Because of the mega-celebrity status Randy Jackson has earned as a judge on American Idol over the last 10 years, most people have forgotten or aren't aware that he really is a bass player at heart. Long before American Idol, Jackson enjoyed an impressive career as a member of Journey and Jean-Luc Ponty and Billy Cobham's bands and as a studio and touring musician, playing with pop divas like Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, and Madonna, rockers like Blue Oyster Cult, Billy Idol, and Bon Jovi, and legends like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Elton John.
In the early Nineties Jackson stepped out of the sidelines and into a leading role as a producer and music industry executive with influential A&R positions at Columbia Records and MCA. But even when Jackson emerged into the spotlight as a judge on American Idol in 2002 he never put his bass aside, continuing to play on a wide variety of sessions. As a result he still provides valuable input to the bass instrument manufacturing community, exemplified by his work with Ernie Ball on their new Cobalt bass strings and with Markbass on their new TTE500 Randy Jackson signature bass amplifier head and New York 151RJ Randy Jackson signature bass speaker cabinet.
Jackson started playing bass in 1969 when he was only 13 and growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "My brother played drums and had a band that used to play in my mom's garage," Jackson recalls. "When I watched the band rehearse, my ear always drifted towards the bass. I grew up in the 'hood in Baton Rouge, and all around there would be bands rehearsing on somebody's front porch. They were playing bars at night, but during the day they'd rehearse on somebody's front porch or yard, and the whole neighborhood would gather around because it was like a free concert."
Impressed by Sammy Thornton, a bass player in one of those bands, young Randy made the decision to play bass as well. Initially his mother bought him a guitar, but after saving money for a while he bought his first bass. "I started taking lessons from Sammy," says Jackson. "He was the James Jamerson of my 'hood. Sammy played bass with Big Boe Melvin and the Night Hawks. Once when I went to his house to take my lesson, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells were there hanging out. I didn't even know they were celebrities at the time! Buddy is still like my heart and soul today. He still remembers meeting me when I was only 14."
Jackson admits that it was a long journey with a lot of dues paid before he finally got his big break, but he feels that living in Louisiana gave him a distinct advantage. "I learned to play all kinds of styles of music," he explains. "Louisiana is one of only a few places in America with its own native, indigenous music styles—Zydeco and Dixieland. My passion for music drove me to learn all the styles. I wanted to play Dixieland, country, blues, jazz, rock, funk, and R&B. I was like a sponge and absorbed it all. Later when I auditioned for Billy Cobham's band I was up against 50 other bass players, but I got the gig. When you're in a jazz-fusion band like Billy's the music can be so intricate. Each song is like 30 minutes of all sorts of playing, so being a diverse player really helped me."
Jackson's late Seventies gig with former Mahavishnu Orchestra and Miles Davis drummer Billy Cobham opened numerous doors for him. In 1980 he became a member of jazz-fusion violinist Jean-Luc Ponty's band and played bass on dozens of jazz and R&B sessions. Jackson literally increased his visibility in 1985 when he worked with Aretha Franklin and became a member of Journey, appearing in videos that frequently rotated on MTV. Soon he became one of the music industry's most in-demand bass players for studio sessions and tours.
Jackson says the secret to his success as a bass player is always playing what the song demands: "I look at the overall direction of the music. I want to give the music exactly what it needs. If all it needs is for me to play an open A for the whole four minutes, that's what I'll do if it's going to enhance the music. Most bass players when they're hired to play on a session try to prove how good they are on almost every note. You don't need to prove that you can play 50 notes a second or out-slap the world. Music has to inspire people emotionally in order for them to get into it, listen to it, or buy it, so I always look towards the end result. Music is an ensemble effort, and I think most people forget that."
