1950’s were very important years for the popularization of slap bass. Since many bands didn’t have drums, the percussive sound of the upright bass was foundation of the rhythm section. It was almost not possible to imagine a rock’n’roll band without slap bass. Despite having such an important role in the band, bass players were often not credited or were marginally marked compared to guitarists and singers. James Kirkland was one of the best rockabilly bass players in the early days and barely mentioned in the mainstream bass world.
James Kirkland was born in his home in Linden, Texas on May 15th 1934. He’s mostly known as a bass player for Ricky Nelson, but he also recorded some legendary songs with Bob Luman (Red Hot, Red Cadillac and a Black Mustache), Bobby Lee Trammell (Shirley Lee, I Sure Do Love You Baby), Johnny Horton, Dale Hawkins and others. He made his first recordings (Stood Up, Waitin’ In School) with Ricky Nelson in 1957. Kirkland and his bandmate, guitarist James Burton were one of the first endorsers of Rickenbacker. As The Ricky Nelson band they broke attendance records all three times they played the Steel Pier in Atlantic City (the record previously held by Frank Sinatra). Many Americans were able to see Kirkland slapping the bass with Ricky Nelson in the popular TV show Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and cult movie Carnival Rock from 1957. After his rock’n’roll career ended, he joined Country artist Jim Reeves and was actually the first one that introduced him with his future popular nickname “Gentleman Jim”.
I’m proud to present to you here, on the Art of Slap Bass, for the first time ever, member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and Southern Legends Hall of Fame:
Djordje: How did you start and what inspired you to play double bass?
James: I started playing bass when I was 15 and I guess what inspired me was because I tried guitar and couldn’t play it, tried fiddle and couldn’t play it and then I picked up a bass and just started playing it. I think everyone has a natural instrument, and that was what I heard and I stayed after it.
Djordje: How did you learn to play?
James: Oh, gosh..it just came natural, you know, I just picked it up. I had no lessons. Part of it from watching other people. We didn’t have a whole bunch of bass players around, for me to see or to watch it was something that just, you know, playin’ and there was you know a couple of guys around home and gosh I don’t know I just learned from doin’ that.
Djordje: How many bass instruments did you own, what are they and what do you currently use?
James: Well I’ve owned two acoustic basses which I still have one that I did on the Ozzie and Harriet show with Rick I’ve still got it, the blonde bass. The bass that I’m playin’ right now is a Fender Jazz bass.
Djordje: Do you still have the bass you used in the 1950’s with glitter, musical notes and your name painted on it?
James: No, I don’t have it. My ex-wife’s grandmother sold that sucker, she had it, but she sold it. I don’t know who she sold it to, no one can tell me or anything.
Djordje: What kind of strings were you using on those legendary recordings with Ricky Nelson, Bob Luman and Bobby Lee Trammell and which strings are you currently using?
James: I was using nylon strings. When I worked with Bob I was using gut strings and I switched and went to nylon strings and that’s what I was playing with Bobby Trammell and with Rick and I kept those you know, I used them for years and years, I’ve got gut strings back on now.
Djordje: What are the advantage of those strings over the others in you opinion?
James: Well, it kindly depends on what your wantin’ from ‘em. You get better tone quality out of gut strings and they’re a little harder to play but you get more slap out of the nylon strings cause they’re more flexible.
Djordje: What came first, pizzicato, arco or slap and how did you learn the slap technique?
James: It was a combination thing with me, I mean when I started playing the 2/4 bass I went from that, straight out of that into a 4/4, when I went to the 4/4 that’s when I started with the slap. I was actually slapping before I ever saw anybody slap and it was just something that I picked up you know. When I went to Lousiana you know, to work on the Hayride well I saw a guy slappin’ on the Hayride but I was already slapping. It’s what I felt like doing and it gave, it was a different sound. You know I got something different just besides the note. I got a slap out of it.
Djordje: You were famous for the triplet slap pattern that you’ve used. It’s very prominent in the song I Sure Do Love You Baby, that you’ve recorded with Bobby Lee Trammell. For a long time, there was a lot of confusion about names for different slap patterns (read more about it here). What are the names that you’ve been using and what kind of different slap patterns did you use in your playing?
James: I used the triple slap with Rick, but what you’re talking about with Sure Do Love You Baby, with Bobby Lee Trammell was a quadruple slap and I’ve probably used that more than I did the triple slap. It kindly depended on the speed of the song. The faster it got the less I could use the quadruple slap you know and I could go to a triple.
