Great Moments in Rock N’ Roll
by John Cipiti
This article was published in #Issue 19 in summer 2016.
It’s likely safe to say when we think of walking bass lines, jazz readily comes to mind. But composers were using the “walk” as far back as the 17th and 18th Centuries. Well, they weren’t exactly calling it the “walk,” because they called it Basso Continuo for bass lines that sauntered through their harmonic progressions. Bach and Handel often employed Basso Continuo in their music, with the bass and cello called upon to play the line, while sometimes a wind instrument, such as the bassoon, was added to solidify the sound. The Basso Continuo would outline chords tones from the prevailing harmony, while the actual block chords were played by a keyboard instrument – most often the harpsichord, where the performer would sometimes improvise over the chord changes, much like a jazz pianist. I always find this hilarious, but did you know Bach was arrested for improvising during a church service and sent to the big house for a night? Someone in the congregation must have yelled, “Take it on home, Johann!” And that was it. His powdered wig flying to and fro, as the flock in the pews rocked back and forth; the sound of tempestuous pipe organ filling the room, his left hand laying down the law, the right taking off into tonal flights of extravagant fancy… All this before the hopelessly ignorant cart him off to the slammer with its three hot’s and a cot, before posting bail.
Jazz bass lines are usually delivered by the acoustic or electric bass, and have their roots in Boogie-Woogie, a style derived from swing. The lines were usually simple, with a liberal amount of repetitiveness outlining chord tones, while making sure to never repeat a note. The lines were basically arpeggios exploiting the root/third/fifth relationship of triads.
Trying to figure out who first performed the “walk” in 20th Century popular music, and especially jazz, has turned out to be a lesson in futility; archeology with tweezers and toothpicks. What follows is a short history on where the walk likely arrived on the scene, with jazz at least. I make no claims in asserting that this is the final say on the matter, or that I have exhausted all of the prospects.
Walter Page (bn. 1900) was an important part of the Count Basie rhythm section in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and is commonly credited with being the originator of the walking bass style – though strong cases can be made for the inventive work by William Manuel “Bill” Johnson (bn. 1872), Steve Brown (bn. 1890), and George Murphy ‘Pops’ Foster (bn. 1892). If I were forced choose, Pops may be the one to bet on, since he has been noted to be the first to use un-syncopated quarter notes on the beats. John Lindsay (bn. 1894), and William Braud were revered by Page as his biggest influence, are two others to keep under consideration.
No one performer invented the walking bass style. It was a combination of accompaniment styles that evolved with lines played on the double bass in regular quarters notes in a 4/4-meter, with pitches usually moving in whole and half steps, or in patterns not restricted to tones of the principal harmony. The technique arose from the declining use of Stride piano patterns, and the Boogie-Woogie piano style – that repeating left-hand pattern of broken octaves, sometime in the late 1920s. By the 1930s, the style was in common use, since by then, the bass began replacing the tuba as the sole instrument sounding the bass harmony. If we take all of this into consideration, it is a safe bet that it spontaneously evolved at the same time, with a number of current players on the scene, much the same way the telephone came into being with the successful experiments by Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Watson, and Antonio Meucci; men that did not necessarily know each other at the time, but held the same vision of invention.
As important as the walk is for jazz, the same can be said for the blues. There are numerous examples of 12-bar walking bass for blues. Willie Dixon’s Walking the Blues comes to mind as a good example. I wonder How Dixon may have explained the “walk” to a novice musician or anyone else who would listen? Maybe it went something like this – using the actual lyrics to the song (in bold print):
Man, you need to slow down. We’ll get there, trust me. We’ve got all day, so take your time. As long as we don’t walk so fast, all we gotta do is make sure we stay on the sidewalk. You know, I don’t see any reason to blame people for saying, “Walking the Blues.” There is nothing quite like walking the blues. Now you know, that is all we are talking about, here, ‘cause man, this is it and where it’s at. I don’t know about you now, but I think I’ll relax. [Sits down on a nearby park bench] Just sit and be quiet for a moment, because when you walk the blues, that’s the only way to relax, but not for long.
