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Putter Smith: "At 15 I got real serious about it, and at 16 I realized that my life’s work was to be a jazz bass player"

Putter Smith
(Image credit: Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Patrick ‘Putter’ Smith, now 80, has a resume as a jazz bassist going back as far as the '50s, and has amassed a huge list of recording and performance credits alongside Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Lee Konitz, Art Farmer, Erroll Garner, Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, Bob Brookmeyer, Diane Schuur, Ray Charles, Burt Bacharach, Sonny and Cher, the Beach Boys, the Righteous Brothers, and many more. 

In his later career, he also became a respected teacher of upright bass at the Musicians’ Institute in Los Angeles. Smith is also known outside the music world for his acting role in the 1971 James Bond movie, Diamonds Are Forever, in which he played an affable hitman, Mr. Kidd – but acting was not for him, as we discover in this rare interview.

Are you still teaching bass, Mr Smith?

“Yes, although teaching has changed very much over the last 45 years. When you originally begin studying the instrument, they usually start you on the low notes and the scales. With my current student, I’m starting him in the middle and at the top right away. 

“It’s working very well, and he’s burning it up at 14 years old. But it’s no harder to learn to play up high. In fact, it’s easier to play up high because you have more room with your hands. Anyway, teaching is teaching the student rather than the method, and I’m enjoying it.”

Do you also play bass guitar?

“When it first came out in the early '60s, Don Randi, a contractor for [the late producer] Phil Spector told me, ‘Buy an electric bass and I’ll get you some gigs’. I had a young family – a two-year-old and a one-year-old – and at that point all you’re concerned about is making your family safe, so I bought one, and he started getting me gigs right away.”

Were you impressed by the instrument?

“Not at first. All of us musicians were like, ‘God, this is really crap, isn’t it?’ But now people come up to me and say, ‘That’s classic. You’re on that record!’ Now, to me Charlie Parker is classic, and Bill Evans is classic.”

But you played with plenty of great names – Thelonius Monk, for example. 

“That’s true. I did studio work on electric bass for about five years, and then one day I was on a date with an arranger, a rock kind of guy. I started off by playing a James Jamerson kind of bass-line – you know, an interesting line – and the guy on the booth says, ‘Can you simplify the bass?’ I said ‘Okay’ and played something simpler. 

“But then he said, ‘Can you simplify it more?’ so I played a very simple, one-note line. He goes, ‘Yeah, that’s it!’ and at that moment, I realized that this was not why I became a musician. I backed away from studio work after that.”

Sounds-wise.

“Yes. There’s a lot of hustle involved in being a studio musician, so I stopped doing it. All that dried up in a matter of months, and then I had 10 years of playing with great people, but hardly working, so I got the gig teaching at the Musicians’ Institute when it was still a jazz school. I was making like $30,000 a year, which was a lower middle-class salary at that time. God, I was thrilled to be making money after 10 years of $30 gigs!”

You still toured, though.

“Yes, I got called to do a tour with Bob Brookmeyer, who’s one of my heroes from when I was 14 or 15. That was thrilling. The last gig on the tour was at a place in LA, and all of the musicians were there. They saw me and were like, ‘Oh, Putter can play’, and from then on, my career was fine.”

Do you consider yourself retired now?

“No, I’m not retired. I’m playing a couple times a week and still practicing, although I’m thinking about retiring, because it’s a lot of work to maintain a relatively high-end technique. You know, my wife VR Smith died last year. We were married for 55 years, and it really hit me when she passed away that, a lot of what I was doing on the bass, I was doing to impress her.”

I interviewed Ron Carter a while back. You’re a spring chicken compared to him, and he does situps at 5am every day, so if he’s not quitting any time soon, there’s no reason for any of us to quit.

“Okay, I’ll take it under advisement. Ron is one of my favorite bass players – maybe my absolute favorite. I was at a bass convention six or seven years ago and he was there. I got to see him play with his group and we had a conversation. That was really nice, you know, really beautiful. I said to him, ‘You’re my hero,’ which was true. And he pointed to a bright red car and said, ‘You see that? That’s what color I am now.’”

How did you get to play with Monk?

“The very first record I ever played at a record store was Blue Monk. My brother Carson Smith was a famous bass player, so I would read Downbeat magazine when I was 11, cover to cover. Just the name Thelonius was fascinating, so I wanted to hear Blue Monk – and I was touched by the sadness in it. 

“It was a kind of mournfulness. So I really worked hard on Monk’s music. When the gig came up, people called around, trying to find somebody that knew his music, and two different sources named me. That’s how I got the gig.”

What kind of bandleader was he?

“There was no rehearsal, so I met him the night of the first gig. I went down into the dressing room, and he was smoking and spinning around, so I just stood against the wall, because I didn’t want to get in the way. He stopped spinning, looked at me, and said, ‘Are you the new bass player?’ I said yes, and he said, ‘White is right.’ I knew about his sense of humor, so it was cool. 

“There was an article I had read, where they were asking him about black power. He said, ‘I get to hating [white people] pretty good, and then some nice white guy comes along and ruins it for me.’ That was Thelonious, you know. He was very funny.”

