"If I never got a call again to play bass for anyone anywhere at anytime again in my life, I'd just go,
'Well, that was fun. Let's see what else there is to do.' "
I played music for a few years with a bass player who didn't really give a damn about personalities in the band or what genre of music was being played. He was a somber soul who just wanted to sit in whenever possible and play the bass and add whatever he could to the overall sound. He heard music like no one I've ever known before or since. He was a bad drummer's worst nightmare. Once during rehearsal, after playing a song we'd played a hundred times, he turned to me and said, "That's the best I've ever heard you play that tune. Thank you." It meant more to me than all the applause from any large crowd.
I had never really understood what a bass guitarist actually did when he was doing his job correctly before I met this enigmatic fellow. He was paunchy and weird in a friendly way and was never late to a gig and never complained about his cut of the night's take. His name is Bob Norwood, but this writeup is not about him. Although I wish it were. I wish Bob had become famous and had amassed wealth and riches from playing the bass. The closest famous person to Bob Norwood (in both attitude and ability) I can find is Leland Sklar. And even Leland Sklar says that the IRS hassles him because they can't figure out how someone as famous as him doesn't claim more income than he does each year.
You might have seen Leland playing somewhere. God knows he's played with enough folks and in enough different genres to be seen by almost everyone. And you probably wouldn't forget him if you saw him. He's got a salt and pepper beard down to his balls and perhaps beyond.
He was born Leland Bruce Sklar on May 28, 1947, in Milwaukee. The story goes that he was a pretty good little piano player, but his piano teacher in his school told him that they were all full up with keyboardists and gave him a bass guitar to check out.
The first time I realized how marvelous Lee (as his friends call him) was at his job was when I turned up James Taylor's "Your Smiling Face" real loud one afternoon in 1979. I kept cranking the bass up and replaying that song, and I realized that it contained one of the most perfect bass lines I'd ever heard. I played it for Bob Norwood later that day at rehearsal and said, "Is this some great shit or what?" Bob said, "That's Leland Sklar. He's good."
Lee remembers his first big break was in a band in the late 1960s called Wolfgang. It was an Allman Brothers type jam band. Unfortunately, the lead singer had convinced himself that he'd actually been raised by wolves and was drifting in and out of what passed for reality in the 60s. They had to fire him and the band went downhill from there.
Lee actually remembers a whole lot more about the 60s than most because he claims that he's never had a drink and never taken a drug of any sort. I see no reason to doubt that claim, even though the outrageousness of it should startle any ex-hippie.
James Taylor offered him his first major gig. He's played on Sweet Baby James' records and live gigs for many years. They had a parting of the ways in the 1990s and when Lee talks about it you can tell that it hurt his feelings. Another one of his major gigs was with Phil Collins, and the fact that he was on the road with Phil Collins when James Taylor called and asked for his help on a project is what led to the falling out between him and Taylor. It was a matter of promises kept and prima donnas put on hold.
Lee says that it hurt his soul to see Phil Collins out there being a lead singer when he considered him one of the best pocket drummers he'd ever heard. (A pocket drummer is one who is capable of holding a steady beat during a song. You'd be surprised how hard that is to do sometimes, especially when you have soloists who like the nose candy just a little too much.)
He's worked with most of the heavy-hitters in the business, but his name keeps popping up alongside drummer Russ Kunkel, guitarist Danny Kortchmar, and keyboardist Craig Doerge. Those four formed a band called "The Section" and recorded three albums in the 1970s. Those albums didn't go anywhere, but I bet it made the background players feel good to have their name on them.
Lee says he looks at himself as a sloppy and incompetent player. "I can barely play a scale. I've had a bunch of hand injuries and my fingering is awful. On my left hand -- when I'm fingering it's primarily my first and fourth finger I do everything with. And that's because of tendon injuries to my middle fingers from machine work over the years. Those fingers hardly work at all. So, I've had to compensate in a lot of ways. Like when I do clinics, I never do a technical clinic. Because they say the way I play is the worst thing you'll ever see!"
That's very self-effacing and one might almost believe it. Until you hear him play. He says that the first thing he does on any session is listen to the song and see what the song needs from him. He doesn't just start jamming with the song like so many half-assed players. He'll listen to the song several times first. Listen to what he adds to "Sarah Smile" by Hall and Oates sometime.
When you hear him talk, you can sense that he's quite disillusioned with the business as it stands in this new Century. He complains about ProTools and how sampling has put so many session musicians out of work. He also waxes nostalgic about how much heart and soul is lost when technology takes the place of human musicians. One of my favorite stories is how pissed off he got when a producer told him that his bass line during a particular chorus of a certain song was just what they were looking for, and they would just cut and paste that line into each chorus and that he could go home now. He said that it took more time for him to explain to the producer how fucked up that idea was than it would have taken to just go ahead and play each chorus as a separate entity, as it should have been played.
He also hates what MTV and music videos have done to the industry. As he says, "This is a real sad time to be blind," because when you close your eyes and listen to what's actually being played, it's likely to make you sick.
Here is a very incomplete list of some folks with whom Lee has worked. It includes some of my favorite singers and songwriters and singer/songwriters.
"Every time you play your last note of a gig, that's your last note."
Some of this information and direct quotations taken with permission from an interview with Mr. Sklar by Mike Visceglia.