The Bassman Cometh: Jerry Scheff on Working with Elvis, Dylan & The Doors

Way Down: Playing Bass with Elvis, Dylan, The Doors & More By Jerry Scheff Backbeat Books, 240 pp., $19.95

Bassist Jerry Scheff had a bird's-eye view of a lot of musical greats in the '60s through the '80s, and in this memoir, the easygoing, affable storyteller tells about his experiences and how plunking four strings took him around the world.

While he has appeared on stage and record with artists like Neil Diamond, the Fifth Dimension, John Denver, the Association and Tanya Tucker, his longest continuous stint was the six years he played on-and-off in Elvis's Las Vegas Band beginning in 1969.

Fans of the King will find new -- if not revealing -- anecdotes in this book. Interestingly, Scheff says that the revue started out with a more raucous rock sound as Elvis wanted to distance himself from his '50s catalog, but as the years wore on he added more showbizzy, syrupy and bombastic tunes to the set.

Scheff also spent six weeks with the Doors recording L.A. Woman, and toured with Dylan in the late '70s. For the former, he notes that in reality the sessions were far from the drugged-out, hedonistic days of popular lore, and that Jim Morrison was actually on the ball, recording in the toilet not necessarily because it provided an easy place to puke, but for an echo effect.

For Dylan, Scheff says that they were never quite friends, but had one long, involved conversation on a plane where Dylan asked advice on relating to children post-divorce. Interestingly, one of Scheff's children is longtime Chicago singer/bassist Jason Scheff.

Another story has Scheff playing bass in Bette Midler's band during a fundraising/awareness concert for gay rights. He is shellshocked when Richard Pryor comes out onstage, talks about "queers and Hollywood faggots," then offers, "I understand that this show is about the right of one man to suck another man's dick" before adding that gays did not support blacks during the Watts riots. Pryor abruptly leaves the stage to chaos and a mini-riot while Scheff can barely believe it.

But often just as funny or involving are Scheff's stories from when he played in a U.S. Navy band and gigged in dive bars and clubs amidst characters and nightcrawlers that seem to only exist in fiction anymore.

Houston appears in the book as Scheff recounts the six-shows-in-three-days appearance Presley made at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo (to a total audience of 200,492) and their experiences with a wealthy -- and eccentric -- friend of Presley manager Col. Tom Parker.

"It was complete with the sounds and smells of cow and horseshit and dust," Scheff writes. "At showtime we all climbed aboard a portable stage and were hauled to the middle of the Astrodome like a brand of yearlings for branding.

"The stage was lurching everywhere and falling over. The dirt floor of the Astrodome was wet from the water used to keep the dust down, but I noticed after the show that my bass and amp both had a film of dust on them."

He adds that they couldn't even see or hear the crowd much of the time, and the 2-3-second delay between the band playing a note and hearing it back in the cavernous 'Dome threw them off a bit.

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero