At 93 years old, Bob Bain may be the most-recorded guitarist who’s still out there performing. He continues to hold court once a month at a club in Westlake Village, California, and one wonders if the audience is truly aware of how much this man has helped shaped the music of iconic singers, composers, film scores, and television scores.
Bain’s amazingly prolific career began in the mid-1940s, in the renowned big bands of Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, and Buddy Rich. Later, while a staff guitarist at Capitol Records, Bain accompanied legends such as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, and Ella Fitzgerald. The esteemed film composer Henry Mancini regularly called upon Bain, and, through the years, they developed an enduring professional relationship. His pulsating riff on Mancini’s television score for Peter Gunn has become endlessly referenced by generations of guitarists. Bain became lead guitarist on The Tonight Show in 1972, and for the next 20 years, he accompanied a “who’s who” of pop-music culture. Here, Bain—who started out being inspired by Django Reinhardt (“My first lion”) and Charlie Christian—details how he forged a career that brought him to the top-most echelon of his craft.
Can you tell us about your main gear throughout your career?
My original rhythm guitar was a blond 1935 Gibson L-5. Then, I got an ES-150 Charlie Christian model, and, later, a Les Paul. It was a great guitar. I loved that guitar. But the ES-150 was probably my main electric guitar for years until I switched to a 1953 Fender Telecaster. The earliest amps I had were the ones Gibson made that went with the Charlie Christian guitar. On the road, the tubes would bump around and fall out, but it was a good amp. Now, I use a Fender Princeton. It’s my favorite amp.
What would you typically bring to studio dates?
It would depend. In the early days with the orchestras, I’d just bring the L-5, because, nine times out of ten, you were playing strictly rhythm, and you didn’t need an electric. Then, electric guitar got more popular, and I’d carry an electric, an acoustic, and my amp in the trunk of my car. I’d always have a banjo, a mandolin, and a ukulele around, as well. I’d also bring a Yamaha 12-string when 12-strings became popular. Eventually, when we sent road cases to studio dates, I added a gut string—a Rodriguez or a Martin—a mandola, a bouzouki, and an electric sitar. For amps, I used a Fender Twin, then a Fender Bassman for a while, a Benson—which was invented by Howard Roberts and Ron Benson—and, finally, a Fender Princeton Reverb.
Did you have a preference for how your guitar was recorded?
The old RCA 44 was probably one of the best mics to use. It eliminated some finger noise, and it gave you a nice, warm sound. If the engineer knew in advance I was on the date, he would put up a 44 for me.
What was it like playing guitar in the big bands?
It was strictly a rhythm instrument with Tommy Dorsey. There were no solos in the book—you just had chord charts. Sitting next to [drummer] Buddy Rich was a good experience. You learned to play rhythm, which is kind of a lost art.
In the 1940s, you became acquainted with Les Paul.
Les was a friend of my guitar teacher, Joe Wolverton, who introduced us. When I started to work in Hollywood, Les lived right on Sunset Boulevard, and you could see his garage as you drove by. The light would be on, and I would go in and hang out with him. I had a country western-swing band called the San Fernando Valley Playboys at the time, and Les recorded us on disc in his living room. He had microphones hanging from the ceiling. He was great at engineering.
Let’s talk about some of your sessions with legendary singers. Could you share a few memories of accompanying Frank Sinatra?
I first worked with Frank with a group called The Phil Moore Four. We accompanied Frank on a record called “Bop! Goes My Heart” in 1948, on which I played electric guitar. Nelson Riddle and I had worked together in the Dorsey band, and we stayed very close. As a result, I worked on the Nelson sessions with Frank. I always used a Gibson L-5. Frank didn’t come around to the band, and say, “Gee, that sounds good” Either he liked it, or he didn’t like it.
What about Nat King Cole’s 1951 recording of “Unforgettable.”
