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Ralph Bass Biography

Ralph Bass (record executive and producer; May 1, 1911 – March 5, 1997)

During a lengthy career as a producer and talent scout for the influential independent record labels Savoy, King/Federal, Chess and Black & White, Ralph Bass played a major role in bringing black music into the American mainstream. He recorded some of the greatest figures in black music, including Etta James, Sam Cooke, James Brown, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, the Dominoes and T-Bone Walker.

Ralph Bass was born on May 1, 1911, in Bronx, New York. He had an Italian-American-Catholic father and a German-American-Jewish mother. He began studying violin as a young child and played his first concert when he was six. Then, one night at an uptown club changed him. “Chick Webb was playing,” Bass said. “I said to my friends, ‘Listen to that music! Look at those dancers!’”

A few years later, he moved to the West Coast, where he worked at a Los Angeles manufacturing plant. He became the deejay at company picnics and began to think he could make better records than the ones he was playing. Soon, he was hired by Black & White Records and began cutting records by Lena Horne, Ivie Anderson, Slim Gaillard and T-Bone Walker, including the latter’s landmark “Call It Stormy Monday.” In late 1947, Bass and jump-jazzman Jack McVea cut eight sides in three hours at L.A.’s Radio Recorders. “With one more to go and only a few minutes left, the guys ran down a comedy routine called ‘Open the Door, Richard!’,” Bass recalled. “Next thing I knew, I was sitting on a national phenomenon.” “Open the Door, Richard!” – an off-color comedy routine based on an old vaudeville skit – became a major hit and went to Number Three on the pop chart.

Bass then launched his own label, Bop Records, where he recorded a two-part sax battle between Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray titled “The Chase” and “The Hunt.” He then founded Portrait Records, where he recorded Errol Garner. Then, in 1948, he began working at Savoy Records. At Savoy, he recorded such artists as Brownie McGee, Big Jay McNeely, Little Esther Phillips and Johnny Otis

In 1951, he moved to Federal Records, a subsidiary of King Records. There, he turned out one big R&B hit after another, including such ribald classics as the Dominoes’ "Sixty Minute Man” and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ "Work with Me, Annie." Despite its being banned, the latter sold more than a million copies. Bass stayed at King/Federal for seven years. He signed James Brown, and he produced the original version of the R&B standard "Kansas City," then titled "K.C. Lovin" and recorded by Little Willie Littlefield for the label. 

In 1958, Bass moved on to Chess Records, the Chicago-based label where he stayed for 18 years. At Chess, Bass worked with an extraordinary roster of blues, gospel, R&B and rock and roll artists. He produced the likes of Clara Ward, the Soul Stirrers, Etta James, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson. Later, at MCA Records, Bass produced John Lee Hooker.

“All I ever wanted was the musicians’ respect,” Bass said. “And to tell you the truth, I didn’t give a damn if whites ever bought my records!” Ralph Bass died on March 5, 1997.