Why does Stan file his fingers? Phil Bashe get the facts from The Man behind Slap'n' Pop...
Rarely have two men bracketed an instrument's appeal as neatly as Chris Squire and Stanley Clarke. Clarke put the Funk into the bass; added twang and Pop and within minutes he was the most-imitated man in the four-stringed world. Squire put the top into the bottom, mixed in melody and became the virtuoso of that virtuoso's music Progressive Rock. They're both still going, and they both told us their secrets; Clarke to Paul Gallotta, Squire to Philip Bashe.
Suddenly there's a new lead instrument in most of today's Pop songs. For the past few years the bass has been leaping out of the mix to spatter its percussive attack all over the top end of hundreds of records, and there's one man who is responsible for this almost on his lonesome: Stanley Clarke.
He's won countless awards as the world's best bassist, and his name is synonymous with the slap'n'pop style of playing that's spread like wildfire from its roots in Jazz-Funk to cover all the genres of modern music; he is one of the first true bass guitar heroes.
Clarke started out playing a variety of instruments during his childhood in Philadelphia's North end. While he was influenced by a number of musicians, his main inspiration came from home.
"My mother was an Opera singer, and I guess that turned me on to music before anything else," says Clarke. "I started out with an accordion, but I didn't look right with it. I tried violin and cello next, but they were just too small for my hands. I was only about 12 but already I was very tall. The only instrument that seemed to fit me was the string bass."
In high school, Clarke became a member of both Philadelphia's All-City Jazz Band and All-City Orchestra. Fellow All-City Jazz Band bassist Simeon Pillich, who now plays in David Lindley's El Rayo-X, recalls that Clarke "was already a very good solo player. He used the double bass differently than anyone I had ever seen before. His one drawback was that he couldn't use it as a conventional foundation."
Clarke counters, "I think I just hear things very melodically. I didn't hear the string bass as a foundation instrument. That's why people say I played it like a lead guitar."
Lionel Richie's current drummer, Gerald Brown, also played behind Clarke for the All-City Jazz Orchestra and was a member of one of Clarke's first trios as well. He recollects how Clarke "never seemed satisfied with the traditional role of the bass player. He used to tell me, 'You can't play this way, it'll interrupt what I'm playing.' Even back then he was able to take the technique he learned playing Classical music and apply it to Jazz or commercial Pop. It's because of that ability that I knew he would make his mark."
Clarke eventually moved on to the Philadelphia Music Academy, but his fourth year, lured by the prospect of becoming a New York City session musician. His first steady job was backing Jazz pianist Horace Silver, replacing a bassist named Ken Smith, who would go on to manufacture Clarke's basses some 10 years later.
"When I was 18, I came to New York with nothing," Clarke recalls; "I was staying with a friend at his place on the Lower East Side. I just built it up. Toward the end I was doing sessions all day and playing Jazz all night. I was actually making a lot of money as a session player, but it got boring. I remember one day I did a session for Jimmy Dean's Sausages, then did a session for Aretha Franklin, then did a session where I only played one note, an F sharp. As I was playing, it suddenly hit me that I didn't want to do this for the rest of my life."
Clarke's next move was to try out for the Philadelphia Orchestra, but before he reached the audition, he met pianist Chick Corea, "and that was that". The two, along with drummer Lenny White and guitarist Bill Connors (soon replaced by Al Di Meola), formed the now legendary Return to Forever. Popping and slapping a Fender Jazz through an Acoustic 136 amp, Clarke would lay down the somewhat erratic but nonetheless powerful groundwork for the role of the fusion bassist. His playing with Return to Forever, George Duke and bands as diverse as Gato Barbieri's outfit and the New Barbarians — the touring group put together by the Stones' Keith Richards and Ron Wood in 1979 — would cultivate a style that would make Clarke a Jazz icon.
Clarke's sound is contingent upon a handful of idiosyncratic techniques. Before his live shows, he rubs his Rotosound roundwounds with Mennen's Skin Bracer ("It's got just enough alcohol in it to keep them clean"). To get his distinctive metallic, popping sound, he uses all five fingers, which he carefully smooths down with light-grain sandpaper every night ("It keeps calluses down, makes my skin smooth but hard"). When recording, he usually goes direct into the mixer but prefers to mike his amps for solos. For a man whose large hands first prompted him to play string bass, all of his instruments have thin necks, a holdover from his acoustic-bass days.
