Exclusive Interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
September 17, 2012
Nathan East is considered a legend in the bass world. Born in Philadelphia and raised in San Diego, Nathan eventually became a mainstay in the L.A. studio scene. He has recorded with Whitney Houston, Madonna, Elton John, Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, Barbra Streisand, Quincy Jones and countless others. He has also done extensive tours with Kenny Loggins, Al Jarreau, Phil Collins and Eric Clapton.
East is a founding member of Fourplay, with Bob James, Lee Ritenour and Harvey Mason. To date, the band has earned six GRAMMY nominations. Nathan was also named “Most Valuable Player” in the bass category of the International Rock Awards and is a three-time recipient of the National Smooth Jazz Award for Bassist of the Year. The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS) has awarded Nathan “Emeritus” status for winning the most consecutive years as MVP Bassist. East was also awarded a Congressional Record in recognition of his talents and services to the global music community.
FBPO: Let’s start from the beginning. Tell me about your musical upbringing. I understand you come from a pretty big family.
NE: Yes, a pretty big family and we basically all gravitated toward music. I don’t know if that was just because there was a piano in the house. I think we were just exposed to a lot of music and everybody sort of picked up an instrument or sang or played. It was kind of a natural progression.
I was in bands with my brothers. I played cello in junior high school and then switched to bass in high school. My older brother was in the stage band and when they rehearsed, I used to listen outside the door to the bass and just dream about playing with them until one day I finally got the opportunity to sit in with the band. Needless to say, it was magic! My older brothers and I were also playing in many of the churches in the San Diego area. From there I knew that this is what I really wanted to do.
Early on, I had some good calls—Barry White hired our entire band to tour the U.S. with him. So there I was, 16 years old and touring with a full-on hit act, playing places like Madison Square Garden and the Apollo Theater. Then I got a call a couple of years later from John McLaughlin to tour with him at the recommendation of Billy Cobham. After that, I moved to L.A., where I met Hubert Laws and, not only did I have the opportunity to write and record with him, but he invited me to play a bass and piccolo duet with him at the Hollywood Bowl! I’ll never forget how exciting that was. Soon after, I was doing lots and lots of recording sessions in the L.A. area.
FBPO: With so many instruments being played in your house—guitar, flute, French horn, you mentioned you yourself play the cello, what was it about the bass that attracted you to that instrument?
NE: The first thing was that there was one readily available at the church. I noticed a bass sitting on a stand at the altar and picked it up and started playing it. It was easier than guitar because it only had four strings, so that attracted me. The other thing that was attractive was just how, all of a sudden, I could color the shape and sound of the music from the bottom end, depending on what notes I chose to play. It just made everything sound cool.
FBPO: Who were your influences as a young student of bass?
NE: Well, I listened to a lot of radio back then. There was James Brown’s band, which was always so tight. It was almost like you couldn’t even imagine being that good. I listened to a lot of bands, like Earth, Wind & Fire and, of course, the Beatles became a big influence. Then bands like Chicago and Tower of Power and Blood, Sweat & Tears were all big influences. I listened to and learned much of their music. Kool & the Gang, Cream, Vanilla Fudge, War, Santana… There just seemed to be a lot of bands back in the day.
FBPO: It sounds like you were more interested in the bands as a whole than, say, Bernard Odum or Paul McCartney or Verdine White or Rocco Prestia and the other bass players in those bands that you mentioned. Is that right or were there some bass players that really got your attention?
NE: The band as a whole definitely started to catch my attention, but then I started paying attention to those great bass players and great bass lines. I started to pick up on the Verdines of the world and Larry Graham of Sly & the Family Stone, and of course Jack Bruce in Cream. There were all these great bands and then I’d find these stars that were in the band. It became a quest to be good enough to be in a band.
FBPO: You toured with Barry White when you were just 16 years old. Was that a defining moment when your career really began to take off? When you said, “This is for real, this is really going to happen!”?
