In the first of a two-part series, E.E. Bradman takes a comprehensive look at the life of one of the most recorded and influential bassists of all time, Abraham Laboriel.
Read the full cover story with images and sidebars: HERE
In a speech first published after his death in 2008, the influential American writer David Foster Wallace told a parable about two young fish who meet an older fish swimming the other way. The older fish nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The young fish swim on for a bit, and eventually, one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
Wallace was referring to the deep-seated belief, “hard-wired into our boards at birth,” that each of us is the center of the universe. But the celebrated writer, who was fond of Pink Floyd, Alanis Morissette, the Flaming Lips, and ’80s music, could easily have been talking about a body of work so ubiquitous in American pop culture that we’ve barely noticed its creator.
Over the course of his 48-year career, Abraham Laboriel has brought his heart, ears, and hands to over 4,000 recording sessions, combining a studio ninja’s intense focus with a full-body style that includes energetic strumming and slapping, flurries of four-finger flamenco technique, bluesy bends, bold trills, as well as delicious swoops and slides that cover the entire fretboard. Rhythmic, soulful, complex, and playful, his bass lines convey an excitement that can be hard to contain: Indeed, Laboriel has been known to let the spirit move him in the studio, prompting his fellow musicians to ask, “Abraham, why are you dancing? There are no cameras here!”
In conversation, Laboriel is a generous listener who laughs easily. He exudes wisdom and gratitude, and his tendency to get choked-up — which happens often when he talks about his sons Mateo and Abraham Jr., both highly accomplished musicians — is right in line with his intuitive, impassioned playing style. In a town like L.A., which has refined the art of false modesty, Laboriel’s warmly humble manner, perhaps enhanced by his Christian values, certainly stands out. But make no mistake: Abraham is a virtuoso you’ve heard before, even if you didn’t know it.
If you were anywhere near a television in the past five decades, you’ve caught Laboriel on the themes to CHiPs, What’s Happening!!, Starsky & Hutch, Cheers, Knots Landing, Amen, Moonlighting, Melrose Place, Will & Grace, Ugly Betty, and Bernie Mac. That was also him adding special sauce to #1 hits like Leo Sayer’s “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing,” getting nasty on Jimmy Smith’s “Give Up the Booty,” and helping Quincy Jones, Al Jarreau, Lee Ritenour, Larry Carlton, Dave Grusin, David Benoit, Herb Alpert, Bennie Maupin, Joe Farrell, John Klemmer, and the Crusaders create a new style of sophisticated, jazz-tinged pop music. (Laboriel’s contributions were so undeniable that the Recording Academy gave him its MVP award in the bass category four years in a row, eventually granting him emeritus status so other bassists could have a chance to win.) When he wasn’t putting the bottom underneath iconic songs like Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings” and Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” or contributing to the soundtracks of Terms of Endearment, The Color Purple, My Cousin Vinnie, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and There’s Something About Mary, Laboriel brought the joyful fusion grooves of his band Koinonia to sell-out crowds in Scandinavia and Western Europe. But the pop juggernauts are what sealed Abraham’s legacy. What would Lionel Richie’s string of hits — “All Night Long,” “Say You, Say Me,” “Penny Lover,” “Truly,” and “Dancing on the Ceiling” — be without that Laboriel magic? His massive output means that at any given moment, someone somewhere is almost surely listening to one of his bass lines.
The past two decades have found Laboriel laying it down for Michael McDonald, Luis Miguel, George Benson, Larry Carlton, and Lee Ritenour; making crucial beauty with Paul Simon; appearing on albums by country stars Allison Krauss, LeAnn Rimes, and Clint Black; and working with artists as dissimilar as Ray Charles, Ziggy Marley, Andy Summers, Les Paul, Natalie Cole, Christopher Cross, and His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej, the former monarch of Thailand. On his own, Laboriel has continued to perform with his lifelong friends, including Justo Almario, Greg Mathieson, Vinnie Colaiuta, Michael Landau, Bill Maxwell, Alex Acuña, and Paul Jackson Jr., as captured on Laboriel Mathieson (2001), Live in Switzerland (2005), and a couple discs of shows at L.A.’s famed Baked Potato. And in Hollywood, Laboriel’s friendship with acclaimed director Michael Giacchino has brought him work on TV shows like Lost and Alias and juggernauts such as Jurassic World, Rogue One, and Mission: Impossible III. Thanks to his work on Frozen — as well as Giacchino-directed smashes like Coco, Inside Out, the Incredibles movies, Ratatouille, and Zootopia — Laboriel is making magic for a whole new generation.
This, then, is our celebration of the life and career of Abraham Laboriel, right in time for his 72nd birthday, in July. We met at the home he has owned for more than 20 years in Tarzana, deep in the San Fernando Valley. His son Mateo — a composer, producer, recording engineer, and multi-instrumentalist — chimed in.
