As a staff record producer — back when the common industry term was ‘A&R man’ — Ralph Bass was responsible for many important blues, jazz and R&B singles and albums during his storied career. Bass made some attempts at running record labels, including Bop and Portrait, but he did most of his work as an employee of the Black & White, Savoy, Federal, and Chess labels, and later as an independent producer with connections to Jewel/Ronn, T.K., and other companies. Bass, born Ralph Basso in the Bronx on May 1, 1911, was the son of an Italian father and a Jewish mother but gravitated to African American music and culture, later forming a close bond with Johnny Otis, who likewise chose to live his life in the black community. Bass produced sessions by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm, Etta James, Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, and hundreds more, most famously James Brown in his debut, ‘Please Please Please’ as Bass told it, King/Federal owner Syd Nathan despised the song so much that he fired Bass, but then rehired him when the single became a national sensation. In an interview published in Blues Unlimited, Bass said he produced music for the black audience, and ‘I didn’t give a damn if whites bought it’.

That phrase became the title for the autobiography he started working on, as well as for a Bass series of albums of Chicago blues released in England — ironically of course, aimed by then at the white blues collectors’ market. Bass, always the hipster, liked to jive in the studio and encouraged performers to be loose – a feeling he said he thought was best captured by the interplay of Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Bo Diddley on the Checker LP Super Blues Join Forces. Bass sometimes contributed to the creative process as a songwriter or by changing a word or two in the song titles. He is credited as a co-author of the Ike Turner/Billy Gayles hit ‘I’m Tore Up’, Sonny Boy Williamson’s ‘Help Me’, Rosco Gordon’s ‘Just a Little Bit’ and, most lucratively, the Shirelles’ ‘Dedicated to the One I Love’. He also claimed to have told Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller about 12th and Vine and urged them to use the theme for a song — which was, of course, ‘Kansas City’ (originally recorded by Little Willie Littlefield as ‘K.C. Loving’ when Bass was at Federal Records). His royalties were sufficient for him to retire with residences both in Chicago and in the Bahamas, and he died on a plane on the way to Nassau on March 5, 1997.

— Jim O’Neal