By Holly Bergantino
Whitinsville, MA—As a young man, Chicago’s Maurice Fitzgerald began playing the bass with a discarded instrument that had only two strings. And his journey to greatness includes performing with legends Beyoncé Knowles, Ramsey Lewis, John P. Kee, Yolanda Adams, Brian Culbertson, CeCe Winans, and many more.
Currently Maurice the musician is the bassist for the legendary Isley Brothers. Yet Maurice the man is grounded in a deep spiritual faith and family values. He reminds us that all precious moments in life are very important – and to always be cognizant of life and why we are all here.
I had the opportunity to talk with Maurice about his career, his roots, his values as a person, and what he has learned along the way.
Can you share with me how you got involved with all things gospel as a young man and when you started playing the bass?
I actually started as a drummer when I was about 12 years old for my church. I’m a drummer at heart who simply fell in love with the bass.
I still remember my first encounter with the bass guitar. My brother and I were playing basketball in an alley in Chicago and noticed that a family was moving out of their home … throwing out their trash. And one of those things was a bass guitar. It only had two strings because the head stock was broken where the D and G strings would be attached.
I took it home and cleaned it up, and began to teach myself how to play. Immediately everything seemed to come fairly easy, and I just fell in love with it. I told my uncle that I love playing bass and he said, “I thought you were a drummer.”
So I played a little something for him on my two string bass and he said, “Oh my God, you picked that up on your own?” He was thrilled at how quickly I learned, and not only did he buy me a four string bass but he also allowed me to play in the family’s gospel group.
My ultimate goal was to play well enough to begin playing for my church. To that end, I started listening to Milton Brunson and The Thompson Community Singers, Walter Hawkins and the Family and the late, great Andre Crouch. I practiced and learned their music for hours on end and eventually began playing for my church.
Let me digress though, because it wasn’t always church music. Once I expressed my love for the bass, another uncle, who had a bass (but didn’t play) advised me to listen to Parliament Funkadelic, Stanley Clark and The Brothers Johnson in order to become bonafide bass player. “Strawberry Letter 23,” “School Days,” and “Flashlight” were part of my daily lesson plan.
In high school, I was in the marching and jazz bands as a drummer. But after discovering the bass guitar over the summer, I told my band mates that I was a bass player now. Of course they didn’t believe I had learned to play as well as I did in such a short period of time. And that led to me to play for the Marshall High School Gospel choir.
Additionally, the jazz band teacher took notice and taught me how to read bass clef music.
How did your career go from being a local church musician to a professional musician traveling the world?
It started with a man named Dan Willis, a pastor in Chicago, who came to my church to recruit singers and musicians for an interracial choir called The Pentecostals of Chicago. I attended the rehearsals faithfully and of the five or six bass players that tried out, he chose me to be in the official band.
We traveled locally with the choir for nearly a year. And then it was time to do our first national recording.
Darius Brooks from The Thompson Community Singers – the choir I grew up listening to – and super-producer Sanchez Harley were producing the record. Wow! In an effort to be 100 percent ready for the recording, I practiced like a mad man.
Darius called a special rehearsal and in the middle of a song, he stopped us to say we were just not ready to play on the album and told us he was bringing in his own band. It broke my heart. I was crushed and devastated. I cried and went home and told my mom.
My mom, being a very religious person, said, “I am going to pray for you that one day God will give you the gift to play bass that reaches the world.”
She was the best woman that walked the Earth. I had six brothers and one sister and she raised all of us in the same house. It was amazing. She prayed for me and said, “Go to all of the rehearsals regardless if you get to play or not.”
And I did.
Brooks ended up bringing in an A-lister group of guys for the recording. I went to the rehearsals and quickly realized why I was not included in the record. At that point, my skill level was not on the same level as these guys. I observed them, listened to them, and soaked it all in.
I went to every rehearsal and practiced like crazy. Fast-forward to the next year, and the time had come for the next album for the Willis recording. I honestly wasn’t sure if I was good enough. I practiced nonstop and worked toward being the best. And it paid off … I was going to be on the album!
They invited this super gospel star named John P. Kee, who was the biggest gospel artist at that time to sing a duet with Pastor Willis. He sat in the audience for a while, and when it was time for him to sing, he walked up to the bandstand and said to me, “Young man you sound amazing.”
Kee went on stage, sang, and left.
Later that week, my mom told me that Kee’s office in North Carolina called and was asking for me.
“And I was like ‘WHAAAAT,’ ” and she said, “Yes John P. Kee’s manager called and you need to call them back.”
John’s manager, Janet, said, “John P. Kee was very impressed with your playing at the recording, he wants you to come to North Carolina and play for John P. Kee and the New Life Community Choir.”
I earned $400 from Willis to do the recording and I used that to pay for a ticket on a Greyhound Bus to Charlotte. At 17, I went off on a bus … and that bus was freezing cold. And it stopped at every little town on the way and I thought this is the longest ride of my life … But I was determined to get there.
After a 15-hour drive, I finally made it and went straight to rehearsal. We rehearsed a few hours and they put me on a tour bus and that was my first big professional gig that I did in New York.
I played for one month and got back home for the rest of summer vacation. No sooner was I home that I got a call from John P. Kee again and they asked if I wanted to do the tour for the summer with them. One of the dates was in Chicago at the Chicago Gospel Festival, and I told all of my friends I was touring with one of the biggest gospel artists this summer and expressed nothing but love and excitement.
At that time there was no FaceBook, Instagram or You Tube, and no way to really let them know I got the gig. So that summer for the Chicago show, every major gospel artist was performing stage – The Winans, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, The Clark Sisters and others – and we were the closing act.
I walked out on stage in front of all of Chicago and I could hear people screaming, “That’s Maurice!!!!”
