Debby Hastings is the musical director
and female bass player for Bo Diddley.
(Editor’s note..) Great article on one of the premier women bass players.
Debby Hastings – The Lady still rocks
with the Blues and Bo Diddley
by Lorraine Kay
There is no argument that Bo Diddley is a legend by any standard, even at 77 years old. There aren’t many music lovers that do not know who he is. But not so many people know who the lady behind the legend is and has been for the past 20 years. I was privileged recently to visit with her on the phone and found out that one of the nicest and funniest ladies in rock and roll hangs out behind Bo Diddley.
Fifty something, bassist Debby Hastings has been the lady behind the legend longer than most bands have been together – longer than most marriages have been together in the music business. And when you hear her tell it, it hasn’t been so different. "I have been with him for 20 years and I really am so happy that he has kept me this long," she laughs. "Because sometimes we fight like we’re married and we’re certainly not married but sometimes we get into some real rows – usually it’s about political things. We’ve been known to go at each other. He knows just how to get my goat too and I fall for it every time."
Debby Hastings isn’t just one of the best woman bassists in the business, she is without a doubt one of the best bassists in the business. But that isn’t the only thing that makes her unique. She is the bassist in a band supporting a male icon and not just his bassist but his music director to boot. Kudos Debby! And according to Hastings it’s been a premiere gig – "It’s really interesting. – never a dull moment. You never know what he is going to throw at you or come up with and that’s a wonderful part about him. The other wonderful part about him – from my point of view – you never know where it’s gonna go or what new tune he may have in his head at the moment. That way he gives me the freedom to kind of experiment with it and the whole band, although I do direct the band. And then I have the freedom to stop it, start it, turn it left, I can pretty much do what ever I want within it which is a lot of fun for me. It’s very improvisational. It’s really fun. He really is very good-natured also. He’s a very good-natured guy to talk to and hang with."
I recently sat close enough to the stage during a Bo Diddley concert to watch Debby in action. Close enough to watch her chops on the bass and was amazed. It wasn’t just that every beat and note was right on, or that the lady has style – and she does – but she was up and down the fret board of her Fender P-bass with such ease that I wondered how any sound was coming out at all. She attacks the instrument so smooth and effortlessly that it appeared as if she didn’t even touch the strings, much less pluck them strong enough to create such a powerful sound.
The lady is awesome. The power in her playing brings it all together on stage for Diddley. Directing from the side of the stage, bass in hand, she keeps everyone on their toes. As leader of the Debby Hastings Band, she has been Diddley’s right hand for 10 years. But according to her, it was all serendipity that she got the job in the first place. "I was playing in a small bar in Greenwich village when I first moved to New York in 1984 or 83. His management was looking to put a band behind him and I was asked if I wanted to be the bass player and I said ‘absolutely!’ So, I went and did a gig with him at a college up here and so it went really well and that’s how I came to play with him. Then I became the bandleader in 1994 and so I have been the bandleader ever since. So it was serendipity. I was really lucky."
On stage the lady is a powerhouse delivering a brawny bass line on every tune, whether it is a pounding Bo Diddley beat, or seductive ballad, Hastings conveys control with an air of ease all the time calling the shots to the rest of the band. But the way she tells it – it wasn’t always that way. Hastings only learned to play the bass in the first place as a joke. Not coming from a musical family she just started out on her own. "Nobody in my family can sing their way out of a brown paper bag so none of them were musicians. My mom was a water colorist and potter so I certainly have the arts in my background."
Her desire to play music was encouraged by her musician friends in high school. "Many of my boyfriends through high school were musicians. I always got crushed-out on the bass player in the band. One of my boyfriends was the bass player for my best friend’s band. He and I thought it would be really fun if I went out and surprised my friend sometime so that if she looked back and saw it was me on bass instead of my boyfriend, Mark. I thought that was a real fun idea too because I tried to play guitar and I just didn’t like it very well, it just didn’t speak to me. When the guitar didn’t work I thought, okay, well what can I travel around with. So I thought the harmonica, but I hated the feel of the harmonica on my teeth because I had a lot of cavities and believe it or not a mess of metal on my teeth just creeps me out.
