All about that Bass

Bass singers provided that much desired low end before guitarists replaced them

Mr. Bass Man cover.
Mr. Bass Man cover.

As any EDM fan (and American singer Meghan Trainor) would say these days, it’s all about that bass. In dance hall and party scenarios, it just doesn’t cut it if you don’t have that earth shattering low-end thump. But as far as bass singing in current pop music go, it’s quite lonely at the bottom.

It was not always the case though with bass singers. The 1940s and 1950s was fertile ground for bass vocals on hundreds of pop and R&B tunes. But with the popularity of electric instruments and changing pop styles, the low frequencies were increasingly being provided by the bass guitar.

The scene is quite different in the world of Western classical music. For many centuries, bass singers have formed an integral part of operas. In fact, classical music has very specific classification of singing voices, and there are several different classes of bass singers according to their vocal ranges.

Gospel music, in its ensembles, has often resorted to bass parts and there are solo singers such as Paul Robeson who would fit the bill as a bass singer. Pop music, of course, does not adhere to such strict classifications. Many male pop singers who would strictly not be called true bass singers are distinguished by their bass-heavy singing styles, like Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen. Country & Western music generally speaking has a fondness for low vocals; the same goes for vocalists of some heavy metal bands.

One of the most memorable performances featuring bass vocals is the aptly titled “Mr. Bass Man” by Johnny Cymbal from 1963. Cymbal, whose real name was John Hendry Blair, was a Scottish-born American pop teen idol. Though he later found success also as a songwriter and producer, he’ll forever be remembered for “Mr. Bass Man”. In the song, he professes his love for bass vocals and his ambitions of becoming one such singer: “Mr. Bass Man, you’ve got that certain somethin’/Mr. Bass Man, you set that music thumpin.’

In a later verse, he lays down several other reasons for his obsession: “Mr. Bass Man, you’re on all the songs/Be-did-did-a-boom-boom, be -dit-dit-a-boom-boom-bom/Hey Mr. Bass Man, you’re the hidden king of rock ’n’ roll…Mr. Bass Man, I want to be a bass man too.”

Indeed, the heyday for bass vocalists were the 1950s and early 1960s when doo wop music reigned supreme with groups such the Drifters, the Dominoes, the Coasters and the Cadillacs. There were literally hundreds of vocal groups coming out of urban neighborhoods in the US (much like teens carrying electric guitars and forming bands in the wake of the Beatles in the mid sixties).

(From Left) Ronnie Bright, Jimmy Norman, Carl Gardner, and Earl Carroll of The Coasters in Germany in 1974.
(From Left) Ronnie Bright, Jimmy Norman, Carl Gardner, and Earl Carroll of The Coasters in Germany in 1974.
What was ironic about Cymbal’s hit song was the fact that despite his love for the vocal style, the singer who provided the essential bass parts for the song was not credited on the record. Ronnie Bright, formerly of the Valentines and the Cadillacs, who guests on “Mr. Bass Man”, was one of the leading bass singers of the time in pop music. He also provides the bass parts on Barry Mann’s “Who Put The Bomp”.

Later, in 1968, he filled the bass singer’s role in the Coasters, one of the finest (and funniest) vocal groups in the history of R&B and rock ’n’ roll. Bright died at the age of 77 late last year in November.

But the title for the boss of bass singers must go to the person he replaced in the Coasters—Will “Dub” Jones. Providing much of the humour behind their memorable hits such as “Yakety Yak”, “Searchin’”, “Along Came Jones” and “Young Blood” (where he dons the role of the disapproving father of the girl being followed by a group of lecherous men), his finest hour is surely the delightfully kooky “Shoppin’ For Clothes”.

The track from 1960 features a shared lead by Jones and the group’s baritone vocalist Billy Guy. The song revolves round the conversation between a young style-conscious black man and a rather venal store clerk. Despite the humour, one can’t help but notice the racial commentary that songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller slip in.

Despite its retro style and title, Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” (2014) does not feature a bass singer. It’s actually a rallying call for plus-sized women, but one can imagine the song featuring a bass part in it. The reality is that thanks to American Idol and its ilk, the music industry generally prefers high-pitched vocals. It’s a pity because there are surely many like me who secretly harbour a desire to be a bass man too.

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