Harvey Brooks is one of the great electric bassists. He’s played with everyone from Bob Dylan to Miles Davis. He was a founding member of The Electric Flag. His bass lines are the foundation of much of the iconic rock, blues and jazz music of the 20th Century. He saw it all and he’s written it all down in his new book View from the Bottom: 50 Years of Bass Playing with Bob Dylan, The Doors, Miles Davis and Everybody Else.
As a session player he’s recorded with Bob Dylan, The Doors, Miles Davis, Cass Elliott, John Sebastian, Karen Dalton, Judy Collins, Peter Paul and Mary, Tom Rush, Eric Anderson, John Cale, Loudon Wainwright III and Mavis Staples among many others.
As a producer he’s worked with Quicksilver Messenger Service, and on Karen Dalton’s In My Own Time. He co-produced The Electric Flag’s second album with John Simon and wrote the liner notes.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Harvey recently about his book View From The Bottom and his life in music. The interview covers his early years, his first experiences in music and how he came to be not only in the room when music history was being made, but helping to make it.
Did your teacher Jerry Oddo realise that your guitar lessons would lead to the musical journey your life has taken?
I think he would be proud that one of his students went on to be acknowledged as a professional musician.
What records did your sister Roberta have that inspired you when you were young?
Doo-wop R&B and pop groups and artists such as the Cleftones, Franky Lyman and the Teenagers, The Everly Brothers, Nat King Cole, Elvis.
Would you say your sister and your friend Bob Rose were the real catalysts of your musical journey?
I think you could say that. Roberta got me involved by taking me to the live shows and Bob Rose put the guitar in my hands and led me down the path.
What sort of music was on the radio and in the air when you were a kid in Queens?
Mostly Pop, R&B and Doo-wop with DJ’s Alan Freed, Murray the K and Cousin Brucey.
Your Grandmother Sarah lived with you when you were young, what sort of influence did she play in your life, was she the encouraging kind?
My Grandma Sarah spoke very little English but we developed our own language as she taught me how to play a card game named Casino and gave me cookies and milk coffee. She was a very calm person and was always easy to talk to. It was later that I actually realized that she didn’t understand a word I was saying.
Were you able to stay in touch with Bob Rose and also the guys from the Citations?
When I left to join Mike Bloomfield in Mill Valley CA. We lost touch. Bob has gone on to have a major career in the Broadway theatre orchestra circles.
Did you ever make any recordings with the Citations? And if so, do you still have them?
Were your mother or father musical? Did they listen to records or have favourites they would play?
They were appreciators of music and would get all those classical, Show Tune and Movie soundtrack collections. My father would bring home 45 records that were left on his truck from Jukeboxes he had delivered. These were a cross section of country, pop and R&B.
Your father was a WWII veteran and he coached your little league team. Were he and your mom able to see and share with you first hand the magical turns your life in music took?
My Mom and Pop were big fans and would come to some of my New York gigs. Most of the time though Pop would come on his own. We could bond with the music. I was a better musician than athlete.
Do you remember what some of the songs in your first Fake Books were, I know you mention ‘Sunny Side of the Street’ and ‘That Old Gang of Mine’?
Besame Mucho, Pennies from Heaven, September in the Rain, Blue Skies, All of Me……..
What do you remember of your future wife Bonnie from that frat meeting, and what were your thoughts if you did? It’s a beautiful story of how you finally came together.
As I wrote in my book “View From The Bottom” I had a crush on Bonnie since Junior High School. 1960, we were now in High School and the frat meeting was downstairs at Bonnie’s parent’s house in the basement donated for the evening by her brother Lloyd, a new frat brother. Bonnie walked down the stairs carrying a tray of snacks. There she was, my J.H.S. crush, beautiful body, face and ponytail making a brief appearance. A few minutes later she was gone. I didn’t see her again until 1988.
Al Kooper is one of the great musicians, producers and arrangers. What are some of your best memories of Al, someone you’ve known since the very beginning?
My favorite Al Kooper album is his two CD set Live at the Bottom Line….Soul of a man. Bonnie, Al and myself grew up together in the Boro of Queens in New York City. Al’s mother Natalie was a friend of Bonnie’s mom and her father was Kooper’s boy scout leader.
What songs did the Citations and even Al Kooper’s Aristocats play back then? Do you still have recordings of those songs?
Citations played Rawhide, Tequila, Shout, Mustang Sally, Walk don’t run, Stranded in the jungle, Alley Oop, Night Train, Peter Gun, Chet Atkins & Chuck Berry medleys. Never recorded
Your run-in with Wilson Picket is the stuff of legend. Was that experience something many people had with Wilson, or did he mellow?
Too my knowledge he never mellowed.
What was the feeling like in the room when you recorded with Dylan on Highway 61? Did you sense he had complete ideas or was using the experience as an instrument in itself to write and finish those songs?
My sense of feeling was that his songs were complete for the moment but were still open to change, brought on by what the other musicians played. That change could be lyrical or musical. .
