Passing The Torch: How The Bass Has Bonded Father And Son
Electric bassist Billy Rich has associations with some pretty big names in the music world. From Buddy Miles and Taj Mahal, to the late great mind of Jimi Hendrix, Billy’s electric bass skills have led him to play with some pretty memorable stars. He’s toured the world and is a founding member of the electric bass history that’s idolized by many. With solo albums and band mainstays across the board, Billy’s hasn’t ever let his fame go to his head. How could it when he’s been doing the same thing since before I was even a thought in my parent’s minds?
“When I was 18-years-old, I already knew what I wanted to do. And I had goals set for me,” Billy told the Denver Urban Spectrum over beers and Bloody Marys one cloudy Friday in May. The rumble of growling cars lingered only as long as the cars did, while Frank Sinatra’s sultry voice played overhead. The natural noises of the day were the perfect addition to Billy’s casual demeanor, one that gave brief glimmers of his younger days.
The now 69-year-old Omaha native has a lot to be proud of—and his younger days are a perfect portal to take us back to the place Billy’s story started: Nebraska in the 1950s.
Despite what was going on in Billy’s hometown, the rest of America was rediscovering themselves. At the height of our military power, the post-war baby boom was fully upon us. Not only did that mean there were more babies being born, but the changes in the economy, availability of automobiles, and the idealistic suburban housing market were all options to more people than ever. These familial wheels were set into motion, as the prospects of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness continued to grow. The addition of schools, interstates, a middle-class job market that paid more for a better life, put many Americans back in high spirits.
But for the African Americans living in this country, there was still a lot of fighting to be done. The civil rights movement was chugging alongside the fight to keep communism outside of our state lines. Luckily for Billy, positive role models who helped prune him into the experienced musician he is today surrounded him.
Family and Musical Idols Influences
Born Eddie Wilbur Rich, Billy was introduced to the art of music at a very young age. “I started playing guitar when I was seven years old,” said Billy. At that point, Billy’s father decided to start a family band, which would later be called the 7 Wonders. The Rich family band was built on the importance of practicing, which afforded them the skills to perform original songs, play at local Omaha venues, and gain some notoriety as an established band to watch.
There are even traces of their original promotional flyers out there, introducing the 7 Wonders to the world, with high praise for Billy, referring to him as a ‘wizard at the guitar.’ That’s some pretty high praise for being under 10. But because Billy was simultaneously watching his siblings excel musically as well, he was encouraged to develop his craft for life. Side by side with his singing sister Carolyn, his percussionist and vocalist brother Bob, and the “musical genius” of the family, Herb, Billy was under the direction of true teachers. “Herb was a genius, he started playing when he was like 3-years-old,” said Billy, of his late brother. “I learned a lot from Herb.” Not only did he have a front and center seat to watch his brothers and sister do their thing, the 50s and 60s were ripe with talented musical idols.
“At that time, Chuck Berry and Duane Eddy really influenced me with the rock n’ roll,” said Billy of his outside influences. No matter, there were plenty of positive examples, who sat across from him at the dinner table. And when his brother Herb moved on to play with the psychedelic funk rock band, The Electric Flag, Billy could only watch in awe, for he was still under 10 years old. That’s when he got the next big thing: A Danelectro double neck guitar.
“When I got the Danelectro, ooh,” Billy said, getting excited at the memory. “I think I had played the regular guitar for about a year or so, maybe two. And then I remember getting that double neck guitar, that Danelectro. And that’s when it all started. I had never touched the bass before, until then.” It’s almost easy to say that the rest was history, but his story doesn’t end there.
All of the practice of performing in front of a crowd left Billy already educated on how being in the spotlight changes people, even if he changes instruments. But he didn’t let it change him. And to imagine making such a conscious decision at an age where many of us can barely get dressed, alone, is mind-boggling. “I was getting too much attention playing guitar,” Billy told us. “When I was playing, I was 7 or 8-years-old, and I would make more money from these old drunk ladies, coming and putting dollar bills in my pocket.” And even if that sounds like a situation some would stick around for, Billy isn’t some. “Actually, that’s really why I switched to the bass. I kinda like being in the background,” said Billy. “I don’t need all that attention.” What Billy didn’t know, was even if he transitioned to a role that wasn’t necessarily front and center, he was still going to be seen—and heard.
