A healthy human adult heart beats anywhere from 60 to 100 beats per minute. That’s every minute of every day, from birth until death. That’s, if all goes according to plan, no days off. No vacations. No spa days. The heart keeps pumping, rarely too fast and rarely too slow, keeping us alive, a never-ending, life-giving groove.
Legendary blues bassist Bob Stroger calls the bass the heartbeat of the blues, and while it might sound grandiose and hyperbolic, it’s also true. The bass is the glue that holds the blues together, freeing up instruments to solo, and keeping the audience moving, rarely too fast and rarely too slow, a never-ending life-giving groove.
“The bass and the drums are the ones that control the band,” Stroger observes. “I really love the instrument; I think it’s the best. You can hear your guitar players, they can do anything they want, but everybody looks around when the bass and the drums stop. We’re the backbone of the band.”
Stroger didn’t always feel that way, though. Born in Missouri, his family brought him to Chicago as a teen, where he quickly became interested in playing the blues. But before playing bass for blues icons like Otis Rush, Sunnyland Slim, and Pinetop Perkins, Stroger tried his hands at guitar. But not for too long. “Nobody wanted to play the bass,” he recalls. “Everybody wanted to play guitar. I wanted to play in a band, so if I wanted to play with the band, that was the job I had to take. It kind of drove me to [the bass] and I loved it once I got the four-string bass. I just love that instrument.”
Stroger loves it so much, he never seriously considered adding other instruments to his repertoire. In fact, the decision to eventually lead his own bands, and even sing, was more an intellectual and financial decision than a personal craving. “With Sunnyland, he always wanted me to sing but I never did want to do that,” Stroger says. “All I wanted to do was play the bass. But as you get older, things kind of change. And I was kind of forced [to] start singing. Everybody wanted me to do a CD.”
Stroger’s known as a bass player, but his singing voice is rich and powerful. One can see why so many wanted him to step out of the pocket and into the spotlight, even if Stroger himself is a much tougher self-critic. “I’m not a singer,” he says. “I think I’m a performer. I sing to the people. People prefer a good singing voice. I just have fun doing what I do and people seem to enjoy it, not because I’m a great singer [but] because they see I have fun doing what I do. Sometimes I goof up and I laugh at myself. It’s just a challenge. But I know I never will be a singer. I sing in my personality. I can’t sing like anyone else.”
Stroger has played with some top-notch blues pianists, which can be challenging for a bassist, given how much sonic real estate pianos consume. Many bassists struggle to find their own ground against a keyboard, but it’s never been an issue for Stroger. “If you’re used to playing with the piano you know not to get in [anyone’s] way,” he says. “I was never a fancy bass player. I just tried to play the root of the music. I never had a problem with a piano player. If they were [conflicting] with the bass, I’d just play lots of whole notes.”
Stroger has also experimented playing other genres. “As a young musician, you’re trying to progress,” he says. “I started off playing blues. Then from there, I didn’t think [I was] really progressing unless you were able to play jazz. And I tried to play jazz [but] it wasn’t my cup of tea. I tried to play again and I went into R&B, lots of Motown and Stax; we had a big band with girl singers. That was fun. And I quit that and went to Otis Rush, and that was really fun.”
Stroger returned to the blues out of love, but also because it’s the style that allowed him to establish a name for himself. His career also grew because of mentors like Rush, Perkins, and Slim. “Pinetop, we were just like brothers,” Stroger recalls. “He helped me a lot and he enjoyed playing with me and we had fun playing with each other.” The fun included extensive touring. “They used to call us the road runners when we were traveling,” Stroger says. “We’d drive 24 hours going to a gig and people [would] see we had fun, how those old people can get up in there and have so much fun after just getting off the road. We really enjoyed playing with one another.”
Slim taught Stroger about the music business. “He always warned me of things, and thought I could sing, which I never thought,” Stroger says. “He taught me to be on time there, how to present myself to people. Try to look your best because this is a profession and this is something that everybody else can’t do. And feel good about what you’re doing.”
Stroger has noticed the music industry change over the years. “It’s more business than it was back in the day,” he says. “Back then, all we wanted to do was play. It wasn’t [a] business; we’d just go out and play. The money wasn’t important. But now they said you have to be here, kind of knowing the business for you to go along in the business, because now it’s more about finance. But back in the day, when I started, we didn’t get [any] money. Lots of times we didn’t get paid at all. We just wanted to play music. It was a fun thing. But now you have to know the business, you have to know a little something about the business, or you’ve got a manager that can take care of the business for you. So it’s a little harder now. It’s a business thing now. It’s not as much fun as it [was] back in the day. Back in the day, we had fun. We just played. I played lots of gigs I didn’t even get [any] money for.”