Nelson Riddle wrote the arrangement, so I got the call. Nelson had written a beautiful string introduction with Nat’s pianist Buddy Cole, but at the session, Nelson decided to make a change. He took out the strings, and wrote out the well-known opening melody line for me to play on my ES-150. Nelson later said, “The introduction was so good that it took away from Nat’s entrance.” My being on that record was strictly because Capitol didn’t bring in Nat’s guitar player and bass player from Chicago. That’s what happens in the music business. You have to be in the right place at the right time.
Was it fun working with Dean Martin?
I loved working with Dean. After one date with Nelson, the A&R man came out and said, “Stick around. Dean’s going to do another tune with a small group led by guitarist Terry Gilkyson.” They wanted me to play rhythm guitar, but they had no music. So we did the song, “Memories Are Made of This” as an afterthought in about ten minutes. It became one of Dean’s biggest hits. I also played mandolin on Dean’s recording of “That’s Amore.”
What guitar did you use for Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme on TV?
That was the ’53 Telecaster. When rock and roll arrived, you needed a guitar that had a little more high end, so I traded my Les Paul for the Telecaster. The Tele was great, except that I had to carry two electric guitars all the time, because you couldn’t get a really nice jazz sound out of a Telecaster. But there was a guitar man, Tiny Timbrell, who was also a salesman for Gibson, and he was pretty good at figuring things out. I asked him, “What can you do to this Tele? I want to be able to use it to play [jazz pianist] George Shearing sessions and things like that.” He took out the neck pickup, and put in a humbucker. He had to shim the neck a little so that the strings would clear the humbucker. Then, he took the tailpiece off and put on a Bigsby vibrato. That was the greatest guitar I ever had, because you could do anything with it. You could switch easily from rock to jazz. If you had to play a Hawaiian solo, you could use the vibrato bar and imitate a Hawaiian guitar. It was great for studio work. I still have the guitar, and it sounds great.
You accompanied Audrey Hepburn on “Moon River,” which became a tender scene in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Hank Mancini was doing the music for that picture. On the last day of the sessions, as we were packing up, he asked, “Where is that guitar that I like—not your rhythm guitar, but the other one?” I said, “Oh, that’s my Martin 0-18.” Hank said, “Take a break, and come back with your Martin in half an hour.” When I came back, there was just Hank, Blake Edwards, two engineers, and one music stand. All of a sudden, Hank brought in Audrey Hepburn. He said, “She is going to sing ‘Moon River.’ Just play it so that when we film it, she can easily strum along. Don’t get fancy—just play straight ahead.” I couldn’t believe how beautiful she was. I suggested that we run over the song in the key of C, and then we did a take. She said, “I think I can do it better.” After a second take, I said, “I don’t think you’re going to do it any better. Let’s go with it.” Later on, “Moon River” won the Oscar for Best Song.
You held the guitar chair on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson for 22 years. Can you tell us about your “infamous” wah-wah ending on the show’s main theme?
Tony Mottola—who was the guitar player when the show was in New York—started that. The show was shot five days a week, and, sometimes, Tony couldn’t be on the bandstand, so he did this thing so that he’d always know whether he played on a particular show or not, and get paid if it was in reruns. When the Carson show moved to California, and I got the gig, Tony called me and said, “I want to give you a tip. On the opening theme, after the familiar closing tag, use a wah-wah pedal. If you hear the wah-wah, you know you’re on that show.” So I used it, and everybody loved it—even Doc [Severinsen, Johnny Carson’s bandleader]. I got kidded a lot about it, though. Once the lighting director said to me, “Do you have that damned thing strapped to your shoe?”
It’s amazing that you’re still playing guitar onstage at 93.
I play it every day. I have a guitar in almost every room of my house. If I’m watching television, I keep a guitar right next to me. I love to watch old westerns at night, and I played on a lot of them! If you love the guitar, you love it all of your life.
BAIN ON SCREENS LARGE & SMALL
You’ve probably heard Bain’s work thousands of times without knowing it, because he played guitar on hundreds of film and television scores. Here are but a very few selected examples from his mammoth session log.
How The West Was Won
The Magnificent Seven
The Pink Panther
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
The Beverly Hillbillies
The Carol Burnett Show
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
The Wild Wild West