Record company executive, producer
Record company executive, producer, talent scout, and R&B pioneer Ralph Bass was aptly described by Rolling Stone’s David Fricke as one of “the great starmakers of early rock & roll,” a “master talent scout,” and a “prolific producer” who left his own indelible stamp on the charts of pop music history. During his long and successful career as a producer and Artist & Repretoire (A&R) man for the Savoy, King/Federal, and Chess record labels, Bass was instrumental in discovering, recording, and nurturing the talents of James Brown, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Etta James, Moms Mabley, Johnny Otis, Little Esther Phillips, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’Wolf, Clara Ward, and Muddy Waters. Fricke wrote, “During the Fifties and Sixties, Ralph Bass was one of the most successful producers and talent spotters in the independent record industry.” After hearing James Brown’s demo tape, which included “Please, Please, Please,” Bass quickly signed Brown to King Records in 1956, after driving as fast as possible to Macon, Georgia, through a torrential rainfall in order to arrive before Leonard Chess of Chess Records to the punch. In a late 1980s interview with Contemporary Musicians, Bass recalled seeing Brown perform for the first time in a small club in Georgia, crawling on his belly up to women in the audience and moaning, “Please, Please, Please Me.” Bass rolled his eyes, and exclaimed as though it had happened the day before, “The women were shrieking with delight! Some looked like they were going to pass out. I knew I had struck gold.”
Bass was born on May 1, 1911, to Ralph and Lena (Blaus). He was raised in a liberal Jewish family in the Bronx borough of New York City. He played the violin in high school and later worked as a violinist in various New York society bands. He attended Colgate University and New York University. Bass married Alice Robbins in 1933. They had three children: Michael, Dennis, and Joanne Patricia. He grew interested in jazz and relocated to the west coast, where he took odd jobs to support his family. He worked as a part-time DJ, liquor store owner and operator, and salesman for the Arrowhead and Puritas Water Company before joining Black & White Records as talent scout and producer in the late 1930s. At Black & White, he produced such astounding-ly talented musicians such as Dexter Gordon, Lena Home, and T-Bone Walker. His first major hit was Jack McVea’s “Open the Door Richard” in 1947. He later went on to produce the music of Erroll Garner, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, and Charlie Parker while at Black & White. He racked up numerous r&b hits when he joined Savoy Records in 1948 as their west coast A&R man. At Savoy, he produced recordings by Brownie McGee, Jay McNeely, Johnny Otis, Little Esther Phillips, and Mel Walker. Bass produced three of the top ten biggest r&b
For the Record…
Born May 1, 1911, son of Ralph and Lena (Blaus) Bass; raised in the Bronx borough of New York City; played the violin in high school; married, Alice Robbins, 1933; married, Shirley Hall, 1960; children: (by first marriage) Michael, Dennis, and Joanne Patricia. Education: Colgate University, New York University.
Worked as a part-time DJ, liquor store owner and operator, salesman for the Arrowhead and Puritas Water Company in Los Angeles, CA, joined Black & White Records as a talent scout and producer, late 1930s; produced Dexter Gordon, Lena Home, and T-Bone Walker at Black & White; first hit was Jack McVea’s “Open the Door Richard,” 1947; produced Erroll Garner, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, and Charlie Parker; joined Savoy Records, 1948 as their west coast A&R man; produced recordings by Brownie McGee, Jay McNeely, Johnny Otis, Little Esther Phillips, and Mel Walker; toured the South with the Johnny Otis Revue; produced Johnny Otis, 1949; returned to New York City, 1951 to head A&R department at King Records; oversaw creation of the King subsidiary, Federal Records; recorded “Sixty Minute Man” by Billy Ward and The Dominoes, “Work With Me Annie” by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters; signed James Brown to Federal Records, 1956; moved to Chess Records in Chicago, 1960 as a staff producer; produced hits by Etta James, Ramsey Lewis, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and The Violinaires; Chess records dissolved in 1976; Bass worked as an independent record producer after 1976.
Awards: Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1991.
Addresses: Home— 601 East 32nd Street, Apt. 500, Chicago, ILL 60616; Office— 2411 S. Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60616.
hits of the 1950s with Johnny Otis, Little Esther, and Mel Walker. After touring the South with the Johnny Otis Revue and producing Johnny Otis’ material in 1949, Bass decided he preferred the raw earthiness of the blues to the the jazz of his New York City youth. His tour of the South with Otis also opened his eyes to the racism that many black musicians experienced at the time. As a white man, Bass, hadn’t fully comprehended the racism until he witnessed it on the tour. The blues, r&b, earthy rock and roll, and gospel were all novel and exciting to Bass. Determined to follow his musical interests, he returned to New York City in 1951 as head of the A&R department at King Records.
While at King Records, Bass oversaw the creation of the King subsidiary, Federal Records. There he recorded “Sixty Minute Man” by Billy Ward and The Dominoes, material by the Five Royales, and the notorious “Work With Me Annie” by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. Bass moved to Chess Records in Chicago in 1960, which was then the nation’s seat of the urban Delta-based blues, and worked on hits by Etta James, Ramsey Lewis, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’Wolf and Muddy Waters, as well as the pioneering pop-gospel group The Violinaires. As a staff producer at Chess, Bass interacted with and nurtered a vast array of talent, both established and budding. He was especially noted for his unrestrained enthusiasm. When Chess records dissolved in 1976, Bass retired to Miami, Florida, to work at the T.K. Record Company but stayed only two years in Miami before returning to his home in Chicago. Back in Chicago, he worked as an independent record producer, and devoted a lot of time to writing his autobiography—the working title of which was, I Didn’t Give A Damn What the Whites Thought.
As a producer at Black & White, Bass produced Lena Horne’s unforgettable “Call It Stormy Monday.” However, his career and musical profile was heightened more in 1947 by a ribald, off-color comedy recording titled “Open The Door Richard”—based on an old vaudeville skit—that Bass cut with Jack McVea and his band. Bass admitted the recording was more a fluke than anything, yet in an interview with Contemporary Musicians, Bass recalled it as one of his favorite recordings. As a producer at Federal, Bass released Hank Ballard and the Midnighters” “Work With Me Annie.” The single was banned but sold more than a million copies. Bass also produced the original version of the classic r&b standard “Kansas City,” originally titled “K.C. Lovin” and recorded by Little Willie Littlefield for Federal Records.
Bass was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 where he was lauded for recording some of the greatest performers in black music. His career and success was fueled by a passion for the blues, r&b, gospel, and jazz, as well as a passion for the people who created the music. His charismatic personality and boundless zeal for life contributed greatly to his ability to work with a wide array of performers, and his tried-and-true “golden ear” for new talent gave the world some of the best American r&b, blues, and jazz in the twentieth century.
Produced on Federal/King Records
(by Jack McVea), Open the Door Richard,” 1947.
(by Billy Ward and the Dominoes), “Sixty Minute Man.”
(by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters), “Work With Me Annie.”
Produced on Black & White Label
(by Lena Home), “Call It Stormy Monday.”
(by Little Willie Littlefield), “KC Lovin,” (better known as “Kansas City”).
Bass, Ralph, I Didn’t Give a Damn What the Whites Thought,(autobiography).
Gregory, Hugh; Soul Music, Sterling Publishing Company, New York, 1991.
Rolling Stone, February 7, 1991.
Additional material was drawn from a Contemporary Musicians interview with Ralph Bass in 1989.
—B. Kimberly Taylor
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