NE: The Barry White opportunity was definitely a turning point because to see the inside of the Apollo Theater or the Kennedy Center in D.C. or Cobo Hall in Detroit, Madison Square Garden, when you’re 16, you’re just saying to yourself, “Wow, this is Big Time, This is it!” From there, I also pursued a music degree in college because I always knew in my heart that education was going to be an important thing, an official, proper, legitimate education. Of course there’s the school of hard knocks in the street, you know, but I was glad also to go to UCSD and get my official Bachelor of Arts degree in music.
FBPO: Did you study with Bert Turetsky?
NE: Yes I did! He was everybody’s main man and a legend at UCSD. There was also another professor named Cecil Lytle who became the piano guru there. He had won the International Franz Liszt Competition. In fact, I just mentioned his name today here in Budapest as we drove past a huge statue of Franz Liszt. Between Lytle and Turetzky, my two mentors, it was a very powerful education. When I started my Master’s program, Bert pulled me aside and said, “I think it’s time for you to move to L.A. and make some money. You don’t want to be a professional student all your life.” I am forever grateful for his words of wisdom and followed his advice!
FBPO: Were you playing upright at all, or just electric?
NE: I was playing upright as well, in college and in one of the local orchestras.
FBPO: I guess that was somewhat of a natural transition from the cello. Did you study with the bow, Simandl and all of that?
NE: Yes, Simandl, Dragonetti, everything.
FBPO: Do you ever play upright anymore?
NE: I do. I play it with Fourplay. I haven’t been doing too much “legit” work, but it’s something that I really enjoy and just another great instrument to have in the arsenal.
FBPO: Do you play German bow or French bow?
NE: I’m more comfortable using the French bow technique.
FBPO: Breaking into the L.A. studio scene is no easy task. I think the first time I had heard of you was when you were profiled in Guitar Player magazine around 1985 and you said, “Just learn the rhythms and the notes will take care of themselves!” How did you break into that scene? Was it on the recommendation of Bert Turetsky or a combination of some other things that led up to that?
NE: A few things actually happened. One was meeting Patrice Rushen, who came down to San Diego and heard me and invited me to play some gigs with her. When you meet players that like you, they are usually happy to spread the word around town.
The other thing was that by playing with Barry White, I started to get called for all of his records. Gene Page was the arranger for all of Barry White’s records. Gene heard me and he could see that I could read music and interpret it, so he started using me on all of his projects. He was the top arranger in L.A. and very busy. It was a bit of a good timing and my good fortune to have met him. Gene also became a mentor for me.
I’ll never forget one of the first sessions I did for Gene Page, I looked over and Ray Parker and Lee Ritenour were playing guitar, Ed Greene was on drums and Sonny Burke on piano and Willie Bobo on percussion. These were all the heavyweight session cats! The next thing you know, they were recommending me for other sessions. In a very short time, news traveled and my phone started ringing off the hook. I was answering the calls and running around to the studios as fast as I could!
FBPO: What advice do you have for the young, wannabe studio musicians today? Things are so different today from the scene you just described. What would you say to those people?
NE: You need to be fully committed and, even then, there are no guarantees. Right now, I’d just say plan on a lot of hard work and having to go through the fire because it’s a completely new day now. You need to have absolutely everything in your arsenal that you can have. You have to be able to read, play and interpret different genres and styles. For bass, you need to be playing upright, electric and synth bass. You just have to bring it, and get as much education as possible.
FBPO: Right. The studio scenes in L.A. or New York or Nashville are not even close to what they were a couple of decades ago.
NE: Absolutely. Now you have to be very creative to figure out how to break in. We have this conversation every day. Who are the new young guys coming up behind the veterans? We used to do twenty-five to twenty-eight sessions a week and there just isn’t that volume of work anymore. You need to have something very special going on. My best advice is to get a good education with a broad frame of reference so that you can work in a wide variety of genres. I really wanted to be diversified.
FBPO: How did the Eric Clapton gig come about?
