Jerry Scheff: Bass Player for a Classic Age
For most of us the 1960s is the golden age of Rock ‘n’ Roll, complete with its own pantheon of Gods and heroes. Some of those names bring instant recognition and we know their place and mythology in this modern iconography. Names such as Elvis, Dylan, Jim Morrison: Jerry Scheff knew and played with his fair share of them.
In Way Down: Playing Bass with Elvis, Dylan, The Doors and More, Scheff, one of the most sought-after bass and session players in Los Angeles, gives us anecdotes from his life of playing with the legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Scheff starts right at the top, with “The King” Elvis Presley and how he went to audition for Elvis’ 1969 TCB (Takin’ Care of Business) Band on a lark, never really expecting to get the job or even being sure he wanted the job with Presley. But he got the job and ended up playing with the TCB Band even after Presley’s death. Scheff introduces us to other members of the band, what it was like to work up Presley’s Vegas act, what it was like onstage with Presley and even some pretty cool stories of going to dinner with Elvis and Priscilla.
From there Scheff backtracks a bit and tells us of his formative years learning to play music, on the tuba, getting into bass guitar, and his mother taking him to blues clubs when he was underage (it should be noted that this was in an era when blues clubs were all, if not predominantly, black clubs).
From there he discusses his years in the US Navy, where he met a lot of musicians that he would bump into again and again over the years. They were also an informal musician’s network recommending each other when another player was needed for a band. This network got Scheff into the early L.A. music scene and made him a staple for groups like The Association and The 5th Dimension, with whom Scheff not only recorded but also toured during the ’60s. Scheff was in the right place at the right time for playing with a lot of legendary musicians and bands including Neil Diamond and The Doors. Later in his career Scheff went on to play with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Band, Elvis Costello (the other Elvis of Rock ‘n’ Roll), and John Denver.
Although Scheff gives us a lot of good anecdotes about his work with the various bands, some of them feel episodic and dead end right into the next anecdote, kind of leaving the reader hanging there, wondering as to whether that was the point or was there more? This gives Way Down a skimming feel, like you’re auditing 1960’s session music.
Note for Doors fans: Even though The Doors are mentioned in the title, there’s just over a page on Scheff’s six-week experience working with The Doors on “L.A. Woman.” Scheff quickly glosses over the experience, we don’t get to meet The Doors like Scheff introduced other bands he played with, and we don’t even get any insight into the “L.A. Woman” sessions. With The Doors included in the title I was expecting a few more pages on Scheff’s time with The Doors.
Still, Way Down: Playing Bass with Elvis, Dylan, The Doors and More is an enjoyable read. Scheff’s anecdotes are interesting and he rubbed shoulders with some of the legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll. It might not be as in-depth as fans of a particular band might like, but for the casual fan who wants to have a feel for what the 1960s were like for a working musician, this tells the story.
Originally published March 26, 2012.
Editor’s note, April 30, 2017: This review was picked up by the New York Times online. At the time of publication Mr. Scheff took offense that the review criticized the fact that although The Doors were in the title of the book there’s only about a page and a half on The Doors in the book. Mr. Scheff replied that he could have padded the book with more Doors anecdotes. The original critique stands. Mr. Scheff’s book has more anecdotes on other artists that he worked with but he included The Doors in the title of the book. Why? Probably because The Doors sell more books than John Denver.