Now watch this. I’m going to show you how it’s done. I’m going to take a few steps. [Pauses to wipe his brow] Man, is it hot today. Anyway, one step is like a pulse, sort of like a beat of music, if you follow me. All you got to do if you want to get the beat and keep it steady is put one foot in the front of the other.
It doesn’t matter how fast you go, just take the first step and keep on walking. Let’s get moving, steady now. Do you notice how the tempo stays the same? That steady footstep beat is the rhythm of music. It is that simple. That is walking the blues, just walking, man; it provides that drive, the rhythm, and the foundation the blues is built upon – That’s what I call glidin’ low. Walking bass lines are like that. Imagine the soles of your feet walking along the road, nice and steady, nothing to hectic, just walking along. Whoa, hold on a minute, I almost forgot … I mean … I hope my old lady is home when I get there. She was supposed to … oh … anyway, those bass lines have been around for centuries, man, from Bach to that Bluegrass they’ve been playing up in those hills. Man, all this walking. [Pauses, shielding his eyes from the bright sunshine] I hope she is home … I mean my wife. My Mother-in-law is always there, if you know what I mean. But so what? We’ll just keep on walking anyway. Just keep on walking, man.
Willie Dixon is an American blues legend who for more than forty years loomed in the vanguard of the Chicago blues scene. He worked as a band leader, producer, talent scout, A&R man, music publisher, singer, bassist, and is best known for his work with Chess Records. Dixon grabbed hold of a bass in 1939 and became a member of the Five Breezes, and in the following year would record for Bluebird Records.
Dixon was a multi-talented man, but his lasting legacy and by far the most important are the the numerous blues songs he composed throughout his career. Songs like, I’m your Hootchie Coochie Man, for Muddy Waters. He even supplied Howlin’ Wolf with the classic “Spoonful,” and least of all, Evil, for Sonny Boy Williamson. The Seventh Son, Wang Dang a Doodle, are like all the others just mentioned; two more classic examples of tunes that have become standards for emerging rock-and-rollers.
By the late ‘40s, Dixon played his first recording session for Aristocrat Records, a label that would soon become Chess Records in 1950. But it was not until December of 1952 that Dixon became a full-time employee of Chess and would soon score his first success as a writer/arranger with the song Third Degree, a tune recorded by Eddie Boyd that went on to score a Top Ten R&B hit in 1953. This was followed by I’m Your Hootchie Coochie Man, which would become his biggest hit of his career, reaching the top ten in 1954. Dixon was on a roll, allowing Waters the follow-up success with another top ten hit, I Just Wanna Make Love to You, another Dixon classic The Rolling Stones would deliver to British crowds in the early 1960s, before selling it back to America.
Little Walter and His Jukes, with Dixon on bass, recorded My Babe, and proved to be Dixon’s biggest hit of 1955. While Dixon was scoring major hits for other artists during this period, his own pursuits as a recording artist were, for the most part, abandoned. When he finally came around to doing some personal recording for himself, he recorded his own Walking the Blues, which found his vast skill as a songwriter striking gold once again on the top ten R&B charts.
Dixon would continue to compose numerous hits throughout the 1960s that would become staples in the rock-and-roll canon. Elvis Presley, and Ricky Nelson were two of the earliest rockers covering a Dixon song, followed by The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Humble Pie, Foghat, and the R&B group the Pointer Sisters. Other artists and groups from diverse genres as country and heavy metal combed the Dixon catalog for gold nuggets: Hank Williams Junior performed You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover, and I Ain’t Superstitious on Megadeth’s platinum scorcher Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? The vast number of artists who have covered a Willie Dixon song speaks to the value of that music and the timeless quality it has evoked through the years. Keep walking.