That spirit of collaboration carries over to Jackson's recent partnerships with several musical instrument companies. Jackson has long been a supporter and endorser of Ernie Ball Music Man products, and he still favors his original mid-Seventies Music Man StingRay bass. "Their new basses sound incredible," Jackson raves. "I love how the contour feels and how it fits the body, and the neck is just amazing. I've loved working with Sterling Ball, Dudley Gimpel, and the rest of the Music Man staff from day one. I always tell kids who are saving money to buy a bass that a Music Man StingRay HH is the one to buy. It has a five-way switch and bass, middle, and treble controls, so I can get any tone I want from it.
"When I'm doing a session, I want to have everything because I don't know what that song's going to need," he continues. "I don't know what tone it's going to need or if I'll want to play with a pick, my fingers, or slap, but I need to be prepared to get whatever sound I want. The StingRay has everything I need in one instrument."
Jackson also is a big fan of Ernie Ball's new Cobalt bass strings. "I'm always trying to enhance my sound and get the most out of everything I record to keep the quality at its highest," he says. "When I heard these strings I was blown away. All strings have their own character and a different sound. Most people don't hear the difference, but when you're a critical listener like I am you can hear every nuance of every overtone and harmonic. The sustain and character of these strings are unbelievable. To me, the overtones are more even. Most people don't realize this, but when you're in the studio you often hear the overtones as much as the bass tones. These overtones are so even that they fit just right in a track."
Recently Jackson collaborated with Markbass on the design of their new TTE500 Randy Jackson signature bass amplifier head. "With the signature series amp I was trying to present a sound that I think people will love," he says. "I put everything I've learned and all of my experience into that amp. I loved Markbass amps before we started working on my signature model. I think they make the best bass amp on the market. I wanted to keep the circuitry simple and return to a classic bass amp that will sound good with anything. Years ago I used to use a 1964 Ampeg B15 in the studio, and this is an ode back to those times. The compressor in it is amazing. This amp gives you all the tools you need to make a great sound, whether it's live or in the studio."
The TTE500 is designed for use with the matching Markbass New York 151RJ Randy Jackson signature bass speaker cabinet, featuring a single 15-inch speaker. "I wanted to go back to using 15-inch speakers," says Jackson. "Everyone has been playing bass through 10-inch speakers for so long because of the Ampeg SVT, which I used to have and love. They have a particular sound, but technology has advanced, and people are playing more five-, six-, and even seven-string basses, and the voice of the bass is getting even lower. Most records today also have a lot of keyboards in them, so there's a lot of sub-octave stuff going on. In order to compete with that, you need to go back to 15s."
While Jackson's current roles as a producer and American Idol judge may seem far removed from his role as a bass player, he explains that it's all been part of his logical evolution as a musician. When Jackson was playing on sessions, he learned early on that his role as a bass player was part of a much bigger picture, and the better he understood the entire picture the more effective he became not just as a bass player but as an overall musician. In the end, he says, the differences between his role as a bassist and that of his role as a producer aren't as great as they seem.
"Producing, writing, and playing are all about the same thing—the song," Jackson explains. "I've had a lot great mentors, but the great Tom Dowd is the person who made me want to become a producer. One of the greatest lessons he taught me is to listen. He said you have to listen on every piece of music you work on. You could look at the Top Ten and hate every song in it, but there is a reason why those songs are resonating with the public. Whether you're a musician, player, writer, or producer, you need to find out why that's working, whether you like it or not. Then you have to find out how to apply that to what you're doing.
"Most musicians think it's just about blowing off a bunch of steam and playing," Jackson elaborates. "That mentality led me out of the whole jazz-fusion world and more into the pop world, because I was really more into songs than just hearing solos. I got bored with playing solos. I got bored with playing for audiences full of dudes who were only interested in seeing how fast I could play. I got bored with it because I had already achieved that early on while playing with Billy Cobham, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Herbie Hancock. It's more important and ultimately more satisfying to play for the song and play for the record. Play to complement the artist at his or her best. When you're a producer working with a band or solo artist, you have to figure out what's the best light to show that person or band so people can understand and accept them. And it's also very important for any artist to evolve. I'm a big proponent of ‘Next!' and moving forward. We must all continuously evolve."