Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Michael Balazo’s Illustrated History of Funk: Volume 1 - The Bass Guitar Crisis of 1968

In 1968, during the height of the Vietnam war, a bass guitar shortage crippled America’s tightest rhythm sections. For nine excruciating months the nation’s funkiest bass players, deprived of their instruments, were forced to stand on stage awkwardly beside their drummers and “look busy” before paying audiences. Some twirled, some crouched, and others gave calligraphy lessons or reinvented themselves as matchmakers. But no matter how the bass players bided their time, everyone in America agreed on one thing: it was sure enough hard to shake your ass without that big ol’ bouncy, bottom-end.

The origins of the shortage were as simple as they were sinister. America, as a nation at war, had introduced a bass guitar registry in May of 1968, requiring all funky bassmen to tell the Green Berets about their guitars or face imprisonment. Most bass players complied grudgingly, figuring it was just a temporary measure. They were wrong. By August, as American casualties in Vietnam mounted, the government made the controversial decision to seize the guitars outright. What followed was neither funky nor fresh.

"Chuckie" Pigskins McCoy, former bass player for 70’s legends Funkcyclopedia Galactica told me about the seizure of his bass: “One day I was eating breakfast with my wife – eggs, buttered toast, a little coffee and I always throw some fruit in there because it keeps your groover groovin' – when there was a knock at the door. The Green Berets came in and snatched my bass right off the kitchen table, making the most terrible racket. I asked them if they didn’t know what manners were and they just told me to go on eating. What was I gonna do? They gave me a coupon and said I could redeem it for my guitar after the war. I looked at the coupon after they left and it was just an old parking ticket. Oh dear."

Sad as it sounds, Chuckie’s story is not unique. All across America, bass players were interrupted at breakfast and forced to relinquish their instruments. Robbed of their only source of income, the sad men came up with imaginative (often unsuccessful) ways to keep the bass-lines flowing. Wee-Pee Bigguns, former bassist for James Brown, told me about his scheme: “You got to remember, I had a family to feed. So, I dressed up a tuba to look like a guitar by gluing a broken hockey stick to the end and stretching some elastic bands over the keys to represent the strings. I walked on stage with this monstrosity, praying that nobody would notice. Well! Four bars in to Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag, James silences the band and asks me why I’m blowing into my guitar. I just stood there, panicking. And just at that exact moment, the glue comes loose and the hockey stick falls off the tuba and James gets hit in the nose with a rubber band. He fired me on the spot. I've never been so humiliated in my life. And that’s when I decided to become a Christian Gentleman.”

Nine months later, the crisis was over and every bass player in America was awarded a Purple Heart and some Victoria Crosses.

To read more of Michael Balazo’s Illustrated History of Funk, click HERE.