As origin stories go, Abraham Laboriel’s is as epic and inspiring as any Hollywood hero’s journey.
Back in the 17th century, West Africans whose slave ship ran aground managed to swim to the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, where they mixed with Carib Indians, creating a vibrant blend and a unique culture. In the late 18th century, the British exiled these “black Caribs” — also known as Garifuna — to Roatan, an island off the coast of Honduras, where Abraham’s father, Juan Jose Laboriel, was born in 1906.
The senior Laboriel, already a seasoned musician when he arrived in Mexico City in the 1930s, would eventually become one of the country’s most respected composers, lyricists, and actors, appearing in nearly 30 films between 1938 and 1972. He and his children share the same strong Garifuna features, energetic presence, and million-watt smiles; watching Juan Jose Laboriel melt a bad guy’s heart by singing “Quiéreme Mucho” in the 1965 film Alma Llanera is a window into the power of the family’s strong genes. Laboriel’s mother, Francisca Lopéz de Laboriel, was an actress, and the four children — Juan Jr., Abraham, Ela, and Francis — followed suit. By the late ’50s, Ela and Francis had begun their careers as actresses and singers, and Juan Jr., rechristened Johnny Laboriel, had become the lead singer of one of Mexico’s first rock & roll bands.
Abraham, born in the summer of 1947, was musical from day one. “My father gave me my first guitar lesson when I was six,” he remembers, leaning over to pick up an old acoustic that belonged to Laboriel senior. “The first thing I learned was a D chord, and he taught me to play with [the ring finger] because I had lost the tip of my [index] finger in an accident.” Although he temporarily quit guitar, frustrated by his injury, it would eventually contribute to his unusual style.
By age ten, Abraham was playing guitar by ear, internalizing the wide variety of American music (“everything from Lambert, Hendricks & Ross doing vocal arrangements of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, to Buck Owens & the Buckaroos”), that came from the U.S. “My brother became the most important rock & roll singer in Mexico. All the publishing companies from the United States would ask him to consider recording their songs in Spanish, and anything that he didn’t like he would give to me.” Abraham, who became his brother Johnny’s arranger, was also making waves with a band called Los Quatros Traviesos (“the Four Naughty Boys”), and his sisters kept him busy, too: teenage Abraham was in Fanny & the Lollipops with Francis, who recorded Motown covers; in 1969, Ela, known for her versions of Platters and Supremes hits, had Abraham lead a recording session that boasted unusual arrangements — including two basses or two drummers on some tracks — of soul, bossa nova hits, and ballads. On his own, Abraham attained notoriety with teenage rockers Los Profetas, who recorded an LP with Capitol in 1967 and scored hits with “Ya, Ya, Ya’” and “Lupe Against the Red Baron.”
Although primarily a guitarist, Abraham felt the pull of the low end right from the beginning, and his attempt to capture the essence of bass, guitar, and drum parts contributed to his rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic approach. “After my first lesson, I knew the function of the bass. And I absolutely fell in love with James Jamerson. I played Motown and rhythm & blues in bands, and although I was a guitarist, I would teach the bass player his parts.”
At his parents’ insistence, Abraham spent two painful years studying aeronautics and not playing music. Eventually, he made a deal: If music didn’t work out after a year, he’d return to engineering. He abandoned plans to study at Mexico’s National School of Music the moment he learned that a composition degree would take 11 years to complete. But when a teacher at his Boston Conservatory audition suggested that he might like Berklee’s non-classical curriculum better, Abraham took a chance.
2. All the Doors Began To Open
Laboriel auditioned and was accepted into Berklee in 1968. His major was composition, and initially, he played guitar. A year before he graduated, however, Abraham began to play bass. Buying his first 4-string from a fellow student led to recording with vibraphonist and future Berklee dean Gary Burton, and after graduation, Abraham hit the road with Johnny Mathis and Henry Mancini, who was pivotal in helping him transition to Los Angeles. We asked about his first few years on the scene, playing fretless, and the impact of his singular tone.
How did you end up buying your first bass?
There was a Greek musician who needed to sell his bass and go back home, so in 1971, I paid $400 for his Goya. It was a very unusual bass; it had a small neck and a high E natural. For my small hands, it was perfect. I was completely at home, and suddenly all the doors began to open: Students began to hire me for gigs and recordings, I learned how to read bass clef, and my teachers allowed me to have play bass in my ensembles. But I had to continue to declare guitar as my main instrument, because the Board of Education did not recognize electric bass as a legitimate instrument.
You were still a student when you recorded The New Quartet with Gary Burton, right?
Yes. That was my first recording session in the United States. I was still at Berklee, and in the same studio where we recorded with Gary Burton, we did “Avenging Annie” with Andy Pratt [for Pratt’s 1973 self-titled album].
How did you make the move to L.A.?