Djordje: What did Curley Johns, musician from Virginia, show you on the bass and do you remember what names he was using for different slap patterns?
James: I don’t, I don’t remember, whatever it is that I play know was what, with some variations was what Curley played. The triple slap was what I got off of Curley and the quadruple slap is what I did and that was a take-off of the triple. Nobody actually showed me the triple slap.
Djordje: Who were you bass and more specifically slap influences?
James: Curley’s the only one I know, you know that played slap bass. The little old bass slap that nearly every bass player uses anymore, I don’t know what you call it, they use it on a 2/4, you know a 2/4 beat.
Djordje: Which of your contemporary slap bassists did you like?
James: Yeah, there were some in Nashville, Lightning Chance was one, and he was doing the Opry. After I moved to Nashville I got to know Junior Husky, and Junior was a good bass player, Lightning was a good bass player, he used a brush in his right hand between three of his fingers and he would just pluck with his index finger and he could hit that drum head (on the bass) with that brush, it was something that he made himself so the drum head wasn’t all that big.
Djordje: Do you like any slap players nowadays?
James: I wouldn’t know one. Well, I know Suzy Dughi. She’s got to be my favorite.
Djordje: Around 1939 jazz bassists almost completely stopped using slap technique and started really looking down on it. Luckily, blues, country and later on rockn’roll bassists kept the slap tradition alive. What is your experience with this? Did you have any interaction with other (jazz or others) bassists and how would they react when they saw your percussive playing style?
James: I have never seen any other bass players, I’ve never seen jazz bass players slap, you know, I don’t know about the slap, I’m not into jazz. Slap bass was always used, starting out, in a comedy skit, was what the slap bass was used for. They didn’t play slap bass all they way through every song they just used it for comedy, in their comedy routine.
Djordje: Before you started playing bass, you were playing mandolin, violin and guitar. Did you continue playing these instruments?
James: Well, you know I still play ‘em, I do now. But it never was…..it was for my own enjoyment. Because when I started singing you know I was playing electric bass and of course with Bob I was switching back and forth you know in Vegas I would switch back and forth on some stuff, I’d play my electric bass , you know my Rickenbacker, when I was MC’ing and singing and I’d introduce Bob. Depending on what Bob was gonna do would be to where I would take up my stand-up and play it or keep on playing my Rickenbacker. I still fool around with them (my guitar and fiddle) you know.
Djordje: You had your first band in high school called The Bearcat Playboys. What kind of music were you playing with that band?
James: We were doing nothing but comedy, nothing but comedy stuff. Number 2 stuff like “Jambalaya No.2” (a spoof) or Bill Carlisle’s “No Help Wanted” that’s all we did. We never did do anything other than that.
Djordje: Three years ago (October 13, 2007 at Santora’s Hot Wing’s in Mission Viejo, California) you played your first show after more than 40 years with Suzy-Q and her Be-Bop Boys. How was it and do you plan to do it more often? There are many people that would love to see you playing live again.
James: Well that, that has to be one of the highlights of what I’ve done in the music business, was three years ago the 13th of October. I told Suzy back then that it was and it REALLY was. Because I had givin it up, I had quit and I got an opportunity to do it again and they’all gave me the opportunity to do it again and I enjoyed it tremendously. I just wish I could’ve played three years ago like I did forty years ago!
Djordje: Not many bass players are familiar with your later career when you completely stopped playing bass and started focusing on songwriting. You also co-wrote a couple of songs for Rick Nelson in 1958 – There Goes my Baby and Be True to Me. Why and when did you stop playing bass?
James: We’ll I don’t know how to answer that cause I still play some, (bass) you know. The songs that I had written were written 25 years ago or better. I have written some gospel stuff in the last 20 years, I’ve never had any of it recorded, because I’ve never pushed them, I just write them for me.
Djordje: Your bass sound on Ricky Nelson recordings is really great. How were you recording your bass (mic placement, sound barriers, etc)?
James: I had a ribbon mic, a Sure ribbon mic on the F-holes on my bass. I had a pencil mic (a directional mic) up on the fingerboard on my bass where it got the slap. We had to do this, we had to adjust each mic to what we wanted because we were only recording four track at the time, you know that’s all we had. But we had to get the mic’s set, picking up whatever we wanted them to before we’d ever record because the drums was on with the bass, me and Richie Frost was on the same track. They had the piano on a separate track and (James) Burton on a separate track and then Rick was on a separate track.
Djordje: What songs that you recorded would you recommend to bass players that are interested in your slap technique?
James: Oh, gosh, “Believe what you say” would be one, “One of these mornings” (I played the intro on it) and “My babe”.
Djordje: Did you play any slap bass solos back in the 1950’s and how often would bass players have solos in those early days of rock’n’roll?
James: We didn’t have solos, you know it wasn’t done. On some of the stuff that I recorded I did if I played stand up bass on it if I did an intro I did it live. I do that some but I don’t know on what (in particular). Even now playing that Jazz bass you know we’ll be doin’ an instrumental and they’ll turn around and kick it to me and you know and let me have it. I wasn’t done that often back then.
Djordje: You’ve been playing upright bass on all Ricky Nelson songs that you recorded with him, but very rare on stage. Why was that?
James: It’s too hard to travel with it, you know you can’t when your flying, you can’t do that. But we always flew and took our amps and everything with us. We started endorsing Rickenbacker in January or February of 1958. It was easier to take with us (the electric) when were traveling. That was the first time I played electric bass, I had to learn. We played two shows live (with the upright), the day before Thanksgiving in ’57 we played a live show and I’ve forgotten whether it was in Long Beach or San Diego. But then the night after Thanksgiving we played, and I don’t remember which one it was, Long Beach or San Diego.
Djordje: You were the first musician that played bass guitar on the Grand Ole Opry stage. What kind of reaction did that switch make?
James: I almost blew the sound engineer’s ears out, because he wasn’t expecting it. They weren’t gonna let me play it at all. Of course it was time for Jim (Reeves) to go on and they didn’t have anybody right then that they could grab up and put out there and take that 30 minute show and I told them, I said I work for him you’all make it right for him but I’m playing this, it’s what he told me to play. they got together and I was the only one that played for a long time. I would pick up spots with Bill Carlisle and Buck Trent, who played banjo and guitar for him and everytime we were in town and they were in town on the Opry they would want me to play electric bass. That was 1960, June of 1960.
Djordje: When you performed live with Bob Luman, David Houston and others, were you using bass guitar as well as upright bass?
James: No, I didn’t start playing bass guitar with Bob until, it was 1960 when Burton and I left Rick and went to work for Bob in Vegas and then I switched off between electric and upright.
Djordje: You recorded your first recordings with Johnny Horton in 1956. Did you ever perform live with him?
James: No. They were demo’s, it was Honky Tonk Man and One Woman Man. The released the demos and added the other instruments to ‘em.
Djordje: What was the difference in shows and the treatment you had when playing with Bob Luman, Ricky Nelson and Jim Reeves?
James: Bob was the best showman I ever worked with, and I enjoyed working with Bob. I could make Bob work and Bob could make me work. It was something that we offset one another, clowning with one another and playing. Of course he clowned with Burton too, you know because Burton turned Bob on and it was just a combination of things. Of course with Jim every thing was so rehearsed and everything, that you played everything the same everytime you played it. You weren’t improvising anywhere with anything Jim did. With Rick, he was relaxed and laid back, it was kindly like working with Bob. The difference being with Bob you might have 500 people with Rick you might have anywhere from 5 to 20 thousand and that’s a big difference.
Djordje: A few years ago I had a chance to play with Dale Hawkins in New Orleans and it was a very interesting experience. You’ve played with him in the 1950’s. How was that?
James: It was fine, Dale was a good showman, he was a good rockabilly singer, a good rock’n’roll singer and I enjoyed it, and back then I was just learning.
Djordje: The photo of you laying down on your back while still playing with Ricky Nelson and James Burton ended up on the cover of the Los Angeles Examiner in 1958. Doing those visual bass tricks were always a big part of rock’n’roll shows. How important were those bass antics in your shows?
James: Well, that’s the only antics we ever did. Cause Ozzie didn’t want any more antics. He didn’t want anymore laying down on the job. So from then on we just stood up there and played. Most of the time I was too busy trying to figure out what I was doing, cause that was where I learned to play electric bass. Burton put that telecaster behind his head propped upon his elbows and played it laying flat on his back. I couldn’t get that rickenbacker behind my head or my elbows down so I just layed flat on my back layed it across my belly and played it.
Djordje: Why did you decide to quit such a successful band?
James: I wasn’t getting to play enough. We couldn’t play unless we were playing with Rick. We only got to play during the summer because the rest of the year we were filming (Ozzie & Harriet). I played from late 1957 to mid 1960.
Djordje: After you quit Nelson’s band you were replaced with Joe Osborn, who also played with Dale Hawkins and Bob Luman. He’s known for being the first call session electric bassist in LA for years, playing with bands like the Mama’s and Papa’s, Simon and Garfunkel, Kenny Rodgers, Neil Diamond and many others. Did he play upright bass back in those days and what did you think of his style?
