Monday, April 8, 2024

Funkateer T.M. Stevens, R.I.P.

Funk basssist T.M. Stevens
Word comes from our friend, blues guitarist Eric Gales, that funk innovator T.M. Stevens passed away on March 10th, 2024 at the age of 72 after a lengthy battle with dementia. Even if you don’t know his name, you’ve likely heard the talented and influential bassist play on records by legends like James Brown, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper, Joe Cocker, and the Pretenders, among many others. Stevens also enjoyed a lengthy solo career, as well as playing in bands like Vai (with hot-shot git-slinger Steve Vai), Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul, and Temple of Soul (with the E Street Band’s Clarence Clemons).

Born Thomas Michael Stevens in July 1951, the young musician was attracted to music at a young age. “I was born in the Bronx, where hip-hop was invented,” Stevens told me in a 2002 interview, “there’s a lot of rich culture here.” A young Thomas Stevens was barely in his teens when he first picked up a guitar. “I was in the Boy Scouts and the scout leader of my troop loved the guitar,” remembers Stevens. “In particular, he loved jazz and he’d go ‘I need somebody to play with me.’ I’d say, “I can’t play,’ and he said ‘well let me coach you a little bit.’ So, I went to his house after the scout meetings and he’d show me the chords.”

Accompanying his scout leader, Stevens began his musical education. “He was a Wes Montgomery freak and he’d start playing and I’d try to play these chords behind him,” says Stevens, “but I noticed that I was gravitating more towards what I didn’t realize then was the bass, what the bass player did. Before you know it, the bass took me, I didn’t choose it.” The young bass player worked after school and on weekends to buy his first guitar. “I used to work in a senior citizen’s home, washing dishes, and saved up while I was going to high school, and saved up and finally bought my first bass…and I still have it,” says Stevens. “Back then, I didn’t have any money, so I carried it around in the box that it came in until it disintegrated. I’d show up with that raggedy box but I’d pull out that bass and start wailing on something.”

Funk basssist T.M. Stevens
The second stage of Stevens’ musical education came in the streets. “I was too young to play clubs so we played ‘after hours,’ clubs in the Bronx that opened up when the clubs closed,” says Stevens. “All the bartenders, streetwalkers, the pimps and whoever wanted to party would come to these clubs. Because they were illegal clubs, it didn’t matter that I was underage. These were the people who encouraged me to play. They called me ‘young blood,’ they’d say ‘young blood, you’re sounding better and better. I like the way you played that James Brown,’ and they’d give me a ten-dollar tip, to encourage me.”

Stevens attended college as a medical lab tech major but dropped out to purse his dreams. “It was struggle city,” says Stevens, recalling his difficult early days as a musician. “I played the amateur hour at the Apollo and I had this raggedy amp and it just wouldn’t go, so the house manager started playing bass along with me to help me sound better,” says Stevens. “We didn’t have the gear, there was some falling on our face just like anybody struggling to get up there. Then I got this play, Your Arms Too Short To Box With God, written by Vinnette Carroll, it was a black musical. I auditioned for the play and we went into the rehearsal studio and the guy asked ‘can you read music’ and I said ‘yeah!’ knowing I couldn’t read a thing. We got into rehearsal and I would watch the piano player, this gospel piano player, and I’d watch his left hand and I picked up his bass line, so I fooled them for a month. They realized that I couldn’t read the music, but they kept me on because they said that they loved my spirit.”

Performing with Your Arms Too Short To Box With God, Stevens came to the attention of singer, songwriter, and producer Narada Michael Walden. “We did a matinee on a Saturday and we were right across the street from a percussion center,” remembers Stevens. “Walden was going in to buy some drums or something and I was introduced to him and we liked each other. The next thing I knew, I was giving up a nice salary, a constant salary, for a whole lot less money to go out on the road. But I did it, went out on the road opening for Billy Cobham, that was my first band.” The association with Walden would pay off in experience and in status, Stevens co-writing the Top Ten R&B hit “I Shoulda Loved Ya” with Walden in 1979. Stevens later played bass on the legendary 1981 self-titled album by Space Cadets alongside P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell.