Clarke's tools these days consist of his well-known Alembic basses with standard pickups, two Ken Smith custom basses (one a converted double-pickup bass with Ken Smith's own custom pickups), Alembic and Carl Thompson Piccolo basses with EMG pickups and D'Addario custom strings, and an Alembic with a Modulus Graphite neck and a Bigsby tremolo unit. For amplification he uses an Alembic preamp,as well as one custom-made by James Demeter, an HH power amp, and EV speakers and cabinets. His one effect is a Roland DD-2 delay. Clarke has tried a Nady wireless system but contends, "It just doesn't work for me." He expresses similar sentiments regarding synth basses.
"I'm giving up on those things; they don't have enough sounds on 'em. I'm waiting to have my basses MIDI'd up to my Yamaha DX7 synth, but bass synthesizers don't track fast enough. What I'm waiting for is something to sonically link up the electric bass and the synthesizer. Sound-wise, the synth bass is better than the electric; you get more low end and the sound is more even. The next progression of the bass will be where you have a guy playing an electric, getting 50, 60, even a thousand different sounds, by programming them into the bass."
As with anyone worth emulating, Clarke has spawned a generation of imitators, a fact he accepts with somewhat mixed emotions.
"It's healthy to have a goal, to want to be great, but each individual should have his own way of doing it. Like pop 'n' slap. Now when I listen to Funk radio, it sounds like it's all the same band. The younger people these days are more interested in what vibes are coming from the music and how the guy looks while he's doing it. I can't even name what bassists I listen to. I just listen to the radio; I don't have the time to listen to records anymore."
Clarke is a busy man. He is currently touring in support of Time Exposure, his first solo effort since 1982's Let Me Know You. The time in between was occupied by a variety of projects, most prominently his second collaboration with George Duke and a pile of production jobs for the likes of Natalie Cole, Maynard Ferguson and Ramsey Lewis, among others. He dismisses his hiatus with a terse "I felt like it. It was fun, but now I feel like touring because I really like that."
To that end, Clarke has put together a backing band that he enthusiastically claims is his best live band ever.
"This band is a killer, completely amazing. I have this guy named Robert Brooking and this lady who I grew up with and went to school with, Sonia Taxson, playing keyboards. Our drummer is Robert Griffin; he used to play with Jean-Luc Ponty. I had no idea the chemistry among us would be so good. This is the perfect band for a bass player."
On more than one occasion, Clarke has asked all of the bass players in the audience to come on stage and jam on the encore. At one US show in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, one bassist who joined the band was Jaco Pastorius. "He came up, and there was still enough room that we didn't trip over each other's lines," remarks Clarke.
Returning to the subject of equipment, Clarke points out that it is his expanded use of the Piccolo bass which has given his band the freedom to jam with a bassist as frenetic as Jaco.
"I've always had guitars in my band, but with the Piccolo, I've finally gotten my rig to the point where it sounds like I'm playing several instruments. The sound is really thick. And this is one band that can handle a jam."
After a career as possibly the most influential and innovative Jazz bassist since Charlie Mingus one wonders what the future holds for Stanley Clarke. He has already delved into almost every aspect of the music industry, from writing articles to production. At one point he had even designed his own bass, the fibreglass and Kevlar Spellbinder, which featured his own patented roller bridge and zero fret concept.
Clarke is quick to dismiss the Spellbinder as merely "a project." Yet he speculates that sometime in the future he may return to the drawing board.
"If I could find the time, I might design something else. Maybe an amplifier or a string bass, but definitely not another electric bass."
As for his immediate plans, Clarke remains somewhat reticent. While he expresses his belief that there will be another album in the not-too-distant future, he is less specific about his returning to sessions or production work.
"I'd really like to record with these guys. I'd like to experiments bit as well, maybe get a heavier, not so smooth sound. And I'd like to build up this touring thing again. Not to take away from studio musicians, but playing live is something special. Studio work can sometimes be a pain in the ass, especially when you have trouble working with the producer. When a session just isn't happening, the best thing to do is to try to convince the producer that he's just wasting his time. A producer usually knows what sounds best, and if he agrees, chances are he might not go around bad-mouthing you all over town. That's why you've got to work with good people.
"After all, music isn't something that you should kill yourself over."