I was so nervous and once we started the set, I have to say, it was one of the most incredible music moments of my career.
Ultimately this was the launching pad for many more life-changing musical events.
I think if you keep the perspective of what you are doing and why you are doing it, and share your gift with the world … musically and spiritually this is so important.
I was blessed to get this opportunity to work with these people and every day I feel blessed that I still have this gift … and people want me to play.
How has your bass playing changed over the years?
Oh my God it has! My motive of what inspired me musically wasn’t always gospel music. My dad played so many records from Steely Dan, Led Zeppelin and Earth Wind and Fire, and so many others. My dad was a singer. He was not a professional but grew up in the church singing. He’s an electrician and mechanic by trade and he was a genius with his hands. That’s what he did for a living.
Every weekend after a long week of work, five or six of his kids would sit around on the couch and just play all kinds of music with him. There was inspiration from all of those people that I would hear on all of those records that my dad would play.
I love playing solid foundational bass with some nice color. I love being the heartbeat of the music. When music is played from your heart it touches the heart of the audience, too. I live for that.
What was the favorite country that you have toured in and why?
One of my favorites that I loved was Africa. When I went to South Africa it was an all-time treasured experience. You get exposed first-hand to the people, the beauty of the land, and the culture and it just blows your mind.
For me to go back to the motherland and see how magnificent it is and to see the sun rise and set was just amazing.
The first time I went was in 2003 with CeCe Winans, an amazing gospel artist. It was very interesting to learn that the people in Africa knew me from the gospel albums I had recorded. I also loved Australia! I was amazed the music had gone across the continents. What a blessing!
It always blows me away that people know who I am—a kid from the West Side of Chicago!
What is your favorite music to play?
My favorite music to play is gospel and I will tell you why! Gospel music is a melting pot of all styles of music. It’s jazz, it’s blues, it’s soul, there is R&B in there … And it’s the only genre you can get away with that.
If we were just to throw anything in the pot and we would be singing lyrics about the goodness of God and encouraging people and inspiring people and giving them a positive word … to me that’s the best kind of music.
I love jazz, I love blues, I love R&B but my roots are with my Christian foundation, which is gospel.
What bass do you play now?
I have my own signature series bass with a company called “Bass Mods” out of California called “The Maurice Fitzgerald MF5,” and it is my go-to bass right now.
I also have quite a few Fenders and a Warwick, but most of the time I am playing and promoting my MF5 bass. I love this instrument. I helped them design it, and it’s doing really well.
How many basses do you own? And tell me a little bit more about your gear.
Over the years I’d say I’ve had a total of 50 basses but in my current possession I probably have 25. But at the end of the day you can only play one at a time.
Pick or no pick?
I don’t normally use a pick. I might use it for the rock stuff if I want to go for that sound but basically I am finger style slap bass. I love Lewis Johnson, Marcus Miller, Stanley Clarke and Larry Graham the GOAT (greatest of all time)! I have a technique we call it Chucking! The late Bernard Edwards from Chic made it famous. He was a master groover.
How did you find Bergantino?
I found out about Bergantino through a friend of mine, a bass player in Detroit named Michael Harrington. He purchased a Bergantino rig and he was singing its high praises. He kept saying to me Bergantino, Bergantino, Bergantino! And so one day I was in Bass Club Chicago and plugged into an amp and cabinet and was blown away.
I was on this tone search and wanted my bass to sound the way it does when I hear it back in the studio—full, rich and lots of tone. I must say, this bass cab and amp exceeded my expectations.
What do you like about the forté?
I love how he designed the forté head. That thing is incredible, it can handle anything and I love that big knob … It’s amazing … like an old hi fi stereo! You guys have a hold on producing true tone, and I just love it.
You have one son. Does he play an instrument?
I have one son, number one son and his name is Devin. My son loves to sing, and preach, he loves cars and loves his little cell phone. He’s an amazing little boy.
I don’t talk a lot about this but my son was born premature and he developed a condition in the hospital called Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) that ate up a part of his intestine when he was a little boy. We were told he wouldn’t even make it 48 hours with his condition and he is 8 years old now God is Great! He’s a miracle child . A lot of visits to the hospital- he is on the transplant list now to get a small bowel and he is my life. He is a walking miracle and makes my day every single day.
What is your favorite food?
My favorite food is…….. EVERYTHING. I love Italian, Oh My God, the day that you put that video up on Instagram and Jim was stirring up that awesome sauce I wanted to bust through the phone and go to your house it looked so good! Those meatballs- I need some and I’m still thinking about them.
What do you like to do besides play bass?
I love playing video games, I know I am 44 years old but I love playing with my buddies. I like playing the NBA 2k 18. I love basketball and I grew up playing basketball and I can live my dream of being a famous basketball player through gaming.
I’m also a really good handy man and like to fix things around the house. It’s nothing to see me in my house putting in electrical fixtures or fixing an outlet or installing TVs. Friends call me to help them with their electrical stuff – things I learned from my dad. It’s kind of weird I can do all of these things and I actually like doing them!
Any parting thoughts for those fans of yours you want to share — words of wisdom from your history and roots?
I’m still playing music and it’s the forefront of my life, but my focus is a little different now. l have lived life and learned many things. I haven’t made all the perfect decisions but I have grown … and I’ve learned from the mistakes I’ve made.
I have faith. I have family. And I have the precious moments in life. They are all very important. Don’t lose sight of life and why we are all here. Everyone has a unique gift and we should love each other for who they are and what they do.
I have grown so much and become a more mature person as a dad … and on the importance of leaving more of a mark other than being a bass player. I want to be an outstanding person and the best dad possible. That’s the person I want to be remembered as when I’m not here.
Maurice Fitzgerald Social Links:
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Maurice with Larry Graham