A Sentimental Mood on Double Bass, Part II

Last year at Bethel, in California, there were many times during worship sets when I thought how cool it would be to have a double bass. I’m a sucker for big band and old jazz records. As much as I love rock and roll, I have always loved the sentimental sounds of a jazzy double bass.

I began tossing around the idea of restoring the old Kay bass my grandmother gave me about 16 years ago. I researched different techniques of stripping the old finish and applying new. I figured if I could at least take care of the finish, I could then take it to a luthier to make any necessary repairs.

When I came back to Texas, in May, I had a list of things I wanted to accomplish; restoring the bass was chief among them. Since I was in Texas during the uncertainties of COVID-19 quarantine restrictions, it was as good a time as ever to take on such a project.

The first step was to strip the 50 year old finish brushed by my grandfather. I decided to use Blue Bear Soy Gel Stripper. I had no idea what the original varnish was or the state of the wood underneath. It took a bit of courage to take the plunge into the unknown and even more patience. But after several coats of stripper, beautiful wood grain and an 80 year old patina began to emerge.

I spent the next 3 weeks carefully stripping the old finish one layer at a time. I then began the process of sanding it down. I had to go a little deeper than normal to remove some of the sanding swirls from when my grandfather refinished it. I took it all the way up to an impressive 1500 grit. Smooth as glass.

With all that done, I decided to take it to the luthier before I applied any finish. My luthier is Lamb’s Music in White Settlement, Texas. Steve Lamb and his family do amazing work and are always patient with my long list of questions.

They reshaped the fingerboard and glued a few places around the body of the bass that over time had come apart and formed small gaps. They also ordered a new bridge, bridge adjusters, and did a proper setup with a new set of D’Addario Zyex strings.

After a few weeks, it was ready to pick-up. Now, the big job began. French polishing.

If you know anything about French polishing, you know it is both time and labor-intensive on even the smallest of instruments. To French polish a double bass is largely a ridiculous notion, but I, however, was undeterred. I wanted to do the best job I could, and there’s no sound like a French polished instrument.

After watching hours of Youtube videos, reading dozens of articles, and testing out techniques on scrap pieces of lumber, I felt relatively ready.

I figured I would learn as I went, so I started on the bottom bout to hone my skills a bit more. It wasn’t as difficult as I had imagined, but I was surprised by the elbow grease required. I had to keep a sweat rag nearby to constantly wipe away my sweat and prevent dripping on the bass.

There were many days when I spent well over 8 hours working on it. I easily lost all track of time. I would only realize how long I’d been working when the sun began to set, and I needed to bring in more lighting. It was without question a labor of love, and I couldn’t wait to show my grandmother.

In the process of buffing the bass, I noticed something that caused my stomach to sink. The old crack across the neck heel had become loose. I called the luthier to tell them what had happened and see if it was possible for them to repair it before I drove back to California. They were less than optimistic.

In the luthier world, a double bass neck repair is considered the most difficult and labor-intensive project there is. They estimated it would take 6-8 weeks, and I was leaving in 16 days. It didn’t look good.

I almost decided to do the work, myself. I was just about to order the necessary tools to do the job when I began to feel the stress mounting. I stopped to pray and asked God what I should do. He told me to take it to the luthier and put it in His hands, so that’s what I did.

When I went to drop it off, they again told me they didn’t see any possibility of finishing the job before I had to leave for California. I assured them I understood but only asked them to do their best.

In the midst of all of this, the unexpected happened.

We got the call that my grandmother had been rushed to the hospital. She was not doing well. It turned out she needed heart surgery. It was touch and go for a bit. And with the added difficulties of hospital quarantine restrictions, only one person could visit her each day. But each time my mom or I spoke to her, it appeared she only had one thing on her mind – the bass.

“How are things with that ol’ bass fiddle? Heard anything from the luthier yet?” she’d ask. Each time, I had to tell her I had not heard anything from the luthier. The truth was I was a little nervous to call them. But eventually, I decided to call and find if there was any news.

The bass had been at the shop for less than a week, so I wasn’t expecting to hear much in regard to progress. Needless to say, I was surprised when the first words I heard were, “The bass is ready. You can pick it up tomorrow.” Stunned and smiling, I repeated what I heard to make sure there wasn’t a mistake.

The luthier noticed my surprise and explained he didn’t need to remove the back of the bass. Instead, he was able to slide the neck out from the front with a little steam and muscle. If you ask any luthier, that never happens. He was as surprised as I was. This was the answer to my prayer.

At the same time, we received even better news. After much prayer and a few well-placed stints, my grandmother was doing much better and on the road to recovery. She was released from the hospital and on her way back home. By all definitions, it was truly a miracle in which we are still thanking God.

My dream before summer even began was to restore the bass and see my grandmother’s reaction when it was finished. It had all looked impossible far more than a couple of times along the way. But against all odds, it was actually happening.

A few days later, my grandparents came over to my parents’ house for dinner. Soon after they arrived, she looked at me and asked, “So where’s that bass?” I led her into the piano room where it lay waiting. She absolutely loved it and beamed, “Your Grandpa Jerry would be so proud.” That moment alone was worth it all.

She laughed and played while my parents and I took pictures. Afterward, I played the old hymn “Come, Thou Fount Of Every Blessing” for her. This was a dream come true and the culmination of months of work.

I told my grandmother I wanted to name the bass after her. She laughed at the thought. I plan to carve a heel plate with her name inscribed in script, “Minnie.”

My grandmother, Minnie, stands just below 5 feet, yet chose to play the biggest instrument in the band. I appreciate the irony.

A few days later, I packed up all my instruments in my little white hatchback, and began the long drive all the way to Redding, California. I crossed the entirety of the American West with a double bass in the passenger seat of my car.

It now sits safely on its stand beside me.

This bass belonged to my grandmother and then grandfather. They both played it in worship to God. It is a part of them. It is a part of their story. And because of tragedy, its voice was silenced for almost 47 years. Until now.

Now, she sings again.

She reverberates praise to our King.

She has been restored.

AR

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A Sentimental Mood on Double Bass, Part I

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…

AR

 

Upright Bass