Delaney and Bonnie & Friends, Johnny Rivers, and other people. I worked, and I was happy.”
After Scheff left the Elvis assignment following the fabled “Aloha from Hawaii” performance, he returned to Los Angeles and the TCB Band. He would again work with the Presley aggregation until the King’s death in August of ’77.
The subsequent years saw Scheff remain just as active. He toured with Bob Dylan, recorded albums with John Denver (with erstwhile TCB Band cohorts Burton and Hardin), Elvis Costello, Thompson, and others. He also participated in the acclaimed “Roy Orbison: Black and White Night” 1987 concert.
In 1997, members of the TCB Band and other musicians and singers who had toured with Elvis Presley reunited for a unique presentation and tour titled “Elvis – the Concert,” in which concert videos of Presley were projected on a screen, but all music and vocals, except for Presley’s voice, were eliminated. Elvis’ singing was instead accompanied by live music purveyed by many of the same musicians and singers. The first concerts were presented in March,1998, and tours have been undertaken every year since (as of this writing, none are scheduled for ’04).
And Scheff had a personal ace up his sleeve when he released a CD in ’01 titled Fire Down Below, consisting primarily of a 1976 and new version of the title track (vocal and singalong versions), plus two other tracks and a monologue from Scheff. Therein, he proclaims that the ’76 version of “Fire Down Below” “…had been buried like an archeological artifact for 25 years.” Scheff wrote the tune for Elvis, and Presley was supposed to record it, but Elvis never got the chance to record the vocal parts. Moreover, his liner notes admit he accidentally erased Burton’s guitar part on “Fire Down Below 1976,” and the new guitar track was added by Albert Lee. Fire Down Below is an intriguing bit of aural Elvis trivia, and the music, as well as Scheff’s reminiscence, make for interesting listening.
Another recent development is the design and marketing of a Jerry Scheff signature bass, made by the Lakland company, Chicago.
Scheff has been involved in other recent projects besides “Elvis – the Concert,” and plans to stay busy. The Lakland signature model is an indication of his dedication to his craft, and perhaps he summed it up best when he transmogrified his comment about his earlier work with Elvis, Delaney and Bonnie, and Johnny Rivers to an up-to-date observation.
“I still work,” he said. “And I am happier still. Who could ask for more?”
Lakland Jerry Scheff Signature Model
Like its namesake, the Lakland Jerry Scheff signature model bass has unique aspects.
Immediately noticeable are the two low-output Kent Armstrong Split-Tube pickups, located quite a distance from each other in an effort to cover a wide sonic range. The pickup system includes a preamp, and has controls for cut and boost for treble, midrange and bass, as well as a pan control and master volume.
The neck is quarter-sawn maple, fretboards are available in birdseye maple, rosewood, or ebony. The body is swamp ash (Deluxe and Standard models) or alder (Classic model), and the model comes in four- and five-string variations, as well as an imported Skyline version.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Sep. ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.