Constant touring as a hired gun would lead to further session work for the talented bass player. “New York at the time was a fertile field for talent. There were so many sessions,” Stevens remembers. “We couldn’t keep up – I used to do four or five sessions a day. Somebody called me to try me on one session because I had co-written Narada’s hit and they loved it. From one I went to the next to the next to the next.” One of Stevens’ early sessions was playing with one of his idols, the legendary James Brown on sessions for Brown’s 1986 Gravity LP, which yielded the Top 10 hit single “Living In America.”

“The James Brown record was also my vocal debut,” remembers Stevens. “I did the bass, but I wanted to stay and see what Mr. Brown was going to do because he’s a hero! The background singers got caught in traffic and they needed the backgrounds done, so that he could get his parts on. Dan Hartman was producing, told me to stand up and sing. I said, ‘I’m not a singer,’ he said ‘you are now!’ So, I put some headphones on and sang ‘living in America’ and James said ‘that was great!’ I wasn’t thinking, I had no experience singing, and ended up singing background on the entire record along with playing bass. When the record came out and it was such a big hit, I started singing lead and I haven’t shut my mouth since!”

T.M. Stevens' Shocka Zooloo

After better than ten years of sometimes-lucrative session work, Stevens began to think about pursuing his own artistic vision. Stevens’ solo debut, titled Boom, was released in 1985 in Japan and Germany, and made quite an impact. “My first album came out and it was so unusual. You have your guitar heroes, and bass is generally a more supportive instrument. If you stop to think about it, there aren’t that many bass players leading bands,” says Stevens. “You have Larry Graham, Doug Pinnick from King’s X, Phil Lynott, there’s not so many. So, I came up at a time when there was nobody, especially anybody playing funk, so I had my own little niche. That’s how it took off.”

The modest success of Boom led to subsequent tours of Japan and Europe and the release of Stevens’ 1996 album Sticky Wicked and a third album, Radioactive, in 1999. With 2001’s Shocka Zooloo, Stevens created a style that welded elements of P-Funk and Sly Stone with Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones that he called “heavy metal funk.” Stevens recruited a top-flight crew of imaginative players to back his flights of musical fancy on the album, including guitarists Stevie Salas, Al Pitrelli (Megadeth), and Chris Caffery (Savatage); and drummer Will Calhoun (Living Colour). While the album – his first stateside release – didn’t make much of a commercial splash, it served a much deeper purpose for the artist. “I was able to make it naturally, so whatever success it has or doesn’t have, I’m fulfilled as an artist,” says Stevens. “I was able to put down on tape what I felt. If people are digging it, it’s like the cherry on top of the soda!”

Stevens recorded one album with Temple of Soul – 2008’s Brothers In Arms – with Clarence Clemons, Walden, and Vernon “Ice” Black, and he hooked up with guitarist Pat Travers and drummer Carmine Appice as a power trio, releasing the It Takes A Lot of Balls in 2004 and a live album documenting a House of Blues performance in 2005. Throughout much of the 1990s and ‘00s, Stevens paid the bills through his studio work, contributing his fluid and funky bass lines to albums by artists as diverse as Billy Joel (the chart-topping River of Dreams), 2Pac (the posthumous The Rose That Grew From Concrete), Taylor Dayne (Soul Dancing), Cissy Houston (He Leadeth Me), and fellow fat-string maestro Victor Wooton (Soul Circus). Stevens’ last recording credit was a 2008 live album with the Headhunters, Herbie Hancock’s backing band.

Whether he was playing rock, funk, jazz, R&B, pop, heavy metal, or even gospel music, Stevens imbued every performance with a deft hand, his vast musical knowledge, and no little passion. That Stevens never achieved mainstream stardom with his innovative and entertaining solo albums is less the bassist’s fault than a judgement on the music industry’s lack of vision. Nevertheless, T.M. Stevens enjoyed a career that spanned four decades, lending his immense talents to some of the biggest records of the era.

All quotes above are from my 2002 interview with Stevens for Alt.Culture.Guide™ music zine 

Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul with T.M. Stevens

Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul with T.M. Stevens, photo courtesy of Little Steven


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