NE: I believe we were destined to work together. We were introduced to each other in a pub in England by Phil Collins when Phil was producing his Behind The Sun album. Shortly after that I played Live Aid in 1985 with Kenny Loggins and as I was coming off stage, Eric was standing there about to go on with Phil and pulled me aside and said, “Man, you sounded great! Do you want to hang out later?” We hung out a little bit and he asked me to join his band. We made a record called August in 1986 that Phil Collins produced and played on. I remember being in Ocean Way Studio in L.A. performing these songs as if we were on stage when Eric’s manager, Roger Forrester, came in and said, “I’ve got a half-dozen dates in Europe that include the Montreux Jazz Festival and Royal Albert Hall if you’re interested.” Well, those few dates led to at least twenty years of jetting around the globe, numerous recording projects together, more than a hundred shows at the Albert Hall and the best time you could ever imagine! We’re talking Living the Dream!
FBPO: Tell me something about Eric Clapton, the man.
NE: Eric is very interesting because his life is an open book. And what a life! He’s really one of the most kind, passionate, down-to-earth guys I know. You have this big blues and rock icon on one hand, and a quiet family guy on the other. When Eric is in L.A., he’ll stop by the house and play with the kids. He has young children of his own and really enjoys the simple things in life—a good meal, being with family—it’s really a joy to see such an iconic figure be so grounded.
We’ve laughed together and sometimes cried together, like when his grandmother Rosie died. She was really more a mother to him and very dear to my heart. We were with her when she passed peacefully at home, which was very sad. We’ve been through a lot together. I remember he signed a picture to me that said, “To the brother I never had,” and I just thought we will be friends for life.
FBPO: That’s beautiful. You mentioned Lee Ritenour. Tell me about Fourplay and how that band came to be.
NE: My very first trip to Japan, in 1981, was with Lee and his band and we hit it off right away. Don Grusin was on keys, Alex Acuña on drums, and I was thinking, “These guys are my heroes and I’m actually traveling and playing with them!” Little did we know that ten years later, Bob James would call Lee and Harvey Mason and say, “I’m doing my solo album. Who should I get to play bass?” and both guys said, “Call Nathan East.”
When the four of us played in the studio, Bob could see the magic was happening. He said, “Listen, I have an executive position at Warner Bros. records and I think I can get us a deal. What do you think about forming a band?” That was more than twenty years ago and we’re still together, going strong, having a great time and what a wonderful adventure it has been!
FBPO: I’ve always enjoyed that group.
NE: Thank you, me as well.
FBPO: I understand you played with George Harrison for his final tour. What was it like performing with a Beatle?
NE: In a word...surreal! You can only imagine that it’s one of the highest honors any musician in the pop world could ever wish for! It was so much fun playing “Tax Man,” “Something,” “Here Comes the Sun” and all of his FAB music in these huge 80,000-seat stadiums! Not only was it a rare opportunity to stand on stage and perform next to a Beatle, but George also became a very dear friend. He used to send a car for me when I arrived London to bring me out to his house in Henley-on-Thames and just hang out. When we toured Japan, it just happened to be my birthday and he threw me a big party and insisted on taking me shopping at the local Versace store! I still have the beautiful leather jacket he gave me—a treasure. After George made his transition from this life, his wife Olivia told me that she was cleaning out his little meditation room at home and discovered a thank you note that I had written him among only a few articles. George touched our hearts in a very special way and I miss him dearly.
FBPO: Tell me about the new instructional bass series you’re doing for ArtistWorks, with John Patitucci and Missy Raines rounding out the bass faculty.
NE: It was one of those things that came to me again. It was nice to be on the receiving end of the phone call from David Butler, who was one of the main partners at a little company called America Online! When he retired from AOL, he wanted to learn guitar, but couldn’t travel to where his teacher was, so he had this idea of taking lessons online. He later came up with this brilliant company (ArtistWorks) and this concept that would allow you to not only get the instruction, but to be able to engage in video exchanges with your instructor.
When I got the call to be involved, they told me John Patitucci was one of the teachers and that was enough validation for me! I knew it was a serious endeavor. Billy Cobham was the drum instructor and Luis Conte was teaching percussion. Also involved were teachers like Martin Taylor, all people that I know and respect. I’m a big proponent of education and this seemed like a great program. I’ve done instructional DVDs, but there’s no interaction; you just buy it, put it on and watch it. With ArtistWorks, I videotaped tailor-made lessons for beginner, intermediate and advanced students. Then when my students view the lessons, they can actually send me videos of them playing. I’m able to critique from the road or my studio to help save my students a lot of time where otherwise a bad habit could develop for a few years before it gets fixed.
