Bobby Vega was in the right place, the Bay Area, at the right time; his first major project was recording with Sly Stone in 1975. He ended up playing with almost all of the great musicians in his home town. As he put it, “This whole project is about me growing up in the Bay Area and playing with all these people and gathering all these different things and now it comes out here.”
Here would be his long-awaited CD, What Cha Got, out 11/30 from Little Village, a nonprofit record company devoted to diversity. What Cha Got is an instrumental funk-soul-rock-jazz encyclopedia of wonderful songs, from the most melodic bass and drums piece you ever heard (“Can’t Wait”) to a lovely duet with banjo (“Jellyfish”) to a storming funk masterwork (“Kimmie”).
As his fans have long known, Bobby delivers.
In junior high school, his mother bought Bobby a cassette deck along with the tape of Creedence’s “Born on the Bayou.” He went to a friend’s and said “Listen to this.” They said, “Don’t listen to that. We have a band.” Bobby replied, “My uncle has a guitar, would you like to borrow it?” “No, we want you to come down and play bass on it.” A week later, that’s how it began. He stopped playing sports and put everything into the instruments. The bass had chosen him. Dropping out of Balboa High School, he found work at Don Wehr’s Music City, an important nexus for the Bay Area music business, and began to meet people, like Tower of Power’s Dave Garibaldi.
Sly Stone, then at the height of his fame, had bought a home for his mother and father in a nearby neighborhood, and Bobby and friends would cluster outside and listen to practices. Sly’s cousins June Bug and Tommy would drive around the neighborhood in a limo Doris Day had given Sly, and one day he needed a bassist. “We know this white boy Vega, he plays bass.” “Bring him to me.” Bobby played on Sly’s I Get High On You.
He’d already recorded with Lee Oskar (War) and Greg Errico on one of Lee’s solo records. They were working at the Record Plant in Sausalito, where a certain rhythm devil named Mickey Hart was mixing his work for Francis Coppola’s epic Apocalypse Now…and soon thereafter Bobby was a member of Hart and Merl Saunders’ High Noon. That came with an invitation to Mickey’s ranch in Novato, and more projects – Vietnam, A Television History,:” a song for Coppola’s One From the Heart, a Walter Cronkite documentary called Whales Weep Not.
As the years passed, he worked with Paul Butterfield, a late-stage version of Quicksilver Messenger Service, Etta James, Santana, and Booker T. He served on both versions of Jefferson Starship, Mickey Thomas vs. Paul Kantner. And so forth, picking up something from all the different musicians. In effect, this CD is his musical autobiography.
Backed by ex-Tubes and all-Bay Area drummer Prairie Prince and a selection of excellent guitarists, Bobby wrote the songs (sharing credit on one),
“Kimmie” – “Kimmy is about my girlfriend. When she would go down to Cabo she would bring people all sorts of goodies, That’s where I came up with “Hey Kimmie What Cha Got!”
“Skunk Train” – “Is about childhood memories when I would go to summer camp at Camp Mendocino. The boys club that I attended, Columbia Park Boys Club, would pay for underprivileged kids to go to this camp and the Skunk Train would ride through and stop by the camp. Later on, I worked for Lagunitas brewing company and played for their annual celebration for employees, the Lagunitas Skunk Train event. After doing so I wrote the ‘Skunk Train.”
“Gush Say Hey” – “is about Willie Mays. He is one of my childhood Heroes. I would collect cushions so I could get cushion boy tickets to see the Giants play, and then I’d sit in the bleachers for $.99. I was at the baseball game when Juan Marichal hit John Roseboro over the head with a baseball bat at the Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers game. So Say Hey for Number 24.”
“Crackers and Chaos” – “I was paying homage to Larry Graham, one of my bass heroes. After laying down the bass and drum Tracks, I put some guitar tracks and then It became ‘Crackers and Chaos.’”
“Can’t Wait” – “I can’t wait is about anticipation and being excited to see somebody. Hence, I can’t wait. I was also conjuring up the spirits of Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia. Alan Hertz played drums on it.”
“Run With You” “is about wanting to hang with someone, to be with someone you can’t be with.”
“Helicopters” – “The last time I saw Bill Graham was at a New Year’s Eve show he was throwing. I played with Roy Rogers because his bass player was in Japan and I got the call. Bill came into the dressing room to say hello, and to thank me for doing the show. He asked me what I was doing, I said playing with Etta James and so on, then I told him I was working on the solo album and he said ‘It’s about time you steal second.’ Bill always encouraged me. On his way out the door he told me he has a helicopter now to get to all the events that he was throwing. That’s the last time I saw Bill. This one’s for you.
“Jellyfish” – “Is about going to the Monterey Bay aquarium at 4 o’clock in the morning with my son Rocco, an aquarium worker. Nobody else around. We walked all around the aquarium. We even got to go behind the scenes and saw all the internal works, and Rocco even got to feed the big bass squid in the big bass tank. Right next to it was a dark room where the jellyfish are. I saw them it was so beautiful they looked like lingerie. I couldn’t believe how beautiful they were, that was the inspiration for the jellyfish song, I had met Jens Kruger, a great banjo player, and I thought wow I’d love Jens to play on this song. I really love what he played, it’s a beautiful piece of music.”
“Happy Me, Happy You” – “Is about Happy You Happy Me. Because when you’re happy, I’m happy.”