59 in music; The year of the P bass & Fender Bassman

A year can mean a lot of things for a lot of people. In 1959, the heart of the mid century, the world was beginning to go through a seismic shift; Castro and the 26th of July Movement won the Cuban Revolution and Castro took over as Prime Minister, Russia launched the first spacecraft to reach earth’s moon, Barbie took the US market by storm, it was a big year in many regards.

The world of music too was building up the potential energy to completely explode in the 1960s but in the late 50’s a lot of these colossal changes were already set in motion.

in 1959 Roy Orbisson signed to Monument, Bob Dylan graduated from High School and moved to Minnesota where he discovered folk music and Jimi Hendrix bought his first electric guitar.

58 59 P Bass Maple
’58 Fender P Bass

Fender ’59 P Bass

‘59 in many ways for me was the Chinese calendar year of the P Bass, and more importantly, the year of Soul. Berry Gordy founded Motown records; the first African American owned record label that specifically catered for mainstream RnB and Soul which very quickly gave way to the mainstream success of artists such as Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, The Shirelles and Marvin Gaye to name a few.

Any true bass nerd will associate the word “Motown” with the classic Precision Bass Funk sound of James Jamerson. Now, the famous Jamerson P Bass that all of those classic basslines were played on wasn’t a ’59 P Bass but in fact a model made in 1962.

Jamerson 62
James ‘P Bass & Flats all day’ Jamerson

A year before the Fender Jazz Bass hit the market however, The production team at Fender had made some very specific and relevant design adjustments to the Fender Precision bass that not only significantly boosted its popularity among musicians of the era, but also subsequently designed a bass sound that would be sought after by many musicians and held as a staple of the historic Pre-CBS era Fender American sound.

Some of the changes brought about in the ‘59 fender Precision Bass was the addition of a glued on Rosewood fretboard; Prior to 1959 the P bass neck was a one piece solid maple neck, and replacing the brushed Aluminium pickguard with a new layered celluloid variation.

By using rosewood for the fretboard, the new neck had a noticeably different, darker sound to that of a Solid one piece maple neck which is a feature that remained in place until after CBS had taken over Fender.

59 P Bass

The classic 1959-1965, Pre-CBS era Fender Basses associated with players such as James Jamerson and his Funk Brother contemporary Bob Babbitt, Bill Black (who played a 1960 P Bass), Phil Lynott (possibly ’60-‘62 P Bass), Pino Palladino (’62 P Bass ala James Jamerson) and Rocco Prestia offer a completely different variation of the P Bass sound to later eras or CBS era Fender Players such as Snarky Puppy’s Michael League (’76 P Bass), Tony Franklin (’76 and ’77 Fretless P Bass) and Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris (’73 P Bass).

So, that ’59 P Bass really set a benchmark for people getting all low volume and funky.

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59 Bassman

Another huge breakthrough in the instrument manufacturing world, the Fender ’59 Bassman is arguably the most important amplifier of the late 1950s. It is not often that you get a product so popular in the instrument manufacturing industry that Boss feel the need to make a simulator pedal based on it, but the sound of the ’59 Bassman is truly unique and truly a classic.

If you’re not familiar, the story behind this amp is it was an all tube 4 x 10 combo originally made in the 1950s for the Fender Precision Bass, and of course for other electric basses that were available on the market, but by the 1950s the Precision bass was the only bass guitar Fender was producing.

Sooner or later, someone plugged a guitar into the amp and loved the rich full bodied tone as well as the warmth and robustness of the bass tube amp; an inventive musical move that is often credited to Buddy Guy.

Given how much of a legend Buddy Guy is in blues music, I’m going to guess that this attribution is 100% correct. Buddy has been on the road since about 1953 and from the get go he had made a name for himself as one of the most inventive musicians on the scene.

Here’s an example of Buddy’s recordings from 1958 where you can really hear that full bodied ’59 Bassman freshness in the guitar tone.

The Bassman as a guitar amp is a much sought after sound; to name drop some examples of its use, both John Fogarty and Brian Setzer used the amp throughout their career, Nevermind by Nirvana heavily features the amp as Kurt’s main guitar amp, as does Josh Homme in Them Crooked Vultures standalone album.

The importance of the ’59 Bassman model is stretched even further when you bear in mind that in the beginning of Jim Marshall’s venture into amp manufacturing in the UK, the ‘59 Fender Bassman was the model Marshall most wanted to replicate, at a more affordable price (cutting out the hefty import expenses) for the UK market and the future of British musicians.

So, like cause and effect, without the ’59 Bassman you don’t get the Marshall we know and you don’t get that killer 1967 Jack Bruce Fender VI into a Marshall Stack sound.

The world would definitely be missing something.

But that’s REALLY just a gear obsessed guitar or bass player’s account of what happened in 1959.

This is what actually happened in the music in 1959 which makes it such an important year.

1959 in Music

The Day The Music Died

The most significant events of 1959 happened specifically in Blues and Jazz. In many ways it was such a great year but in others it wasn’t. Pop music took a significant blow with the loss of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper in a fatal plane crash in February of that year. In his 22 year lifetime, Buddy Holly only ever got to record 3 studio albums but within those he recorded some outstandingly great tunes, and has been continually cited as an influence for many artists from the Beatles to Flat duo jets.

A personal favourite of mine is the song Girl on My Mind, which I first heard covered by Flat Duo Jets as part of MTVs The Cutting Edge.