FBPO: How do you keep up with that? You’re going to be in demand because you’re all very high profile, so I can just imagine you being deluged with countless videos and critiques. How will you manage that?
NE: Actually, I’m starting to prepare for if that happens because the site has just been launched and people are just figuring out how it works. The way the program is set up, we can video our responses from on tour or wherever we are. You know, the concert is two hours, so you’ve got twenty-two hours in the day left. Instead of surfing Facebook or Twitter, it’ll be my time to go on and check out what my students are doing in their videos and jump in there and respond.
A lot of times, there are five or six general questions that everybody might ask, so what we like to do is invite students to look at the other video responses and their question might be answered. The model seems very effective and I really look forward to this worldwide educational experience where, not only can I share some of the wisdom from my years of experience in the business, but actually be able to exchange videos with and meet students from around the world.
FBPO: That’s great. I wish you well with it. People are fortunate to have your ear.
NE: Thank you. Something like this would’ve come in handy when I was growing up. I used to read every article I could about my heroes. Anything I read about Chuck Rainey or James Jamerson or any recording I saw them on, I would buy. I think it’s an investment and if you’re really serious about wanting to play the bass guitar, it’s a great investment in your future.
FBPO: What else is keeping you busy these days?
NE: We are about to release a new Fourplay record. I think it’s our 13th CD now in twenty years. It’s called Esprit De Four and coming out September 18. We’re all really excited about sharing our new music with the world.
FBPO: Who are you touring with right now?
NE: I’m in Europe right now touring with Toto.
FBPO: That’s got to be a fun gig!
NE: Every note is fun! I’ve been having the best time touring Europe with the guys—David Paich, Steve Porcaro, Steve Lukather, Joseph Williams, also Jenny Douglas and Mabvuto Carpenter. These are top musicians and playing with them is an absolute joy. We just came off of a great gig in Switzerland all saying, “Wow, how much fun was that!”
I also just produced and co-wrote with Anita Baker for her new CD, Only Forever, which will be released on October 23rd. This is her first CD in eight years and I’ve pretty much been involved with all of them from the very beginning. Anita said, “You know, you’ve been there behind the scenes the whole time. I’d like to ask you to produce this next one coming up.” We’re really excited about that. Her records, to this day, really hold up because she’s always been true to music and not just a fad or a particular style that was popular back in the day. When you listen to her music, all of her albums have this timeless feel about them. It’s just good music, so for me it was a great opportunity, not only to play and work with her, but to be able to write songs that have more than just two chord changes.
FBPO: How about the future? You’ve already done so much. What else would you like to do that you haven’t already accomplished?
NE: I’ve been offered a recording deal by Yamaha Entertainment Group and they’re pushing for me do a Nathan East album. I’ve been blessed to work with so many major artists, like Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder, now Toto and Fourplay, and I’ve been involved in a lot of wonderful musical situations. I think it’s time to actually gather what I’ve learned and put that energy into a project of my own and maybe even call in a few favors from those guys to come in and play on my record.
FBPO: Please do it!
NE: [Laughs] Yamaha just formed this company. I think it’s a really good idea because they have a lot of artists, like Elton John, Michael McDonald and Sarah McLachlin, in their musical family and a pretty substantial worldwide outreach. I think it was a smart move for them to start a label because now they can actually provide music and not just instruments.
FBPO: We would all look forward to that. I speak on behalf of not just bass players, but of musicians and music lovers everywhere.
NE: I really appreciate it because I have lots of music inside me that I would like to get out and I think this is the perfect opportunity.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
NE: I’m actually a private pilot and love flying airplanes. Like music, piloting airplanes is one of those jobs that you can say beats working for a living! I also love photography.
The following Nathan East DVDs are available in the FBPO store:
The Business of Bass
Nathan has also endorsed Jon Liebman's 2nd book, Funk/Fusion Bass
by Jon Liebman
Also see our exclusive interviews with John Patitucci, Rocco Prestia
and Chuck Rainey, all of whom are mentioned in this interview: