George Farmer: Creating the Sound of Ain't Too Proud
Updated: Apr 19, 2019
5 Questions for George Farmer of Ain’t Too Proud
-with Pete Donovan
I sat down with George Farmer and talked about building the bass book for Ain't Too Proud, re-creating the bass parts of the legendary Motown bassist James Jamerson, and transporting the audience back in time through the sound of the music:
PD: When we spoke you told me that there was one thing that always surprised and pleased the audience and that was the reveal of the band at the end of the show. Also, you were a bit dismayed about the fact that until that point you overheard many times that audience members had no idea there was a band. Talk about that experience and how you feel about the importance of the visibility and identity of musicians in the theater.
GEORGE FARMER: It’s called MUSICAL theatre after all. So, that already speaks to the importance of the musical part of the evening's entertainment. One experience we’re having at Ain't Too Proud is that at the end of the show the band/orchestra is revealed to the audience and they are loving it. What some audiences told us after the show was that until the band was revealed, they sometimes thought that the musical accompaniment to the singers on stage came from a recording. That statement is on the one hand extremely flattering, since it speaks to the very high quality of the performance of the instrumentalists and the flawless execution of the accompaniment, but on the other hand it is somewhat a sign of the times that an audience would believe it to be “normal” that singers perform to a recorded track and not with a live ensemble. Now, what can we musicians do to address that? The musicians are in a tough spot, because the actors are always going to be the face of any production. And we are working in an environment that has traditionally been one that places the greatest value on the work of the actors and therefore less value on the contributions of the musicians. The challenge for the musicians is not to internalize and/or mirror that value system. There was a time when musicians were not listed in the Playbill, but since that is no longer the case, it proves that what was thought of as "normal" can and does change all the time. PD: You spoke about your research for the show which included a deep study of legendary Motown bassist James Jamerson and specifically investigating not just the bass parts he invented, but his sound. Beyond that you had some thoughts about recreating the sound of that era, as a band, and how critical that is to reach and transport an audience back to that time. Expand on that.
GF: Yeah, I spent and continue to spend a lot of time researching and studying James Jamerson. This might be one of those instances where you study a style of music for some time and then you have to let it sit in your psyche/mind for it to become part of your sound, and then you continue your study of it. From what I can tell, it’s not a subject that you perhaps ever finish studying and/or exploring. On the one hand you have the outside manifestations of a sound meaning, rhythm, note choices, equipment, songs etc. On the other hand, and this is particular to Jamerson, you have to look at the why, the inside manifestations of a sound. Why did he play what he played? Especially since nobody played like that before him. So that brings you to discovering his background, musical and otherwise. Now another question that you can or maybe even have to ask yourself is why am I doing all this? It is debatable whether the audience will, or even should, know the intricacies of this type of music. What is not up for debate is the fact that these audiences all have an emotional connection to this music and through it to the story of the show. This connection is what I endeavor to make. For each show I’ve done so far, I make it my job to take a step back and try to understand the role of the music in the show and my part in bringing that music to life. The way how musicians and non musicians hear music can be extremely different. Where the non-musician can easily listen to music and be transported to a feeling, memory etc., we musicians have to sometimes work hard at keeping our analytical brain in check, in order to be transported to those feelings and memories. So, there’s a somewhat delicate balancing act happening in my mind, when playing the show, where I choose rhythms, notes and phrasing to be authentic and play correctly but at the same time keep a "birds-eye view" for a lack of better description, of the overall sound in order to make these songs sound fresh and exciting and convey that feeling you get when you hear this music. PD: While you were with the show in Los Angeles some legendary musicians came to see the show. Talk about meeting some of them and what it was like to play the show for them.
GF: We had a couple really influential musicians come out and see the show. Verdine White, Bobby Watson, Lee Sklar, Rickey Minor to name a few. Not to mention some of the key players in the Motown and Temptations’ history like Otis Williams, Shelley Berger, Mary Wilson, Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson. Playing the show with them in the house was/is nerve wracking. All of a sudden it’s not about the notes anymore, it’s about the intent behind the notes. All of these players have heard this music before, they’ve lived with it, partially created it and generally were there, meaning in the business, when it was introduced to the airwaves and our collective consciousness. So, of course the notes need to be correct, but that’s only one part of the sound. The other and perhaps more important part is the intent behind the notes. Phrasing, emphasis, dynamics, all these seemingly minute details are what these key players listen to, especially since they’ve lived with this music so much longer than I have. Their reaction after the show was something I didn’t really anticipate. They were very emotionally moved and told us so. Not only did the story get them, but the attention to details in recreating the sound of that era, made it come to life for them. PD: Building the bass book for Ain’t Too Proud was a collaboration between you, the music director, and the orchestrator. Talk about that process and how they trusted you to deliver the final product.
GF: First off, the orchestrator Harold Wheeler, and our MD Kenny Seymour, who is also the arranger for the show, did a fantastic job transcribing a lot of the bass lines from the original recordings. When they approached me with the bass book, they asked me to add my own research of Jamerson’s lines to the book, which I gladly did. What that meant was, going back to my own transcriptions and comparing what I had heard with what they had and then also adding lines of Jamerson's output from different songs into the songs we are playing. All the time, of course, keeping rhythm, melodies, harmonic structures and feel in mind. Once that was done, I presented the bass book at the various rehearsals and got a lot of thumbs up in the process. The trust between Harold, Kenny and myself is something that came from working with each other and recognizing a mutual bond to this material. In other words, I heard the reference and seriousness that they had for the source material in the book they presented and they heard the same qualities in my playing of the book, be it through interpretation, additions or subtractions. And last but not least, we get along with each other, which is something that is so often overlooked and for which I am deeply grateful for. PD: We talked about the bass line to "My Girl" and how simple it is but how terrifying it can be to play it or record it in terms of how recognizable it is.
GF: "My Girl" is one of those songs that has become part of our collective, international consciousness, which is an incredible feat. It is one of the most recognizable songs of our time. And that opening, played by the bass and then with the added guitar line is synonymous with the song. It continues to be one of the more difficult songs to play, at least for me. The need to get this right, comes from the fact that everybody, and I mean everybody, has heard this song and has a connection with it. While we were in previews in an earlier production of the show, it really hit me that on any given gig you play any number of notes, maybe 100s, 1000s? So, if you miss a note or two, as important as that may be, it is debatable whether the audience really hears that. Your fellow musicians will hear it, for sure, but the general audience? Now, compare that to My Girl. There’s no place on this planet, where the audience won’t notice if you so much as hesitate on that opening. That’s how big that song is.