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Harvey Brooks: Electric Flag and beyond

Legendary bassist Harvey Brooks played with the best of them, including Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and a host of jazz, blues and folk greats.

Harvey Brooks definitely has a knack for being at the right place at the right time.

That gift — along with his considerable skills as a bass player and record producer — have led him to leave his name in the credits of something like 100 records in the last 40-plus years. But, we’re not just talking quantity here but quality, as well.

Brooks has, in his relatively unassuming way, played on some of the most ground-breaking jazz, blues, rock and folk records of the last several decades.

Three records by themselves illustrate this. The first of Brooks’ studio recording to see the light of day — and his first studio recording, by the way — saw him playing bass on Bob Dylan’s ground-shifting Highway 61 Revisited album in 1965. The second is the iconic Super Session album from 1968 with Michael Bloomfield, Al Kooper and Stephen Stills. And then, in 1969, came Bitches Brew by Miles Davis.

Putting aside Brooks’ huge body of work for a moment, consider the influence of these three recordings.

Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited was a pivotal, polarizing release, encapsulating the then-current battle between folk purists and those more open to (electric) change. Some loved it, and some hated it, but everyone had an opinion.

The Super Session record was a surprise hit and a signature record of the time, further cementing Bloomfield’s reputation as THE white blues guitar player of the ’60s. Dorm rooms from coast to coast seemingly came stocked with copies; it’s a safe bet that it introduced blues to untold thousands of young music fans.

Bitches Brew is the somewhat analogous jazz version of Highway 61 Revisited, a hugely influential, polarizing record that introduced Davis’ big band, free-form jazz funk to the world. It’s one of the most famous (and notorious) jazz records of the 20th century. In other words, it’s one of the most famous jazz records every made.

Brooks’ smooth, supple, infinitely tasteful bass playing was the grounding wire for these records. Harvey is a supremely versatile player, showing himself equally adept in any number of genres.

Although his name may justly be associated with the above records, they only tell a small portion of his story. A true pioneer in bringing the electric bass into the realm of folk music, Brooks played on numerous recordings by Eric Anderson, Richie Havens, John Martyn, Mama Cass, John Sebastian, Seals & Crofts, Loudon Wainwright III and others.

Many know Harvey for his wonderful playing on Soft Parade by The Doors. Or for his long-time membership in The Electric Flag, with whom he played with at the Monterey Pop Festival.

As for versatility, how many other musicians can claim credits on records as diverse as rockabilly pioneer Paul Burlison (of the Rock ’N Roll Trio), rock avant-gardist John Cale, soul singer Fontella Bass and Texan boogie-blues hotshots The Fabulous Thunderbirds?

Brooks (originally Harvey Goldstein) was born in Manhattan in 1944 and raised in Long Island City and Queens. He went to school at Queens College. As a teenager Brooks attended some of Alan Freed’s Rock & Roll shows in Brooklyn, seeing Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Ben E. King, The Drifters and more.

Originally a guitar player, he switched to bass when one of the early party-rock and R&B bands he was in was top-heavy with guitar players. Brooks also was playing jazz in high school, starting a trend of playing several styles of music at an early age. After two years of going to college while playing music six nights a week, Brooks opted for full-time musicianship.

Brooks was high school buddies with Al Kooper, another musician/producer/scene-maker with a gift for being at the right place in the right time. It was Kooper who