The song was recorded as part of Buddy Holly’s last album That’ll be the day which is subsequently one of the most sought after records by collectors. (Pressings dated PRIOR to February 1959 that is)

Writers Choice; Top Hits from 1959

1959 was a huge year for vocals, if you don’t agree you’re stupid.

In the same year where Frank Sinatra released No One Cares, his darkest and broodiest album, Ella Fitzgerald released her own grammy winning collection of Gershwin compositions; Ella Fitzgerald sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook, it’s an unusual choice for a relative unknown to be one of my hits of the year, but nonetheless, I’ve chosen Baby Won’t You Please Come Home by R&B singer Big Maybelle.

Ok, someone’s going to get angry about this and ask how I can have two versions of the same song in my top hits of the year but, I really can’t physically include one and not the other.

Purely coincidental that the same song be included in Billie Holiday’s last recordings, Holiday’s version was released the same year as Big Maybelle’s . But it’s one of those songs that have so many different recorded versions and all of them have amazing individual characteristics kind of like All Along the Watchtower both Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix’s version or the multiple recordings of Angel of the Morning. (Someday I’m definitely going to do a blog post on the top ten versions of Angel of the Morning)

So let’s compare the two, Big Maybelle’s version was recorded by Savoy in 1958 which as a label specialised in Blues, Jazz and Gospel recordings.

Best known for recording Jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie, Savoy producers primarily worked with recording smaller scale bands such as quartets to sextets. There are exceptions to this rule of course, Charlie Parker with Strings involved a band of 12 members including conductor but for a lesser known blues singer such as Big Maybelle, the label just simply wouldn’t have provided the budget for anything more than a sextet.

(Bearing in mind that, in the 50s Charlie Parker was a cash cow for the label. He could easily demand a 12 man band including Miles Davis, Dizzie Gillespie, Buddy Rich and Ray Brown; because he was Charlie Parker and everybody knew it.)

Billie Holiday’s version however, is noticeably much cleaner in production quality. It was recorded in early 1959 under the MGM Records label. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was a huge movie company based in California, (you know all those classic Spencer Tracy movies like Fury) and their subsidiary music label MGM primarily produced film scores and worked with symphony orchestras. Billie Holiday at the height of her career was no stranger to huge budget productions.  You can hear the classic MGM string sections, muted trumpet and incredibly clear walking bass throughout the song.

By the time of recording however, Billie Holiday’s health had deteriorated significantly and Last Recording usually isn’t regarded as Holiday’s best work but plenty of people have starkly different opinions of how well Billie’s voice held up in the later years of her life. The Billie Holiday version of Baby won’t you please come home is definitely one of my favourites for a reason, the Billie Holiday nuances and the more minimal vocal approach to the crescendo finishing with the solo trumpet outro.

With the release of Howlin’ wolf’s classic Debut album Moanin’ in the Moonlight, the sound of the blues changed forever. Although this song was recorded much earlier, in 1951, industry heads at Chess records insisted on releasing Howlin’ Wolf’s older recorded material as part of his first album release. The production quality of this song doesn’t hold up as well as other tracks on the album such as Smokestack lightning; the track is muddy and the bass is completely lost in the mix, but there is one incredibly important aspect of this song that really paved the path for a new breed of Rock n Roll in the ‘60s; the power chords played by the guitar.

The guitar is thick and dirty and throughout the song guitarist Willie Johnson can be heard chugging power chords, on the record released the same year as the Fender ’59 Bassman amp Kurt Cobain would ultimately use to record Smells like Teen Spirit 32 years later.

’59 was a great year for jazz. Two of the most influential Jazz albums ever written were released within 4 months of eachother, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue in August and Dave Brubeck’s Time Out in December.

With regards to Jazz albums it would be quite easy to write a short dissertation on what happened in both those albums that completely moved the direction of music, but for the sake of both explanation and simplification (and not adding 40,000 more words onto this article);

Miles-Davis-par-Herman-Leonard-copy

Kind of Blue was a continuation of Miles Davis’ move away from the Hard Bop style (a form or offshoot of bebop in the mid 50’s that adopted less technical complexity; playing ‘more true’ to blues and gospel) and more towards the modal style of playing he adopted from 1958 onwards (modes instead of chords as a harmonic framework).

As the name might suggest, Time Out was the first album Dave Brubeck recorded that experimented with obscure or odd time signatures. Throughout the album, the songs feature meters of 9/8, 6/4 and 5/4.

Completely unintended to be a hit, Take Five was composed by Paul Desmond initially to make room for a Joe Morello 5/4 drum solo, yet the song became a hit a couple of years after release and ultimately became the best selling jazz single ever. The experimental style of adapting odd time meter soon became Dave Brubeck’s signature style and was further elaborated in 1961’s Time Further Out which contains Brubeck’s classic Unsquare Dance.

1959 was a big year for music, in many ways the art world was already reaching boiling point, ready to explode into the flamboyant technicolour acid trip that was the 1960s.
As always, thanks for reading and feel welcome to comment and let me know if there is anything else you think I should write about or if you want me to do your dissertation on Public Enemy for you. (Really, I’m down for that)

While writing this article I went on a really mad Neil Young binge, listened to the albums Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Neil Young self titled Debut as well as the album Plays and plays and plays by Dave Brubeck (I listened to it twice it was so good) and We Like It Here by Snarky Puppy. Man, I really need a fucking Analog bass synth; my life feels empty without one.

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