A little bit of bottom: Leland Sklar at 74

By Trevor Moore

I have had the pleasure - and sometimes the opposite - of playing in many bands over the last few decades. I have played guitar, bass and keyboards in these bands and often more than one. But of all these instruments the one that is often the hardest is the bass. On the face of it that should not be so. After all bass players are supposed to get it easy because they usually only play one note at a time. What could be hard about that?

The bass is an essential element in rock music. It’s not always an electric bass: listen to Stanley Clarke playing acoustic double bass on Silver Blue from John David Souther’s 1976 album Black Rose, or Gary Tallent playing tuba on Wild Billy's Circus Story from Bruce Springsteen’s second (1973) album The Wild, The Innocent and the E-street Shuffle (in my view his best).


Bass guitars. Two is not enough When you play an instrument, you rapidly realise two things. One is that there is really no point in playing it if you don’t play it in front of other people. If you are a bassist then that means finding other people to play with. The second thing is that, once you are in a band, and playing a gig then you are in a team. My working life (I never counted music as “work” even when I was making money from it) was full of the importance of teams. We knew that team was an acronym: together each achieves more. But in a band … well, that is the epitome of teamwork. You absolutely depend on the others, and they absolutely depend on you. It’s a discipline that you really don’t often get in life. I recall a gig in the Jazz Club (there wasn’t much jazz there) in Hong Kong. The band was called Stunned Mulllet and I played keys. We launched into one song with a roaring D major chord. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to take the keyboard down a semitone from the proviso song. I came in with an Eb … absolute disaster. Starting a song again in a live gig is never a good look.

The only guitar I have ever made was a bass guitar. In 1966 I was 16. Iggy Pop said that the only reason a boy goes into a band is for the chicks. Iggy Pop may have been right in the motivation but, in my experience, wrong in the outcome. Perhaps in these days of diversity these memories are to be criticised. But as Jackson Browne says in Fountain of Sorrow “the future’s there for anyone to change, but you know sometimes it seems it would be easier to change the past.” We can’t change the past. But we can go there looking for great bassists. There have been some truly great bassists and some truly great bass lines. Every now and then, when I am at the gym, Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer comes on. If you have never listened to this song - and even if you have - then listen to it now. The bassist is Tina Weymouth. That bass line holds the whole song together. Listen to the bass line in the break. The timing is impeccable. It has to be. Because in rock music it is the drums and the bass that hold a song together, that drive it along or hold it back, that sets the mood and creates the overall feel. Tina Weymouth is both a remarkable bassist and a remarkable woman. She had two children while with Talking Heads before being unceremoniously dropped by David Byrne when he dissolved Talking Heads.

As a child of the 1960s I was hugely influenced by The Who and their use of controlled - and often not controlled - feedback. My Generation was an anthem for 1960s youth with Daltrey’s brilliant stutter on the line “why don’t you all ffff … fade away?”. It took Country Joe MacDonald & The Fish at Woodstock in 1968 when they sang Feel Like I'm Fixin to Die Rag: give us an F, give us a U … you remember it. Well, I do. But the other thing about My Generation is John Entwhistle’s bass. Listen to the first verse. What are his fingers doing? Then he gets a solo at 56 seconds in. It still sends shivers up my spine. It is Entwhistle and his bass that hold that song together, that drives it along.

Leland Sklar: bassist extraordinaire ... and that beard! There are so many other great bassists who are integral to the bands they play in: McCartney (The Beatles), John Deacon (Queen), Jack Bruce (Cream), Roger Waters (Pink Floyd). The thing about these bassists is that they played in bands that were good or great. But there is one bass player that stands out above all these. His name is Leland Sklar and he is the most famous bass player that you never heard of. He turned 74 the other day. I first noticed him as the bass player on Jackson Browne’s first three albums and for some reason I watched out for him on the sleeve notes of the albums I perused in the record stores (where have they all gone?) and that I bought. He was studying at the University of California when he met James Taylor who asked him to play bass at a few gigs. Neither thought a great deal of it but Taylor’s career took off with 1970’s Fire and Rain. Sklar played bass on Taylor’s third album Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon (1970). Interestingly. the bassist on Tayler’s first (1968) album was one Paul McCartney.

Anyway, Sklar’s career took off. He did turn up in a band called The Section in the 1970s with guitarist Danny Kortchmar, keyboardist Craig Doerge, bassist Leland Sklar, and drummer Russ Kunkel - Wikipedia describes The Section as an instrumental group but there are definitely vocals on the album that I have. But Sklar is a session musician. He has played on over 2,000 albums with musicians such as Karla Bonoff, Jimmy Buffet, Glen Campbell, Kim Carnes, Leonard Cohen, even Engelbert Humperdinck - the list goes on. Being a session musician is not easy. Sklar is a brilliant bassist and there’s no doubt that he has influenced the arrangements of the numbers that he has played on. But at the end of the day a session musician is a hired hand, a hack hired to do the bidding of a superstar’s ego. Quite how one copes with that is difficult to imagine. But that one thing that you do not need is an ego. He is well-recognised in the industry as a bassist extraordinaire: Gibson and Warwick have both named bass guitar models after him. What a man.

So, next time you’re listening to a piece of music have a thought for the bassist plugging away at the bottom end. And check to see if it is Leland Sklar. It probably is. And I do still “hope I die before I get old”. It’s just that definition of “old” changes.

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