Music is My Life: Episode 004
Nathan East on Playing Bass with Absolutely Everyone
In this podcast from Berklee Online, Nathan East shares his story. If you haven’t heard the name Nathan East before, you have definitely heard his bass. He has played on upwards of 10,000 songs, many of them hits, by artists such as Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Beyoncé, Lionel Richie, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Bob Dylan, and thousands more! His new solo album, Reverence is out now!
Nathan first picked up the bass 47 years ago. We’ll let him set the scene for you. Here is the podcast transcript:
Nathan East: Yeah, I was 14. I picked it up actually in a church. And there was a feeling of—I’m not going to use the word power, but there was just this feeling of wow, I know this. It’s a spiritual thing too, where you get this instrument in your hand and all of a sudden there’s this liberating feeling that you can make a difference in music harmonically, some kind of way. It was quite a revelation.
Talk to me about what your awareness of the bass guitar was before you ever picked up the bass guitar.
Well, I had a couple of influences. When I was in high school, I would go by and my brother, David was playing with the big band. And Gunnar Biggs, the bass player in there, I remember he had a Fender jazz bass. I used to stand outside the door, and you could just hear the bass supporting all those horns. It was like heaven to me, just to hear the register of the bass.
They’d be playing Don Ellis tunes and all these cool tunes anyway. But my ear would just focus on the bass and how cool it was. And I’ll never forget, he actually gave me a bass and mentored me early on. That’s where I got a big desire for big band music and playing in an ensemble.
My mom actually took me to the pawnshop, and we bought this little $49, short scale Japanese bass. And I’ll never forget that either, because it was like the big time. Then, she went and took me to Manny’s Music in New York City on 48th Street. Then we went and got a Fender jazz bass. I remember it had the plate over the bridge, and the smell of the case, it was just very intoxicating.
Do you still have all those instruments?
The very first one, the little, short one, I don’t have. I had been looking for that for a while. But I do have my first bass that mom bought me, the Fender jazz bass to this day.
That’s great. And before that you were playing cello. Is that right?
I played cello for three years in the junior high school band. The upright was a little too big. I was a little, skinny guy. The violin and viola were a little too small, so I picked cello just as a nice—and it’s a great instrument that I love as well. Really good fine tuning, ear training. But I remember making the switch from tuning it in fifths to tuning in fourths. I actually used to use the cello like an upright. I’d tune it in fourths and go and play little gigs at rehearsals with it using it as a bass.
That’s great. And then you joined a band, right?
Yeah, at that point in high school, I joined as many school bands as possible. Then I also was in a top 40 band called Power with my brother and a few of the other musicians from school. And we were playing around town. That’s how we got the gig with Barry White, because he hired our band for a local thing that they did in San Diego. He enjoyed the whole band so much he just hired all of us to go on tour. So the next thing you know, I’m 16 years old, I’m playing the Apollo Theater in Madison Square Garden, and Kennedy Center with Barry White, who was at that point where his career was pretty much on fire.
That doesn’t happen to most bass players two years after they start playing.
No, I’m barely learning the notes on the thing.
So describe how that all came about. That must have been mind blowing.
Well, yeah. Especially when it’s all new like that, and we’re talking about the early ‘70s. So it was all so new and fresh. So when I say music is my life pretty much—because right from then on, it’s just been going. And that was an introduction to what it’s like to play in a big arena, and put your tuxedo on, and play with love in a limited orchestra. And so it just ends up being almost like, grooming you for what’s about to come.
What was that first tour like as far as was it easy to pick up on the stuff? That’s some pretty musically complicated stuff he was doing there.
Pretty much, yeah. It was one of those gigs where there was music involved and we all read music. And basically it was all those hits that he used to do. So you know those anyway from playing them in bands.
So that gig ends and then you knew that this was your life at that point? Talk to me about after the tour. What happens in your mind and in your family, and with the people you’re playing with?
Well, pretty much you get bitten by the bug at that point. Obviously, I’m still a youngster, and I had my college years ahead of me. So I decided that I may as well get every tool that I can put in my tool box. So that if I moved to LA or New York or wherever, I’ll be ready to go. So that’s when I decided to go to UCSD and major in music. That’s where I got my Bachelor of Arts degree in music.