"So then I was going out with Mark Healy, who actually plays bass now with Badfinger. So one day Mark taught me how to play a blues progression in the key of A and when I got it down enough I played it with my friend’s band and yes, she was surprised. The funny thing was I had never played standing up and I could only play sitting down. So I had to sit on the stage to actually play this blues and consequently, I completely butchered it." "But, the next day I said, ‘Oh! this is fun – this is the one! I really like the bass! It’s the bass I love!’ So my brother loaned me $50 bucks and I bought a bass and I proceeded to practice 12 or 14 hours a day literally because I’m kind of compulsive that way. I’m kind of a perfectionist and really practiced my butt off. I just started building on my chops and then I got lucky." In the beginning it wasn’t so easy, though. After just a few months of playing she tried her hand with a band. "This band was so bad – my first band. They had a manager and he asked me, ‘How long have you been playing the bass?’ It had only been like two months, but I said, ‘I used to play for two years – two years ago,’ so I that I could sort of justify my being awful but he was just as awful. So he bought it. And so I joined the band right off."
When she first joined the band she didn’t know how to pick out her own parts, "But my boyfriend, Mark basically would help me – because my ear wasn’t very good at first – and you know bass is kind of hard to hear, you really have to get the hang of being able to hear the bass note. So he would help me somewhat with that. Basically, I am pretty much self-taught and I just am a really big studier and practicer." But Debby didn’t actually move to New York just like that. She paid her dues around Wisconsin for a while first and moved around a bit. "I played in Wisconsin for 10 years or so. I started out playing rock and roll. And then I moved to Memphis, TN and then I got into playing blues and with STAX recording artists, like Sam and Dave and Aretha. And then after a year my mom got sick so I had to move back to Wisconsin again."
She even tried her hand at a few different music styles before settling in with the blues. "I went through a country music phase because I wanted to learn to play all kinds of music. So I joined a country band. Then I wanted to learn how to read so I worked on that. Then I joined a big band and later I had a Dixieland band that I sort of took over. After that, I had a bebop and an avant-garde band and then I moved to New York. Moved to New York and got lucky"
As the leader of the Debby Hastings band, she has enjoyed working with some of the best and nicest musicians in the business. According to Hastings, "These guys are all really nice – sweet people and it makes for a nice hang especially when you’re on the road 55 to 60 days a year. You’re just exhausted most of the time so it is nice to be with people that you actually enjoy being with." The band is Margo Lewis on keyboards, Frank Daley on guitar and Sandy Gennaro on drums. Considering how long Hastings has been with Diddley, this group is fairly new. "Frank has been with us for about 4 years, Sandy for only one year – Margo for 5 years, I think."
Talking about life on the road, Hastings enjoys traveling. "Sometimes we’ll be off for a month, then we’ll go to Europe for two weeks or Japan or wherever. We just got back from Australia and Europe. We were gone for about a month doing that. I’ve always liked to travel. But anymore it’s just a drag because of the airline security and it’s just not as easy as it was. Of course, you can’t trust that the airplane is going to make it on time. They’re always delayed so we always have to take the first flights in the morning. People say, ‘Oh, you musicians – you have it so easy. You stay up all night and you get to sleep all day.’ Uh, like – no – we actually get up really early in the morning and we fly and then we sound check and then we eat and then we play the show and then we get to get up really early again in the morning."
And then there’s the eating. Some people think the band has all kinds of great food catered in or they eat in expensive restaurants. "Right. I noticed how really badly we ate this last time we were in California. I ate at Jack-in-the-Box – I think – like four times. I thought, oh my god, this is a hamburger hell. You’ve only got ‘X’ amount of time to eat because – what’s important? Would I rather sleep or would I rather eat? And you always have to sound check – which is – oh," she moaned, "- I had to go through sound check hell while I was there. Other than that, I love the traveling but sometimes it can be really difficult and you do get comfortably exhausted."
