The year was 1957. Eisenhower was president, the Russians launched “Sputnik,” and Elvis was king.
My grandmother, Minnie, was 17 years old. She grew up in a big family in a small Texas town. Her family loved church and music. They especially loved a local band, Pace Family Band. The band traveled from church to church playing gosptel tunes. My grandmother’s family never missed a service.
One of the daughters in the Pace Family Band played double bass. Her name was “Bootsie.” My grandmother loved the bass and thought “it was the prettiest sounding thing.” Bootsie was only a year older than her. She figured if Bootsie could learn to play, so could she.
She began taking bass lessons in junior high, but she didn’t have her own bass. Years passed. She continued taking lessons, but she wanted her own bass to practice and play.
One day, she received a phone call from a man known as Brother Lewis. He was a family friend who worked at a barbershop in Whitney, Texas. He knew Minnie had been looking for a double bass for quite some time.
As things often go in small towns, the barber had a side business. He operated a small music shop beneath the barbershop. Mr. Lewis called to let her know they had just received a double bass in great condition.
The bass belonged to none other than Chuck Berry, himself.
Chuck and his band had been touring through the area. They had heard about the barber’s music shop and decided to trade-in the bass and order a new model due to arrive in a couple of days.
Understandably, my grandmother was elated. Her older brother, Harold, offered to drive her down to Whitney to look at the booming behemoth. The sun had already long since set when they arrived at the barbershop. They ventured down the stairs and immediately saw it, a 1941 Kay S-8 Swingmaster “Supreme.”
After a few minutes spent testing its resound, she loved it but explained to Harold she only had $75. He kindly offered to give her the remaining $50 on the condition she would learn to play. She quickly agreed.
They paid the barber $125 and carefully placed the bass in the back seat of Harold’s 1952 Cadillac then made the hour-long drive back home.
Minnie joined the Cleburne High School Band as a junior, one of two bassists. The other bassist was her good friend, Annette Martindale. To her dismay, the band director would not permit her to play pizzicato (with fingers). In band, she had to learn to play arco (with a bow).
She never enjoyed the sound of a bow on a bass. To this day, she relates the sound to a belligerent bear.
She learned the finger positions and techniques from her younger sister, Marynell. Once she felt comfortable, she began to play at church and left her bow at home.
Life continued on and she continued to play at church until some years later when my mother was born in 1964. She stopped playing to sit with my mom during church. After a few incidents of fellow church-goers commandeering the bass without permission, she took the bass home.
A couple of years later, my grandfather, Jerry Hanna, asked if it would be alright if he learned to play. She gave her blessing and gifted the bass to him. He refinished the bass with a mahogany stain and a polyurethane topcoat. He also outfitted it with new electric strings, a pickup system, and an amplifier.
She tells the story of the countless hours my grandfather sat in front of the record player. He listened and played along to his favorite gospel albums by The Statesmen Quartet and The Blackwood Brothers. He quickly learned the art of bass and began playing at church in 1969.
An unfortunate event happened when my grandfather was playing one day at church. A well-meaning woman knelt down to pray near the bass during a prayer meeting. Unbeknownst to her, the hem of her dress caught on part of the bass stand. When she stood up, the bass fell over and cracked the neck just above the heel. An ugly problem for any bass.
The lady was very upset, but my grandfather tried his best to console her. It could be fixed. He took it to a local shop to be repaired, and they reattached the neck with a long, beefy, bolt. Not ideal but it did the trick. The bass was back at church within a couple of weeks.
I’ve heard many stories of when my grandfather played at church. He was regularly seen with tears streaming down his face. He did not just play bass. He was a worshiper.
He played until his death in 1973.
That’s when the bass was brought back to my grandmother’s home. And there it sat unplayed in a corner by an upright piano. Decades passed as it sat in silence.
That’s when I came into the story.
I began playing bass guitar when I was about 10 years old. I had ventured toward the double bass a few times growing up, but it was mostly due to curiosity. It was a mystery to me. However, as I neared my 14th birthday, I expressed interest in the double bass to my grandmother. She decided to give it to me for my 14th birthday with the promise that I would always keep it in our family. I gave her my word. We carefully placed it inside my parents’ Ford Explorer and slowly drove home. I held it all the way.
I had dreams of restoring the bass to its former glory, but every luthier I spoke with didn’t want to even look at it. I soon realized I would need to save a substantial sum of money to have someone restore the bass for me.
My grandfather did a great job when he refinished the bass, but he wasn’t familiar with the finish for instruments. The polyurethane he used to seal the wood was too thick and rigid. It choked the sound because the wood was now too stiff to vibrate freely.
I had wanted to restore the bass since I was 14, but I knew it would cost thousands of dollars. It was set aside as a project for “someday.” But I now had more than a decade of experience building and refinishing furniture, and my confidence was slowly growing. Maybe, I could restore the bass, myself.
To be continued…