Tell me about that decision. A lot of people in your place I’d imagine would just say, OK I’m a professional musician now. But was it your own decision to go to school to pursue a further musical education, or were your parents influential in that?
Oh yeah. Well, from the parents’ standpoint, education is always so important. So that was something that just needed to happen. But at the same time, I’m thinking to myself, if I want to go be a session cat or anything serious, I don’t want it to—one gig is just one gig. So that’s what I think happens to a lot of musicians where you get on a good gig, and then once that’s over it’s like, OK, now what? George Harrison used to crack me up. He used to say, “Yeah, I do this music thing in between my gigs as a waiter at the restaurant.”
That’s good. What was your fallback? If it didn’t work out, what were you going to do?
Well, at that early age school is always—When you’re in school, you’re in the comfort zone of the institution of a university, what have you. Actually I moved out pretty early on, but my brother and I had an apartment together so the rent wasn’t too exorbitant. And we were living within our means. And I thought if I was able to get an education, you can teach. And also, he got his pilot’s license, so I got my pilot’s license. I always thought to myself, that’s another thing that you can do with it. It’s like music, it doesn’t really seem like work. Flying planes around.
But I always remember working at a men’s clothing store when I first got into college just to pay the bills and combine that with some gigs. And one thing leads to another. Then I moved to LA once I got my bachelor’s. Started a master’s program, and Bert Turetzky one day he said, “Man, I think you should move to LA and start making money.”
Right about the end of 1979 or early 1980’s, I moved and started my recording career.
Looking at your credits it says Dolly Parton is one of the first albums you played on?
Yeah, Dolly. Actually I was very fortunate to get introduced to Gene Page, a fantastic arranger, and he was doing everything. He did all the Barry White records. But he was doing Elton John and Dionne Warwick. So Dolly Parton was one of the gigs that he was doing too. They used to say that if he likes you, you’re going to work. So we got off to a great relationship. And it really was a blessing to know a guy like Gene, because he just started calling me for everything.
So he’s the one? He’s the one—
He’s the one.
—who made it happen. Obviously you’re playing and your demeanor. I mean, look at your credits. Is it really like 2,000, more than 2,000 recordings that you’ve played on?
You know, I find it difficult to keep up now, because when you’re going on 40 years, when you start doing the math, and there was a time when I was doing 28 almost 30 sessions a week. That’s like four a day. You’re almost living in the studio.
Back in the day when you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a studio in LA, there were hundreds of studios and hundreds of projects going on at all times. So it really was a fluid time for the music business, and for those of us that were fortunate enough to be in that circle. We were getting called. I just drove up and down Sunset Boulevard. Jump in the recording session with Lionel Richie in the morning, and then be with Clapton and Phil Collins at night. It was crazy."I just drove up and down Sunset Boulevard. Jump in the recording session with Lionel Richie in the morning, and then be with Clapton and Phil Collins at night. It was crazy." —@NathanEast Click To Tweet
That is amazing. So now when you’re doing that, 30 sessions a week, do you have the wherewithal to realize which sessions are really special?
Well, for me every session was special, whether it was a Hertz rent-a-car jingle or—I remember some of these jingle sessions. You’d have an hour and you’d do 10, a dozen songs. They’d just peel them out. You had to just have your sight reading chops way up.
So for me it was just always exciting to get a call. I get to play and do what I love doing the most. So whether it’s Dolly Parton or rent-a-car commercial or whatever, I’m just smiling because I’m doing what I love doing the most.
From this time on, from the early ‘80s when you’re playing on all these sessions, how much of you are you bringing to it and how much are you just trying to please the artist? It’s such an interesting thing with the bass because it can be treated in so many different ways.
And with all those experiences, everybody has a different way of looking at it. I can remember before I moved to LA, coming up to audition with the Crusaders. So the Jazz Crusaders, and I was a big fan of those guys too. Larry Carlton played guitar in the band for a while. But the primary group was Stix Hooper, Joe Sample, and Wilton Felder.