When you were starting out, which bass players did you admire?

“My brother Carson was my hero. I listened to all his records over and over – Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. He was 10 years older than me, and he had left a little half-size bass behind in our home, so I used to just fool around with it and try to play it. I didn’t know anything about notes or anything like that. I just tried to make it sound right. I’d play along with the records, and that’s how I knew how it was supposed to sound.”

Do you remember your first gig?

“Yes. I was at school, and I was 13. Somebody came up and said, ‘Are you Carson’s brother? Do you play bass?’ I said, ‘Yeah’, although I’d never played with anybody, and I started playing at community centers, earning three dollars for a three-hour set. I didn’t even have a cover for the bass, and it was missing a string. 

“I have an idea it was the A string, but I’m not sure. I did the best I could, and next thing you know, I’m working all the time, even though I still didn’t know anything. At 15 I got real serious about it, and at 16 I realized that my life’s work was to be a jazz bass player.“

Which bass players influenced you?

“I listened to Paul Chambers a lot, and also to a guy who’s hardly ever mentioned but who is one of my biggest influences – Doug Watkins. He’s on Saxophone Colossus  [1956] by Sonny Rollins, which I played so often, I actually turned two albums grey. The black vinyl literally turned gray, because I played them  so much.“

What recording are you most proud of?

“Well, let’s see. The most recent recording, Once I Loved, which I made with my wife, is really good. I have three or four solos on it that I enjoy. There’s one particular solo which makes me smile every time I hear it.“

Tell me about your preferred double bass.

“I had a bass that I bought in London when I was over there doing the Bond film. I played that for years, and it’s a wonderful bass, but it was very large, and it began hurting me as I got older and began to shrink, except in the belly. I did everything I could to stop it, but in the end I picked up a three-quarter-sized bass. It’s really easy to get around and it’s light.“

Does it have the tones that you need?

“Well, so much of the tone these days is based on the amplifier and the pickups. I have an Acoustic Image amp and two pickups, an Underwood, and a Highlander, which is really made for acoustic guitar. I’m probably the only person that has one for bass, but I just love the sound of it. The Underwood has a nice little punch to it, and the Highlander has a real nice, warm tone.“

How are you holding up after such a long bass-playing career?

“I had a period where I couldn’t play the bass for about five weeks, because I had what’s called a frozen shoulder. It was the left one, so I couldn’t lift my arm. That was nine months ago, and I’ve been practicing for that amount of time, but I’m very limited in how long I can do it. My friend Ed Czach, a piano player, has been coming over a couple times a week, and we play for an hour.“

How do you keep your hands in shape?

“Practice. I have a warm-up routine. It takes about 20 minutes and gets my hands moving, and then I begin working on whatever is my current project, which right now is the first piece in the Bach 4th cello suite.  I’m playing it up an octave, so the very first note is E flat on the E string and the next note is two octaves above that.“

Ouch.

“Yeah. I went to a cello player and asked her, ‘How do you do that?’ Because when they play that part, they nail it – they hit the two octaves above perfectly. She showed me how they do it, and I worked on it for a month or so. I had a method worked out, but hers is more effective. I’ve just gotten back into playing that now in the last month, after my frozen shoulder.“

I have to ask you about Diamonds Are Forever. Are you proud of your performance?

“Oh, I don’t think about it, really. A couple of times a year I get a royalty check for 150 or 200 bucks, and then recently it showed up on [streaming channel] Hulu. 

Did you get recognized in public after it came out?

“Yeah. A lot. At first it was weird, because I’ve always liked to be at the side observing, you know. It’s great to be a bass player, because you’re at the center of everything, but you’re still an observer. Suddenly I was a star for a minute, and it was horrible, because I couldn’t go anywhere. The only question people ever asked me was ‘What’s Sean Connery like?’“

Sean Connery was everything you’d want him to be. One of the coolest people I ever met. And he played drums, too

What was he like?

“Sean Connery was everything you’d want him to be. One of the coolest people I ever met. And he played drums, too.“

I didn’t know that.

“Yeah, I didn’t, either. He brought a drum set up on the stage. I didn’t have my bass with me at the time, unfortunately. He was a really great guy.“

Were you always going to be a musician rather than an actor?

“Right. I considered music a calling. I never doubted it, all my life. But for a hot minute, I had an agent, and I went out and did a couple of interviews for movies. It was a waste of time, because I didn’t feel about it the way that I do about music, where I’ll take all the hits in the world. I kind of struggle as an actor. It’s not my scene. I mean, you see great actors like Meryl Streep, or that guy Bandersnatch. Is that his name?“

Benedict Cumberbatch?

“Yeah, him. Great actors. So, during that period of time I went on these interviews, but I really and truly did not care. I’d be on interviews with real good actors, and I’d think ‘What am I doing here?’ You can’t fake not caring. Music was, and is, my calling.“

Joel McIver

Joel McIver is the Editor of Bass Player magazine. A journalist with 25 years' experience in the music field, he's also the author of 35 books, a couple of bestsellers among them. He regularly appears on podcasts, radio and TV and occasionally teaches at BIMM.