One of the real unsung heroes of rock ’n’ roll, Fielder was instrumental in establishing Blood, Sweat & Tears’ jazz-rock aesthetic as one of the group’s founding members. Previously, Fielder had cut his teeth with Buffalo Springfield and Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention.
In this wide-ranging interview, Fielder, who has been an in-demand session musician since leaving Blood, Sweat & Tears, talks about his distinguished career.
Many of your bass lines with BS&T are really intricate. Were you self-taught?
Which bass players have influenced you?
JF: I listened to a lot of jazz players, especially Ron Carter, Ray Brown, Chuck Israels, Richard Davis, Eddie Gomez, and Charles Mingus. I was also influenced by the Motown and other soul bass players, like Jerry Jemmott.
How did you and Tim Buckley end up playing and recording together?
JF: We went to high school together in Anaheim, Calif., and played in a band called The Bohemians. Although we ended up going our separate ways, we were both regulars at the Monday open-mic night at The Troubadour. When Tim was set to record the Tim Buckley album, he asked me to play on it, and then he asked me to play on “Goodbye & Hello.”
What kind of music were you and Tim playing in The Bohemians?
JF: Lots of brooding folk music, some blues, instrumental improvisations, and accompaniment for Larry Beckett’s poetry recitations. It was a real beatnik scene — [Allen] Ginsberg, and [Jack] Kerouac.
Was your next gig with the Mothers of Invention?
JF: No, I played with Mastin & Brewer, which became Brewer & Shipley. They had a fabulous drummer, Billy Mundi, who played on The Stone Poneys’ first album featuring Linda Ronstadt.
How did you get involved with the Mothers?
JF: Herb Cohen managed Tim Buckley, Judy Henske, Fred Neil, The Modern Folk Quartet (which included Jerry Yester) and Frank Zappa. I played with all of these acts at one time or another, and Billy Mundi, then drummer for The Mothers, recommended me to Frank Zappa. Roy Estrada was playing bass for The Mothers at that time, so I ended up playing rhythm guitar, the instrument I had played through high school.
Which Mothers’ albums did you play on?
JF: Only one — Absolutely Free, but my name was wiped from the credits because I had left to join Buffalo Springfield before the album was released. If you look closely at the outside of the album jacket, my picture is in the photo collage.
What was it like working with Frank Zappa?
JF: Frank was a brilliant musician, and he taught me a lot about modern classical composers, such as Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Hindemith. He was strictly anti-drug, so I learned that it was possible to make inventive music without being stoned.
Tell us about how you came to play bass with Buffalo Springfield.
JF: Buffalo Springfield was managed by Barry Friedman (A.K.A. Frazier Mohawk, later married to songwriter Essra Mohawk), who also managed Mastin & Brewer. At some point, bass player Bruce Palmer, who had come to L.A. with Neil Young from Canada, was having immigration problems and left the band. I auditioned and got the gig.
Do you have a favorite Buffalo Springfield song that you played on?
JF: “Everydays,” a jazz waltz on the second album, Buffalo Springfield Again. I played a fretless bass on that song.
How long were you in Buffalo Springfield?
JF: Five months.
Why did it end?
JF: As my luck would have it, Bruce Palmer returned to the States right before we were to play the Monterey Pop Festival, and he got his gig back.
Describe what the L.A. music scene was like in the ’60s.
JF: There were lots of influences from all over the world. The recording studios and record companies made it a natural magnet for musicians. There were folk and jazz cats from New York, hippies from San Francisco, sh*t kickers from Texas and Oklahoma, blues legends from Chicago and Memphis, and talented young players, singers and songwriters from all over. It was a musical melting pot. There was always something going on and a lot of clubs to play in.
What brought you together with Al Kooper and Blood, Sweat & Tears?
JF: I knew Al from when he was with The Blues Project. We met at The Fillmore in San Francisco when I was with The Mothers and again when I was with the Buffalo Springfield.
Were you guys playing live shows before the release of Child Is Father To The Man?
JF: Yes. We played a lot at the Café Au Go Go in Greenwich Village when we were just a rhythm quartet, and at The Fillmore in New York as a quintet with saxist Fred Lipsius.
The Child album is a classic from beginning to end.
JF: It was Al’s baby. He had all of the songs chosen and the arrangements figured out before the full band got together. That’s why it has such a cohesive sound — it was well-conceived.
You played some groundbreaking bass lines on Child, including the one in “Something Goin’ On.” Did you have any idea that the album would have the impact it had?
JF: I thought it would draw us a following, and that’s pretty much what it did. Initially, it was not a big hit, but it gave us the opportunity to tour.
Speaking of Laura Nyro, she was a gifted artist. What was your relationship with her?
JF: I met her when she was rehearsing with us as a possible replacement for Al Kooper as lead singer. David Geffen, her manager, persuaded her not to do it, and it probably worked out best for all of us.
Blood, Sweat & Tears played an eclectic array of cover songs that the band made its own. The second album included “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” from Brenda Holloway, Billie Holliday’s “God Bless the Child,” Little Milton’s “More and More” and Laura Nyro’s “And When I Die.” How did the band choose the songs it would cover?
JF: On the second album we did it by democratic vote. Our mission was simple. We wanted to cover the very best of what was out there, using the most inventive arrangements we could.
Al Kooper left between the first and second albums. That would have killed any other band. How did Blood, Sweat & Tears overcome the loss of Al, who was not only a soulful vocalist, but also a significant creative force?
JF: We found a great singer in David Clayton-Thomas, and we made song choices and arrangements a group effort. The musicians in that band were great players with diverse connections, and somehow it all worked.
You played on six Blood, Sweat & Tears albums over seven years. What are some of your favorite songs?
JF: “God Bless the Child,” “And When I Die,” “Without Her,” “Something Goin’ On,” “More and More,” “Smiling Phases,” “Back Up Against the Wall” and “Fire and Rain.”
Why did you leave Blood, Sweat & Tears?
JF: We lost a lot of our audience after David Clayton-Thomas left, and a lot of the fun had gone out of it.
Blood, Sweat & Tears was part of Woodstock. That had to be an unbelievable experience.
JF: We played late Sunday night between Johnny Winter and Crosby, Stills & Nash. The crowd was down to about 50,000 by then, but it still felt like were playing to the whole world. Backstage was like old home week. I got to see a lot of old friends and people I had played with over the years. It was probably the highlight of my career.
You have been playing with Neil Sedaka since 1977. Are you currently working on other music projects?
JF: I have three groups in my hometown of Tyler, Texas: A jazz quartet with a terrific female singer, a ’70s/’80’s classic-rock band, and a traditional country gospel group. I am writing songs and am also involved in teaching.
Sitting here today, how do you feel looking back on a 40-plus year career in the music industry?
JF: When I took music up seriously, I was in high school on a course of study that would have led to a career as a research physicist or a university math professor. To suddenly switch to music was a leap of faith, but my goal was always to be a professional musician, without any pretenses about stardom. To this day I have supported myself and raised a family from nothing but my music career and the grace of God. I wouldn’t change a thing. I am a happy man, doing what I do best.