And they were auditioning bass players. And I went up and did the audition. And they sent me back home with my tail between my legs. I failed miserably, and I couldn’t figure out why. Because I knew these tunes up one side and down the other. But they had this very specific concept about what they wanted from a bass player. And they sat me down and explained the Houston Funk, and what they look for and how the bass should walk up to this, and down to that. Long story short, they called me to record for one of their albums. I wasn’t available, and they waited till I got back into town. So I thought, oh man, that’s a happy ending to the story.
So what year was that when you first auditioned for them?
That would have been around 1979.
So it was before your big, grand entrance.
Yeah, I was sort of an unknown guy. I didn’t change the way I played any. But to get back to your question earlier. You always keep the most important thing which is the song. That’s the most important thing for the bass. And you listen to the singer. You listen to the melody. Like Jacko used to say, “Learn the melody and then that lets you know what to play underneath it.”
So even instead of trying to inject my own voice and personality, what I was really focusing on was just what was right for this song and what I could play that when I walk out of the studio, there’s a really good chance that I’ll get a call back to come back. That was my thought process.
So now when you get to the early ‘80s and you’re playing with Lionel and the Pointer Sisters, and you start to hear the songs you’ve played on the radio, were you playing so much that you didn’t know one of your bass lines or something you played on or anything?
Well it happens a lot. I mean obviously, the first few years it’s just me riding around and then hearing something all my friends used to say, “Hey, Nate’s on the radio,” “Here’s something Nate played on.” They used to tease me, because later on they’d call me out, “Hey, here’s something Nate didn’t play on.” They were giving me a hard time.
But yeah, to this day, it’s always exciting. I heard my song “Lifecycle” on the radio the other day from my new album. And I got all choked up, because it was like, oh man, they’re playing me, my song, this thing I created, and it just still makes my heart go pitter-patter when I hear it.
And that’s an especially different thing, because that’s not just your bass that you’re hearing on that one. You’re hearing your voice, which is a whole different story.
A whole different story. And so I feel really excited that at this stage in my career, now after so many years—three and a half, going on four decades, that there’s still something that really is fresh and exciting, and makes me even—it’s still new. And it’s really again, when we talk about it. Music is my life. It really has been.
Is there ever anything that comes up that somebody says, “Hey, you know you played on this?”
Yeah, there was one thing. I think it was one of my friends who called me the other day. From this animated film Sing, the song was “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” by Stevie Wonder and the guy was raving about the production and everything. I’m going, really? And then he sent me the YouTube link, and I looked and I said, “You know, I think I played on that.” And sure enough, I remember playing on that. But we recorded it over a year ago. So when I’m in the car with the kids and something comes on that I played, they’re always, “Daddy, there you are.” It’s always exciting.
And again, it’s a big, fun part of life. You celebrate something that you do from the heart, and that’s what I appreciate about the Grammys where you can’t really compare. OK, the best instrumental R&B song is—I mean everybody’s just pouring their hearts out. But I do appreciate the fact that they acknowledge the work that we do and that there’s something that celebrates what we go in and do every day for a living. We love it. And most of us, I think, would do it until we can’t anymore.
You mentioned your family and your kids. Is music always in your house?
Yes, music is always in our house. My wife and I have been married for 22 years, and we met at UCSD. Very connected through music. She went on and became a physician, but loves music. And when I bring the tracks home from an album that I’m working on, and we put it—I can always tell if it’s good or not if she’s dancing around the room, and then she puts a big smile on her face. I can check that one off. That it got the person’s approval that I think the most highly of.
What song did you guys dance to at your wedding? What was your first dance?
Well, actually it was another blessing to have some friends. My friend Lionel Richie was at the wedding and Richard Marx actually played “Now and Forever I Will be Your Man.” That was a very special wedding song for us and we got married right in our house in Tarzana. It was beautiful. Greg Phillinganes came in and played some piano. So very, very special day.
Now, tell me a little bit about playing with your son. That must be something else.
Yeah, for me it’s right up in the miracle category. First year, changing this guy’s diapers and loading him into a car seat and the next thing you know, you’re playing these sophisticated harmonies with him. And it goes by so quickly. He played on my first CD we covered yesterday. And then we did “Over the Rainbow” for the second CD. Every time he came in and nailed it and was prepared. Not only am I proud that he’s my son, but he’s just so musical. He has great ears. He has perfect pitch and most importantly, he just has so much heart when he plays. So as a father, you just couldn’t be more proud. And it’s just for me, it’s just another blessing that I’m so grateful for.
