Bob Birch: US bassist who became a mainstay of Elton John's band
"I couldn't ask for a better gig. The music is fantastic, the bass lines are classic, and Elton is a gem..."
Saturday 18 August 2012
The diverse résumé of the American bassist Bob Birch included sessions for bluesman B.B. King, tenor Luciano Pavarotti and keyboard virtuoso Keith Emerson. However, over the last two decades, he was best known as a member and mainstay of Elton John's backing band.
With the superstar, he played to huge audiences all over the world, including Live 8 in London and record-breaking events at New York's Madison Square Garden and Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Birch also participated in the making of the bestselling single of all time, "Candle in the Wind 1997", the rewrite of the singer's ode to Marilyn Monroe released as a tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales, and several of Elton John's studio albums, including 1995's Made in England, 1997's The Big Picture, 2004's Peachtree Road and 2006's The Captain & The Kid.
Most memorable for me was watching the easy-going Birch and the British contingent of guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson keep up with Elton John throughout an eye-opening soundcheck that took in boogie-woogie, pub sing-songs and expletive-laden versions of the hits as they waited for guests, such as Billy Joel and Mary J. Blige, to arrive and rehearse ahead of a weekend stand at Madison Square Garden. Elton John One Night Only – The Greatest Hits, the live album of the October 2000 concerts, was nowhere near as much fun as that afternoon's high jinks.
Born in 1956, Robert Wayne Birch started playing saxophone but switched to bass guitar in his teens, thus following in the footsteps of his father, Chet, an upright bassist and jazz aficionado. "I got tired of sitting there waiting to play a solo," said the gifted musician, who became fascinated by the sound of James Jamerson's Fender bass on myriad Motown hits booming out of radios and jukeboxes in his hometown of Detroit. A gifted student, he won a scholarship to Wayne State University, where he quickly made the switch from Pre-Medicine College to a bachelor's degree in music education and performance, and also mastered the bassoon. After a couple of years teaching and gigging in bar bands, he took a gamble and moved to Los Angeles in 1981.
He struggled until 1985, when he joined a group called Fortune, who didn't quite live up to their name despite the promise of their AOR hit, the haunting "Stacy", to which he contributed a spine-tingling saxophone solo, as well as his usual bass and backing vocals. Unfortunately, Fortune's eponymous album was underpromoted by the MCA subsidiary Camel, and didn't match the success of their labelmates Night Ranger and Giuffria, nor the sales of the genre's giants Journey, Styx and Survivor.
Birch's luck didn't improve with the sextet Ashton, though, in 1988, their keyboard-player, Guy Babylon, was drafted into Elton John's band. Birch spent a couple of years touring with Sixties troubadour José Feliciano before joining Babylon and Elton John alumni Johnstone and Olsson for the Warpipes project. When Babylon and Johnstone reunited with their boss, they discovered Pino Palladino, the British bassist on The One album, would not join the subsequent tour because his wife was about to give birth. "We've been playing with this cat Bob Birch in L.A. How about we give him a try?" Johnstone suggested in February 1992.
Three months later, on 26 May 1992, the bassist made his live debut with Elton John in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and never looked back. "Sideman heaven," was how he described his primary job for the next 20 years. "Lucky, unbelievably lucky. A man like Elton, he doesn't have auditions for people. He never did. It just kinda comes your way. I couldn't ask for a better gig. Not only is the music fantastic, but the bass lines are classic and Elton is a gem."
Birch's elevated position, combined with his sterling ability, enhanced his sessioneer status. During lulls in the Elton John schedule, he contributed to the soundtracks of The Replacements and The Scorpion King, and also toured with Billy Joel – whom he had met during the first of many Face to Face runs of dates involving both pianists in 1994. He also took part in one of the first Rock'*'Roll Fantasy Camp events, jamming with guitarists Rick Derringer, Nils Lofgren and Leslie West.
He enjoyed recalling how Beatles producer George Martin, whose AIR Studios was the location for the recording of Made in England, asked him to contribute to The Glory of Gershwin album featuring the harmonicist Larry Adler and a stellar line-up of guests.
Birch was found dead close to his Los Angeles home in an apparent gunshot suicide. Elton John issued the following statement via his website:
"I am devastated and shocked at the loss of my friend and fellow musician, Bob Birch. My heart goes out to Bob's wife Michele, his son Jonathan and his family. To me Bob was family. He had been a member of my band for 20 years; we played over 1400 concerts together. He was one of the greatest musicians I have ever worked with, and in all our years on the road he never played or sang a bad note. I cannot find the words to describe this tragic death, and how much I loved him. May he rest in peace."
Robert Wayne Birch, bassist, vocalist: born Detroit 14 September 1956; married (one son); died Los Angeles 15 August 2012.
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