Do you remember if Robbie Robertson and Dion were at the mixing of Like A Rolling Stone? There is a photo which appears to show Robbie, but it’s possible Dion was also there, though he’s never mentioned it I don’t think?
Robbie came to the band after Rolling Stone was already a hit.
Have you heard Bob Dylan’s latest record, and if so what did you think? There is some stunning playing on it.
It’s a fabulous collection of words and music.
Do you have a favourite Levon performance, and what did you think of his album Dirt Farmer that he recorded with Larry Campbell?
The last time I saw Levon was in a club in Tucson, Arizona performing with his daughter Amy. The RCO All-Stars was my favorite post band project. Great playing and singing on the “Dirt Farmer”.
What was it like being friends with Levon, he seemed like such a wonderful and genuine man who just oozed music?
I couldn’t have said it better.
What was it like to return again to New Morning and what must’ve seemed like a very different Bob Dylan?
It seemed to me that this record was part of Dylan’s growth as a musician. He wasn’t going to settle until he got it the way he wanted it which is what created the pressure between he and Al in my opinion. Great album!
Teo Macero and Miles had an interesting relationship. What were their interactions like? Did you see Teo using the same tape cutting and splicing edits to make Bitches Brew as he did with In a Silent Way? And would you credit him with shaping, maybe not Miles’ sound, but the beauty of those recordings as much as Miles and the band?
Most definitely! Teo was a genius as an arranger and producer equal to Miles in the relationship. Miles and Teo respected each others territory creating a psychological language to achieve satisfaction and compromise.
What are your favourite recordings you’ve made and favourite songs you’ve written? D
They’re all my favourites. Seals and Crofts’ Summer Breeze and Harvey’s Tune from SUPER SESSION.
Did you see that the supergroup Immediate Family have recorded one of your songs?
Yes, the one they recorded is Cruel Twist written with Danny Kortchmar and Charlie Karp for a band we had named Slo Leak.
Who are the favourite drummers you’ve worked with and who would be your top drummers of all time?
Jack DeJohnette, Jim Keltner, Buddy Miles, Anton Fig, Eric Parker, Bill Lavorgna, Herb Lovelle, Bobby Gregg, John Densmore, Billy Cobham , Lenny White, Levon Helm,
Did you ever see Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton play with Dylan, or did you ever meet them?
Never met them
Do you still collect baseball cards?
I gave all to my grand children
What would you call your bass guitar sound and when did you first know that you had it? What’s your favourite type of bass, what strings/gauge do you use and what’s the ideal amp(s)for you?
I would call my sound the Harvey Brooks Fender bass Sound. I knew I had a sound when I got gigs and started playing 6 nights a week making a living at 19 years old. My favorite type of bass is the PJ configuration Fender. I use La Bella Flat wounds. The gauge depends on the style of music. I use a Hartke L1000 1000 watt bass amp and 410XL cabinet.
How was collaborating with Donald Fagan compared to Miles or Bob? He’s another genius, but exacting in his own way in terms of looking for the right part for a song.
All three have unique styles who were able to get the best out of me.
I would have loved to hear you and James Jamerson jam together, did you ever meet or play together?
You mention Charles Mingus as an influence in your book and you have a wonderful note from him. What would be your favourite album of his?
I love his Charles Mingus presents Charles Mingus
Was Miles turned on to Electric Flag from the Filmore and is that how you came to play with him on Bitches?
No. It had nothing to do with Electric Flag. I was brought to Miles by Teo Macero when I also was a producer at Columbia/Sony Records.. My office was next to Teo’s and when Miles wanted to use bass guitar on a demo for his wife Betty, Teo asked me if I wanted to do the session. After the session Miles hired me for the Bitches Brew album. Miles also asked Jack DeJohnette about me and he played Miles an album I played on called Electric Blackman by Eric Mercury.
Did you, Mike, Al and Miles ever jam together?
Obviously during Bitches you were keeping the low end for Dave Holland but did Miles ever bring up your playing with the Flag? Because you’re up there nailing it and I guess Miles was looking for that magic.
Miles gave the Flag a thumbs up in Down Beat magazine (4th Blindfold Test) in 67 or 68:
Who was that? Leave that record here, it’s a nice record. I like guys that get into what they’re supposed to be singing, and the guys that play behind it really get into what they’re doing – when the mood changes they go right in it. It makes the record smooth; makes it mean something.4th Blindfold Test Miles Davis, Down Beat Magazine, 1967
It’s a pleasure to get a record like that, because you know they’re serious no matter what they do. . . . I liked the rhythm on that. I mean, if you’re going to do something like that, man, you’ve got to do it.
1. The Electric Flag
(A Long Time Comin’, Columbia)
Barry Goldberg, Mike Bloomfield, composers.
If there’s one nugget of wisdom you could pass on to other players, writers, arrangers, producers coming up now what would it be?
Harvey’s book is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and all online book stops.