And did you teach him?
He studies at a school called Piano Play Music Systems here in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. And the cool thing is these were arrangements that they had him working on anyway. So it’s like hey, what are you working on? And he came up with these hip arrangements. And I’m going, yeah, very, very grateful for what they’ve been able to accomplish and they keep pretty busy over there too.
And now as you’ve said, you’ve played music for four decades, and you’ve played with a lot of legendary musicians from previous eras. And now you’re playing with younger musicians as well. So what is your outlook on what’s in store for the future?
Well, I think we’re at one of the most exciting places in music we’ve ever been. And my son, actually Noah, had me put up a Snarky Puppy video on YouTube the other day. And he said, “Dad check this out.” And he played it for me. Blew my socks off. Corey Henry took a solo that I’m still recovering from.
And then there’s Jacob Collier and of course Esperanza. She’s amazing. And so you see these shooting stars coming out, and I’m just so excited about the fact that people still get it. People still love music. Young musicians are coming up, and they’re pushing that envelope. Some of these guys I would never jump in the ring with.
Some of those guys what?
Some of these guys I would never step in the ring with some of these guys.
Really? You’re intimidated?
Absolutely, are you kidding? Man, there’s some monsters out there.
Wow, but I think a lot of people would refer to you as a monster on the bass.
Well, I try to play a good song. I try to come up with a good part for a song. But there’s Dirty Loops and all these guys. These kids are not playing. They’re really taking it to another level, which makes me really happy and really proud.
Well, let’s talk for a minute about some of the musical legends you have gotten in the ring with over the past four decades. Beyoncé, Aretha, George Benson, Eric Clapton, who you’ve played extensively with. Phil Collins, and there’s obviously the song that you wrote with Phil Collins and Philip Bailey, “Easy Lover” and a lot of people who aren’t with us anymore. Barry White, who we spoke of earlier, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Donna Summer.
Well, it’s funny you should mention Donna Summer, because I just recently thought about how great of a voice she had, and I was trying to figure out who could sing a song that we were doing. And she was one of the names that popped into my head. And I thought to myself, it’s just a shame that I can’t just pick up the phone and call her. And Maurice White is another one of those guys. He was like a brother and a mentor to a lot of us. The news of his death just took the wind out of my sails. But yet, so many people. 2016 was really a tragic year for a loss in this business, with Glenn Frey and Prince, and all these young people. I remember where I was. I remember the street I was driving when I got the call about Michael Jackson.
And so that’s one of the reasons I wanted to pay reverence to some of these guys. I did two Earth, Wind & Fire songs on the new album. And for me, even though they’re gone, it’s like their spirit is right here. So it’s just sad not to be able to pick up the phone and call and check in and say “Hey, I’m very blessed to have said that I played on an Earth, Wind & Fire album.”
There’s an album called Touch the World. Maurice called me, and first of all, I was horrified, because Verdine White is one of my heroes. And I can remember seeing those guys when I was a kid and there he was. He had his shirt off. He had a white bass. I just wanted to copy everything he did. He became like a role model for me. When you get a call to play on Earth, Wind & Fire album, you think, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. What am I going to do that he can’t do? But it was a fantastic experience.
And I’m sure it was just—again, Maurice White was in that mode. I loved the way he was always experimenting, and his mind stayed open. So the architecture of the group changed in many ways throughout their existence.
You have played with so many people. Is there anybody left that you have always wanted to play with?
Well, Prince was on that list. So I missed that opportunity. Actually Miles Davis was on that list a while back. When I look at U2 I think, oh man, how cool would it be to play with those guys? One time.
That would be cool.
And I’m a huge Pat Metheny fan, and although we’ve jammed together, informally played, we haven’t done anything formal. James Taylor as well. We always joke about doing something together. But he has a great band. Jimmy Johnson of course, plays bass and musical director. But James Taylor would be another guy I would love to play with.
And how did you get to a point when you’re writing with Philip Bailey and Phil Collins, and you’re writing with Babyface, how did you get to that point in your playing where you’re introducing songs, or songs are happening through a jam? Explain that a little bit.