And Rush taught Stroger about the European blues market, bringing him there for the first time, opening up Stroger to an international audience. Stroger’s held onto that audience via multiple bands stationed in different parts of the world. Right now, there are two in South America and one, The Headcutters, in Italy. The purpose of the multiple bands is to cut down on travel expenses. Instead of flying an entire U.S.-based band overseas, the band is already outside of the U.S., waiting for him.
“When I first went down, we had to rehearse for a while, but what I usually do now, if I’ve got any new material, I just send it down to them and they have it all ready and they just about know my style of playing now, because I’ve been going down there for the last twelve years,” Stroger says. “Everybody knows my material and my style of playing, so we have a good old time down there. There were [gigs] I go right in and go right to the bandstand. They know all my material, and if I’m doing something a little newer or different swing, I’ll sing it to them, and they’ll have it ready when I get there. A lot of the time they’ll be carrying me through it.”
Stroger has noticed an improvement in these players over the years. “In the early days, the guys in Europe and throughout South America, they didn’t play the the blues too [well],” Stroger says. “We could bring our band from the States, but as things went on, [a lot of us] guys got some very good musicians over there. They sometimes need to keep us in line.”
Stroger’s attributes the improvements he’s seen over the years to the foreign players’ passion for the blues. “They love the blues, they love our music, and they tried so terribly hard to learn it,” he says. “If you send them a CD or tape over to them, they’ll learn it lick for lick. And if you’d leave that, it would kind of screw them up. But now they got so they can ad lib. I’ve got some very good musicians over there now.”
Stroger also plays around the U.S. One of his more interesting projects is the Three Bobs, featuring harmonica player Bob Corritore and guitarist Bob Margolin, an all-star cast of blues-playing Roberts. “We have lots of fun doing it,” Stroger says. “Sometimes we use [Kenny] “Beedy Eyes” Smith on drums, so we have a thing coming up with him. We’re all friends. We have fun. We joke with one another. It is a fun band when we get together.” The group is always asked if they’ll cut an album and Stroger said they might record something this year, when they’re all performing together again.
Of course, the idea of shows, foreign or domestic, seemed an impossible dream for most of 2020 and much of 2021. Stroger was in Switzerland when COVID hit, trapping him there for three months. He eventually made his way back to Chicago, where the pandemic forced him into a protective bubble, only connecting with people via phone and FaceTime. “It’s been a tough year; one of the toughest I remember having, hoping I get through it safely,” Stroger says. Like so many, he had to grapple with fear and isolation, unable to work and do the thing he loves best.
Also like so many, Stroger turned to teaching during the pandemic, while stuck in Switzerland, allowing him to share his considerable wisdom with another generation of bassists. He’s working with the Pinetop Perkins Foundation, guiding younger players not just in bass technique, but in bass philosophy. “I teach them how important their job is and that you have to feel good about your job,” Stroger says. “It’s not something that you’re just doing. You’ve got to feel that you are important and that you make the band. [The audience] dances off of you, with what you’re doing. You carry it. And the young kids are getting to see it now. Lots of younger kids love the bass. Now they’re doing lots of slapping the bass, it’s kind of fancy to them. Young girls are now coming to bass. There was a time you could hardly find a a girl that was playing bass. There are lots of girls now playing bass and they’re very good.”
Luckily, with vaccinations, performing has once again become an option for Stroger, with the post-COVID gigs starting to pile up. “I’m glad to get out and play music, try to clear my head out, because now in my head it’s still foggy,” he says. “Once I get back into music, music is therapy. Music brought me through a lot of bad things in my life, so I’m hoping it’ll bring me through this one, too.” And so far it seems to be. “I’ve been on stage and it gets kind of wild on stage, so I’m glad to be out among people, seeing smiling faces,” Stroger says. “It’s really lighting up my life, the last three or four weeks, since I’ve been doing a little work.”
Between the challenges of the pandemic and the ever-changing music industry, it’s easy for most artists to wonder if they chose the right path. Stroger doesn’t wonder, instantly saying he would do it all again if given the chance. “It’s my life!,” he declares. “I wouldn’t take [anything] for my job, playing music. I’ve been down in this business, but there’s more good than bad. If you love people, love performing, I wouldn’t have [it any] other way. And I love the way I came up.”
That love brings us back to another, less medical, function of the heart: our emotional center. Bass similarly brings songs to life and draws in listeners not with the mechanics of rhythm, but with a soulfulness that makes people feel something. The bass subtly change the rhythm to emphasize sadness or create a sense of joy. It’s not about reading notes on a chart, so much as it’s about capturing the essence of a song and translating it into the moment. It’s something that requires a lot of heart, which makes it the perfect vocation for Stroger.