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Aretha Franklin's “Rock Steady”

Behold the sub-hook—that ingenious mix of melody and groove in very few notes, a simple phrase that both drives and defines a song to everyone within earshot. For all of the finely crafted, complex parts put forth by bass guitar’s founding fathers, a good sub-hook was never far away. James Jamerson had “Shotgun.” Paul McCartney had “Come Together.” Few, however, were funkier than Chuck Rainey’s contribution to the form, Aretha Franklin’s 1971 Top Ten single “Rock Steady,” from Young, Gifted and Black [Atlantic/Rhino].

Firmly established as New York’s first-call session bassist, Rainey was soon to be a member of Franklin’s crack touring band when his Atlantic Records rhythm team was brought down to Miami’s Criteria Studios to cut tracks with the Queen of Soul in the fall of 1970. Franklin, who wrote the song and provided a scratch vocal and piano part, was present at the morning session along with Bernard Purdie on drums, Cornell Dupree on guitar, Richard Tee on organ, and Rainey. (Franklin’s final vocal, the backup vocals, and the horn parts would all be added later.) Chuck plucked his ’57 Fender Precision—sunburst with a rosewood board—keeping the volume full up and the tone knob a quarter of the way open. His strings were La Bella flats, and he bypassed his favored Ampeg B-15 to record direct only. Producer Arif Mardin eventually wrote out charts, but none were really needed for the simple two-chord, two-section ditty about, ahem, jumping into your car and “taking a ride.”

After a few quick run-throughs, engineer Gene Paul (who was responsible for Rainey’s massive bass presence in the mix), said, “Let’s put one down so we can hear what it sounds like.” Rainey, Purdie, Dupree, and Tee had cut many a side together, and in a testament to their creative powers, the foursome issued a slamming first take. The diligent production team of Mardin, Jerry Wexler, and Tom Dowd had the musicians rework and re-record the song for the next three or four hours before it was finally realized that the first pass was perfection. It was also a virtual glossary of Rainey’s signature moves.

The track begins with Purdie’s pickup into four bars of hi-hat and organ. Underneath, Rainey does percussive slides up the G string, often mistaken for organ or percussion. Chuck explains, “It’s something I did on a lot of records. They put some echo on it.” The groove enters in bar 5, where Rainey reveals his sub-hook. He recalls, “It’s something that just came to me from what Bernard was playing, and Cornell knew us so well, he jumped right in with a complementary part. I probably wasn’t completely conscious of this in the moment, but my concept seemed to be that the back half of the one-bar phrase—beats three and four—would be the repeated-motif part of the line, and the first two beats would be more loosely improvised.”

Another key is that Chuck patted the part to give it a weightier, broader sound. “Patting was something I was using on many dates back then, but this being a hit record, it stood out more. I started doing it in 1962, when I first came to New York and I was working with [legendary rock organist] Bill Doggett. Patting was a way to simulate his left-hand pats on the Hammond organ through the Leslie speaker, on tunes like ‘Honky Tonk.’” He continues, “I would hold my right arm straight down toward the floor and hit the heel of my hand on the top rounded edge of the bass; my fingers would recoil and I would catch the E string with my index and middle fingers. It was like a [drummer’s] flam—I’d feel the groove in the heel and the fingers would follow on the string an instant later. I also used a lot of hammer-ons to give the part a gritty, grunting sound.”

As the first verse enters at A, Rainey continues to vary the patted phrase. It’s not until the third measure of B (bar 19) that two significant developments occur. Most obvious is that Chuck plays one of his trademark upper-register fills (though not one of his usual double-stops). “Whenever I had an open string, I was reaching up and doing that, like on Roberta Flack’s ‘Reverend Lee’ [from Chapter Two, Atlantic, 1970]. Here, what’s interesting is I normally would have played the fill at the end of the bar—as I do once in bar 30—but I had to play it at the beginning of the bar in order to leave the motif in place.” Less apparent is that Rainey sets up what becomes the phrase’s tension-and-release, when he plays on the upbeat before beat three. From there on, note how he mixes up landing right on beat three and anticipating it.

Another verse, at C, leads into the bridge at D, where Rainey switches to back-and-forth index-finger plucking for contrasting melodic shapes that Motown’s James Jamerson might have played. Note the Jamerson-like drop at the beginning of bar 34, tasty chromatic notes throughout, and one of Chuck’s own bounce-off-the-octave licks in bar 36. Rainey drives things along through two more verses at E and F (note the unique fill in bar 46) and into the second bridge at G. There, at the downbeat of bar 57, Chuck plays an ear-grabbing drop from high D to low F#, and again closes the section with his octave bounce. While the song’s A sections clearly have an A7 tonality with Rainey’s C naturals serving as “blue notes,” here the tonality at H switches briefly to Am7, as outlined by the horns. According to Chuck, that’s “an old King Curtis trick.”

Section I features a timely and nasty drum breakdown by Purdie, which Rainey says was extended four times longer when they performed the tune live. For the rideout verse at J, Chuck and crew keep it pumping until the fade, when he finally alters his mighty sub-hook at the end of bar 80 and in 82 (with another octave bounce). He laughs, “We knew the song was almost over, so we were just jamming.”

To nail the part, Rainey advises, “Check out the feel and the interplay. It’s dance music. In those days people danced together, so we played together. You can boil the whole groove down to a swampy drum cadence, so listen for that and then sit down right in the pocket and go with the flow.” He allows, “If you don’t feel comfortable patting the A sections, try thumb-slapping the line. That’s what I do now when I play it on a 5-string. Either way, it remains a special song for me.”

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