The fun things have outweighed the difficult parts of touring and performing. Part of the fun things are recording and getting to meet other great musicians. "I did the album that was nominated for a Grammy called ‘Man amongst men’ with Bo. Since then we recorded a live album but it hasn’t been released, yet. Then Bo and I did the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Show together recently and that was really fun because Eric Clapton and Robby Robertson played with us"
"We played, just Bo and I. When Bo does a TV show most likely I’ll be there as well as the musical director. So for this, we played with Paul Shaffer’s band and Eric Clapton and Robby Robertson also. Eric Clapton is such a lovely, sweet gentleman. After the show, he came over to me and asked me, ‘So, how did I do?’ I told him, ‘Don’t quit your day job.’ But, he was very sweet and he really did ask me that. He could have floored me. My mouth dropped open and I thought ‘Awesome.’"
As a monster bassist, Hastings guitar of preference is a 1971 Fender P-bass – the only one in existence with a Carol Kaye signature on it. "She is the most recorded bass player in the history of music, says Hastings, a big fan. "She is the best teacher on planet earth. I have been studying her for probably 30 years. She is the bass player of all time. She is my main influence. She is just amazing." Hastings has gone to Kaye for inspiration and instruction as well as advice regarding her equipment. "I use Thomastik strings. They are flat-wounds. I hadn’t used flat-wounds for a really long time until I was talking to Carol and she said why don’t you try the Thomastiks and I did and they are really really nice. They are bright enough and nice solid, good sounding strings. Sometimes the round-wounds are too boingy. I buy them in a set and I buy them from Carol. She sells them on her web site. www.carolkaye.com."
She has surprising preferences in her music of choice, for a rock and roll/blues musician. "I love Texas Swing – just love it. I love big band swing, too. I love old R&B and I love Aretha Franklin. Then there’s Lydia Pense of Cold Blood, and I actually like bluegrass music. And of course, I love the blues. Oh, and I love the Red Hot Chile Peppers, and I loved Nirvana when they were around. And I love Elton John, too. Kind of a wide Eclectic taste, huh? I even love classical music."
But just loving and playing music hasn’t always been enough to make her place in this business. "Generally, I have found that I personally haven’t really had any obstacles except that I think that women have to actually be way on top of their game. They have to be better than the guys, because in many areas it’s still a man’s world. So, if you can be better than a man – in their eyes you are on the same plane as a man – even though you are better. And I have had some problems with some of the male musicians that I’ve hired in the Debby Hastings Band. Not many, but a couple didn’t want to take direction from me, and that is just crazy. I mean, because – excuse me – I’m the musical director – and if I don’t want you to sing that long of a note, I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t sing that long of a note – problems like that. But other than that – career-wise I really haven’t had much issue with being a female at all."
If she has felt discriminated against in the business it was from another perspective. "I found this out one time when I went to an audition and actually won the audition. Initially, this band hired me. They were saying, ‘Oh, we think you are fabulous and wonderful and yada-yada.’ And I said, ‘Ok, but I have to tell you something. I’m not really 23 – I’m really 35.’ And they said, ‘No way!’ So I took my glasses off and said, ‘Yeah – see, I’ve got crows feet and everything.’ And the guys said, ‘Oh, unbelievable!’ And guess what – I never heard from them again. So, age is a much bigger problem than gender."
Too bad, because Debby isn’t just a great musician, she is a pretty smart lady all around. "About 10 years ago I decided I wanted to make a lot more money, so I started a business – a teleprompting business called A-Prompt Computer Teleprompting Services, Inc. I have people that work for me. Wherever I am in the country I can run the business because I have a pager, three cell phones and a blackberry. And so I just basically take care of the bookings and then I have the people that work for me go out and do the prompting. Then I can call in my payroll from out on the road. If I am out of the country I have a friend that I can hand over the reins to. It’s great cause I don’t’ have to work it all the time – all I have to do is book it. And I have a right hand man and he’s my main operator. He’s been working for me for about 4 or 5 years. He’s very solid to me. And I would be really lost without him.
Well .. people have often considered Bo Diddley not only talented but smart. And I think he would agree that one of the smartest decision he has made was asking Debby Hastings to join his band.
** End of a very good story **
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