Well, many times in the studio for instance, with Phillip Bailey’s record, we were in England. We had recorded for two weeks. Probably had a dozen songs maybe recorded. And on the very last day, or the day before the last day, he—I’m still looking for that undeniable single where the record label just said, “We’ll pick this.” That was an invitation pretty much to go over to the piano and start working out chords. And then it literally was like one of those, “Well, what about this?” moments. Started playing these chord changes, and then next thing you know, 20 minutes later, we had this skeleton of a tune. At least enough to make a track.
But every single way is different. Sometimes you’re with a person and you think oh, wouldn’t it be fun to write together. “Would you like to write?” There used to be a lot of that going on for sessions. And you’re in this creative environment. It’s fun to be able to participate on that level, as well as just playing.
It’s funny. Everybody I talk to like, “Oh I’m talking to Nathan East.” They’d go, “Oh yeah, what did he play on?” And I’d name a few songs, and I’d say, “Oh he played on “Get Lucky.” And every time I got to that one, they’d say “Oh, that’s a really good bass line.” So what is the bass line? Is that the bass line that most people know you by? Or is there one that you wish they knew you by?
Well, it’s funny, because “Get Lucky” was another day in the life of session for me. Another day of OK, what can I come up with? Trying really hard to do something that serves the song, and something that’s interesting. And it got so much coverage, so much attention. That I’m obviously very grateful for and proud of. But there’s some songs, “Change the World” by Eric Clapton. That was one I was very proud of. “Love Will Follow” by Kenny Loggins, way back in the ‘80s. “Easy Lover,” I like that bass line. “101 Eastbound” from Foreplay.
These are parts that I’m really happy—all the Anita Baker records that I did, which from the very first one with her, have parts that I’m very proud of.
And with all these people that you have played with, and playing on your own, and having old friends come in to record on Reverence and the previous albums, What do you look for in somebody that you’re playing with? Is it the musicianship? The personality? Both?
Well, music is such a dialogue. And that’s what we enjoy for instance, when I played with Foreplay. We’ve been together for 25 years now, with Bob James and Harvey Mason. Now Chuck Loeb, formally, Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour. We’re talking about some of the top, finest musicians ever, period, in the world. And so the thing is, it’s always a dialogue. It’s a conversation that we have when we all pick up our instruments, and we start responding to what we’re hearing.
And that’s one of the things I always emphasize to the young players. Because you can sit in your room, and you can practice your licks, and come out and be rippin and roarin, but it means so much more in the context of a dialogue with some other musicians. And I’ve been very fortunate to play with great musicians throughout my career which every time helps you learn. And to this day, you pick up little things as you go.
Working with Michael Jackson as compared to working with Bob Dylan as compared to working with Lionel. Is there a through line in the way that they work and the dialogue that they would have with the musicians and the songs?
Yeah, I think everybody regardless of genre or instrument, it’s kind of like they’re bringing a piece of their heart with them. So when you’re sitting in the room with Eric Clapton and B.B. King, which by the way, two of the guys with the biggest hearts I’ve ever played with. It just comes through in their music. And it doesn’t have to be flashy. One note will move you. And move you into another direction. And it determines what you play.
Most important advice that I can give to young musicians, and I got the same advice, is to listen. Because if you listen to what’s going on around you, it’s almost the blueprint of what you should be doing. And especially in an environment and in the studio where you’re making a record. I mean you really, really got to listen to what’s going on.
When you go in and you know it’s a pop recording, do you approach that differently than something that’s very complicated?
Yeah, when I go into record, I literally use each session as an opportunity to create what the best part is for whatever song I’m working on. So it’s just a series of songs, and it’s probably been well over 10,000 songs since I started, or recordings where you just, OK, here’s one piece of music. OK, you listen to it, and the only thing I’m thinking about when I listen to that song is, what is the absolute best way to support this? What’s the best bass part? What’s the best thing I can play for this song? And I keep carving ideas out until I get something that I feel is perfect for the song. So that’s what I’ve spent my life doing for almost the last 40 years. Just song by song, session by session. Just trying to make sure you leave some good notes behind.