You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

March 5: Ralph Bass and Black Music

March 5, 2016

ralphbass001Ralph Bass, a record producer and talent scout who brought Etta James, Lena Horne, Sam Cooke, James Brown, Brownie McGhee, John Lee Hooker, and The Platters into the recording studio (among many others), died at 86 on this date in 1997. Bass, who had a Jewish mother and an Italian Catholic father, traveled in the segregated South as a young man and became entranced by African-American music and its many stylings; he went on to help build successful record labels that brought that music into the American mainstream, including Savoy, King, Black & White, Federal, and Chess. When Syd Nathan at King Records initially turned down James Brown, Bass signed him to Federal and produced “Please, Please, Please” as the first company’s first single. The song eventually sold more than a million copies. Bass was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 as a non-performer. “I was a talent scout,” Bass said, “I was a promotion man, I saw the DJs, I went to the branch offices — as well as producing records. You did everything. You were a ‘record man’ in those days.” A modestly successful songwriter himself, Bass also owned a song publishing house, Armo Music, which scored with the songs of Hank Ballard, Leiber and Stoller, James Brown, and Ike Turner.

“All I ever wanted was the musicians’ respect. And to tell you the truth, I didn’t give a damn if whites ever bought my records!” —Ralph Bass