All About That Bass
From that point on, Billy worked hard to perfect his craft. Practicing with and without the 7 Wonders gave him the upper hand. When it was time for him to graduate from high school, Billy had already established himself as a top-notch musician. Participating in a few local bands was only the beginning, and boosted his dreams of bigger and better stages. In reality, it made it clear that his goal of “owning my own house and retiring by 35,” didn’t look so far off. Especially when he hooked up with The Whispers, a boogie, soul-funk group with hit records like ‘And The Beat Goes On’ and ‘Rock Steady.’ “Oooh, touring with The Whispers, that was my first gig. I left Omaha, I’d just gotten out of school, and I got drafted but, I left to go on the road with them and it was interesting,” said Billy of his first experience on the road. Getting linked up with The Whispers was a natural progression from the 7 Wonders, but imagine being 18, driving around with a group of musical fellas, all a little older than you, far away from home. This is the kind of experience that makes or breaks a musician.
“We went back to the East Coast, we starved, I lost my car,” he laughed out, despite the gruesome reality that it was at the time. “So it was what you call, ‘paying dues.’ But if it wasn’t for The Whispers, getting me out of Omaha, that’s where a lot of stuff started [for me].”
For Billy, paying dues paid off. This funky tour ended with Billy landing in San Francisco in about 1968, right at the time the musical explosion took over the West Coast. It’s hard not to recognize the serendipitous ending that resulted from Billy’s advantageous tour with The Whispers. And whether his next move presented itself because Billy was simply in the right place at the right time, or his never-ending string of familial connections showed useful, being there in San Francisco was exactly where Billy needed to be. The end of The Whispers tour put him in perfect proximity to reconnect with his older brother, Herbie, who at the time was still making waves with The Electric Rug. Herbie was playing with Buddy Miles, a name that could be heard in every musical household in the 60s. Miles not only founded The Electric Rug, but also played with stellar names like Jimi Hendrix, The Delfonics, Carlos Santana, Bootsy Collins, and John McLaughlin. And the next name added to that list: Billy Rich. Their connection was immediately electric and spurred Buddy to start a new venture: The Buddy Miles Express, starring Billy Rich, himself.
The trio—made up of Billy, Buddy, and Herbie—got around, but working with Herb was nothing like the first time. “It was totally different,” said Billy, of the feeling he got when the Buddy Miles Express came to fruition. “As far as my brother Herb, he’s not with us now. He’s been gone for a long time. But if it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.” And it was during one of their first gigs together that they were joined by an even bigger name – a name (and character) that changed the trio – and Billy – forever. A name that, at the time, was even bigger than Buddy Miles, Billy Rich, and Herbie Rich, combined. The name? Jimi Hendrix, remember him? The celebrated musician joined the Buddy Miles Express onstage, and later, continued to work with the band, by helping produce ‘69 Freedom Special,’ the song Billy wrote for their album.
“Working with Jimi is like...it was incredible,” said Billy. “He was the best and it was a pleasure working with him and I wish he was still around now to do some more.” What some might say is Billy’s most memorable collaboration, comes with an equally memorable story. “I wrote the song, Jimi produced it, it was on the Buddy Miles Electric Church album,” recalled Billy of the origins behind ‘69 Freedom Special.’ “Yeah, Jimi produced it and came up with the name because that was the year I got out of the service.” The underlying social statement is only one created by the musical genius behind so many other symbolic tunes. And this one has Billy’s fingerprints all over it.
Even after Billy’s day with the Buddy Miles Express had come and gone, the music that flowed inside him didn’t stop. The electric bassist continued to work his fingers with the magic that everyone else always saw there. And although it seemed as though Billy had reached the highest point of his career – mind you, before he was even 21 – there were still a lot of folks who Billy shared the stage with. From Tony Furtado and GeoffMuldaur, to Butterfield, the list goes on and on and on…not to mention making a stop at a solo career that produced two independent albums and (hopefully) an upcoming solo tour.
Time With The Taj Mahal Band
What continued to grow into a lifelong career, playing bass with some of the hottest bands around, took a stable turn when Billy met Taj Mahal. Mahal, whose been known for being one of the many self-taught blues musicians to make waves, is where our story catches up with the time. The two met in LosAngeles, when Billy was still recovering from the Jimi Hendrix experience. “I was working with the Buddy Miles Express at that time and we were doing a show. We had the opening at the Whiskey A Go Go in LA,” recalled Billy. “And Taj came there that night, and Jimi Hendrix came that night. And uh let’s see...” It was almost as if the events of that fateful night were being replayed behind his soft eyes. “The Chambers Brothers, the Pointer Sisters, Dr. John, everybody was there that night. And then after that, we had the same management going on. And I think I played a gig with him maybe four or five months, after that.” And once that relationship was given form, it hasn’t stopped growing with the men, meeting major milestones in their lives. “My first gig with Taj was over in London and it was on my 21st birthday,” says Billy. “So I and Taj go way back. I’ve been working with him for maybe like 45 years, plus...off and on.”
Like Father, Like Son
No matter the band, venue, or instrument, Billy stayed humble, thankful for the opportunities that his family had given him, and never forgot who he was and what he wanted in life. Although his dream of retiring by 35 didn’t happen as planned, Billy’s accomplishments extended further than he ever imagined. “I knew what I wanted to do back when I was 18, and it’s just been all about just following through with it,” says Billy, “and here I am, doing the same thing. Wouldn’t change a thing.” He paused to think, and then chuckled out in his light way, “maybe one thing or two.” This sensibility that makes Billy such a true spirit was passed down to his own son, as his father once did for him.
The connection between Billy Rich and Scottie Rich is apparent in their natural vocal cadence, alone. The sobering way both Billy and Scottie speak, and then pause, to think back on the good times (and the not so good times) is one that can be heard almost immediately. The perfectly placed pauses make me want to travel back to another musical era, standing and watching the talent of the time. And like his father got to experience in watching his brothers and sisters perform, Scottie has had a similar experience – only this time, he was watching his father.
“I can’t even count the number of times I have seen him play live,” said Scottie as we chatted over the phone. I listen hard to his words, trying to catch the similarities within his voice. It didn’t take long before Scottie exposed his likeness to his dad. “I would always go to his recording sessions since he would let me tag along.” He paused, and I held on to every last second of silence. “They had a tour in Hawaii once, with Taj, and I got to hang out behind the stage and watch from back there.”
But before Scottie knew his father was a star, he wanted to be a star of his own—just not one on the stage.
“My first dream was football, and I was actually a pretty decent player,” said Scottie. And despite having a physical talent rivaled by many, he still ended up having an instrument in his hands at the ripe age of 8 or 9-years-old. “I actually started out on trumpet,” said Scottie, despite his father’s warnings to stay away from music.
“I always tried to tell Scottie, don’t play music ‘cause I was like, paying dues was rough,” admitted Billy. But probably like many musicians have ignored their fathers before them, Scottie Rich took on the same destiny as his dad.
Even if Scottie doesn’t remember the moment he really saw his father like the star we know him to be, until he was 13 years old, he knew that he played music for a living. And he knew that some of the names floating around next to his father’sname, were bigger than time. So despite Billy’s efforts, his son was intrigued.
“Because of my dad’s name, I picked up the bass,” said Scottie. “But my experience was a lot different [from my dad’s]. I didn’t have any struggles.”
Post-high school graduation, Scottie did something else similar to his father: he left home on tour. “I start touring internationally, doing more USO and DOD shows, for the military,” says Scottie. “I started off going overseas and it wasn’t as difficult as getting stranded.” Once he was back stateside, everything sort of took off from there. Scottie spentsome times playing with big names (like dear old dad) and took that as an opportunity to branch off into his own thing.
“I played with a band called The Healers,” said Scottie, of his experience with the well-known reggae group. “The drummer and I broke off and started our own band, Lion Souljahs.” Whether or not the underlying factor to his success stems from learning his father’s story of struggle is true, Scottie’s own devotion to the music and naturally charismatic undertones say a lot. And his ever-changing interest in different styles of music lends him a defined ear that hears creativity a mile away.
Citing Victor Wooten and Marcus Miller as some of his musicalinfluencers, does not negate his father’s impact on him. How could it, when Scottie had backstage passes to some of his father’s best shows? This connection has helped the two grow closer, not only because music has always bonded them. “I mean of course we’ve developed that strong bond, because we’re in the same world,” said Billy, the matter of factly. “That’s my son, my boy.” A massive smile takes over his warm face, and you can feel the love just hovering. And it seems the tables have turned. “I’m learning stuff from him, you know,” Billy says, giving his son the props he’s earned.
As for whether the musical genes will continue on to the next generation of Rich men, is yet to be seen. “My kids are all grown,” said Scottie “but my 10-year-old is kinda interested in the guitar.” Just like Billy once did, Scottie has tried to steer his children away from the music world, but for different reasons than his dad did. “There are so many people out there now that are so into music. And since you can record music at home, everyone is trying to get into it. But it’s not easy.”
And both Billy’s and Scottie’s stories are a perfect example of the triumphs that come from love, working hard, and staying humble. Because even if you know it’s going to be hard, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.