James: He was working with Burton on Shindig the TV show that’s where he got to play with all those people. No, he didn’t play upright bass, Joe Osborn was a guitar player and he switched off and started playing bass when he went to work for Rick. Well, actually he had played electric bass for Bob and then went to Rick.
Djordje: You often sang an opening set for Jim Reeves. How big a part of your later career was singing?
James: Well, all of it. Because that’s all I did from then on (and play bass). You know after I left Jim and I went to work for Tony Douglas that’s what I did for him. We’d work four hours a night I’d sing two hours and they’d sing two.
Djordje: When did you quit your music career? With whom and where did you play after you quit Jim Reeve’s band?
James: Well, you know I had my own group (The Bobcats), that was the next time I played, for five or six years. When I disbanded with them I went to work for Tony Douglas. I moved to Athens and I worked for Tony two different times and after I left Tony I just went to working outside, you know I wasn’t playing, and I got sick and couldn’t work any more so I started back playing Wednesday night, Friday night, Saturday night and finally we added a Sunday matinee and a Sunday night to it. I did that but I kept welding for a living. I went to welding school and when I got out (of welding school) I made way yonder more money welding than I did playing. I worked clubs of and on until 1982, I guess and then I quit playing clubs. From then on the only playing I did was just jam sessions and in church, that’s all I’ve done.
Djordje: How did you tour when you had your upright bass with you?
James: Well you never carried it on the plane. When you put it in a car, like with Bob you laid it across the seats. Then I built a rack for the top of Bob’s car that we could put the bass and the drums, when we had drums, and Burton’s amplifier and guitar and everything up there on the rack and put the clothes and everything in the trunk. That’s the way musicians used to travel. You laid that bass across the front seat, the neck up in the front with you and the bottom laying across the back seats. That’s the way everybody carried them. Until they started pulling trailers, then they went to buses. Of course Jim finally went to a bus and we could, you know put the bass back in the baggage compartment and that’s where this bass got beat up. It wasn’t beat up until I went to work for Jim, it got beat up just being thrown around in the bus. I had a case for it but it didn’t make any difference.
Djordje: You and James Burton were endorsed by Rickenbacker. Were you using their equipment just when you played electric bass or with upright bass as well?
James: No, just the electric.
Djordje: Was the instrumental album that you were planning to record together for Warner Bros. supposed to feature some slap bass?
James: It was with slap bass. It wasn’t an album, it was just two sides, just one record a single 45”. We were called the “James Boys” and one of the songs was called “Ride Jesse Ride” and I can’t tell you, I don’t know what the name of the other one was. Me and Burton wrote the songs, it was just stuff we just started playing. We did record the songs but they never put it out because his mother wouldn’t sign the contract. He was too young and you had to be 21. She wanted him to go back to work for Rick. I don’t know what happened to them (the recordings) cause Warner Brothers had some money tied up in them. They had rented us a studio three nights. Earl Palmer played drums, he was Fats Domino’s drummer. We had a black boy playing the bongo’s and the conga drums and we had three black female singers. I never got a copy of the recording of it. That was good stuff, that was back when if Burton’s mother had signed the contract, me and him could have made big money off that record. That was when the Bill Black Combo was out, that was 1960, the spring of 1960 right after we left Rick and went to work for Bob.
Djordje: What kind of amplification were you using for live shows back in the 1950’s?
James: In the ‘50’s I didn’t have any amplification with the upright. We didn’t use mic’s for stage shows, you just played that sucker hard. It wasn’t that loud, the guitar wasn’t that loud. My bass was never mic’d only in the studio. With the electric I used a Rickenbacker amp. They made a guitar amp for Burton and a bass amp for me.
Djordje: Slap bass is a very intense way of playing. Did you do any wrist streches or other type of warm ups before the show?
James: No. I would have to now. I would have to warm up a whole bunch now to get loosenedup. But used to I didn’t, I just played of course I could slap all night long I never did give out.
Djordje: What do you suggest to younger players to practice on a daily basis?
James: They need to practice everyday. If I am watching someone that hasn’t been playing but six months I learn something cause I’m gonna watch him and some way or another he’s gonna do something and I can add to what I do that makes what I do easier. That’s the way you learn.
Djordje: Thank you for finding time to do this interview and hope to see you play sometime soon!
If you want to ask James Kirkland a question, you can do that on our forum here.