When I asked Henry Mancini about getting into the studio scene, he said a very powerful thing: “Abraham, there is nothing I can do for you. Only your peers can help you, and doing [Mancini’s Symphonic Soul record in L.A.] will give you an opportunity to meet some of the local people.” Then he blew my mind! Doing those sessions introduced me to Joe Sample, Lee Ritenour, Harvey Mason, Dennis Budimir, Artie Kane on B3, and Emil Richards on percussion — all of whom told me there was lots of work in Los Angeles. I had to wait a year for my wife to finish her internship in Cleveland, so when I came back to L.A. a year later, they all had bass players they loved. Lee had Anthony Jackson; Harvey had Louis Johnson; Joe had Pops Popwell; and everybody else had Chuck Rainey. Everyone said, “A year ago, there was room, but now we are all happy with our bass players.” So, I had to wait two more years before the doors opened in L.A.
What was your first session after you moved to town in 1976?
Jimmy Smith’s Sit on It, with Herbie Hancock on piano and Lenny White on drums, produced by Alan Silvestri and Eugene McDaniels.
Your sight-reading must have been in tip-top shape.
Speaking in very raw terms, I still think that I am a very poor sight-reader, but music has always been very much in my heart. When I started to make records in the United States, I discovered that the musicians would spend sometimes an hour on one song, so that by the time the song had been played 30 times, I could equate whatever was on paper with whatever I was playing.
Even in those early days, one can hear the seeds of the same tone that you have today.
I have many different basses, but Mateo says, “Obviously, it doesn’t matter which bass you play — you have a touch that comes through no matter what.”
Even though you love Jameson, there’s no Jamerson tone on those old recordings.
I was playing the Goya, which is all I could afford, and in those days, I was using Rotosounds, so there was a built-in brightness.
How did other musicians react to the Goya?
They made fun of me for having a bass with buttons I had to push. They would say, “Man, don’t bring your Sears & Roebuck bass here. Look at the name on the part — it says, ‘Fender bass.’ Buy a Fender!” [Laughs.] It was difficult for me to get accepted, because for the first four years, all I had was the Goya.
Wow. No love for the Goya?
Jay Graydon once told me,” Abraham, all of us studio musicians design our sound to blend with one another. Get a Fender bass so that we don’t have to keep trying to figure out how to blend with you. The engineers are going nuts trying to figure out how to make it sound like a Fender!” Engineers told me, “You know, no matter what we did, we couldn’t make it sound like a Fender, so we had to leave it alone. It sounds different, but it’s you, and everybody is happy.”
Sometimes I hear how engineers added low end to fatten up your tone. Did that bother you?
Not at all. When I first came to town, Earth, Wind & Fire’s engineers told me that they had Verdine [White] play with tone that was as thin and high-end as possible because they could always add bottom.
But if it was already fat to start with . . .
Then they couldn’t take it off, and then they’d have to bring down the bass volume because it wouldn’t sit well with the rest of the band. If an engineer wants to fatten it up because it helps the mix, that’s okay. That was an important conversation.
Did you prefer thinner tone, though?
To be honest, in those days I was not thinking about tone. I was so focused on making the music as beautiful as I could — and defying the fact that the Goya was a very simple instrument, as opposed to a Fender, which had all this reputation and weight. My Goya bass is what I used to record “Carmel” with Joe Sample and “French Roast” with Lee Ritenour. They are both iconic, and they both feature the Goya.
Nowadays, you’re known for your Wyn, Kala, and Yamaha basses. In your New Bass Concepts video from 1990, you introduced us to your Ernie Ball Earthwood guitarrón, the upright you played on The Color Purple, your Valley Arts 4- and 8-strings, your 4- and 5-string Yamahas, and your Tyler basses.
I still play the Tylers! James Tyler was the premiere repairman for all the instruments of the studio musicians. Dean Parks, Mike Landau … we would all bring our instruments to him. Pretty soon, he started to make his own instruments based on the knowledge he had accumulated from repairing everybody else’s. The electronics that he puts in his instruments are very special. They’re great for the studio. Engineers really like the preamps Tyler uses.
Some of your lines sound as if you played fretless, too.
Many people think that I am a fretless player because I do a lot of glissando.
You did play an actual fretless on Paul Simon’s “The Teacher,” though.
Yes. That’s a fretless Yamaha acoustic. I also played fretless with Kirk Whalum on “The Promise.” I am a very insecure fretless player, so when Bob James told me that that bass line touched his spirit deeply, it was incredible.
3. Studio King
Abraham Laboriel has been celebrated as one of the most prolific studio bassists in history, and thanks to online sources like discogs.com and allmusic.com, it is now possible to get a glimpse of Laboriel’s superhuman output, which is so staggering that Abraham himself admits there are more than a few sessions he can’t remember. We asked him about a handful of artists who inspired some of his best-known work.
Henry Mancini, Symphonic Soul (1975)
Michael Giacchino, The Incredibles (2004); Ratatouille (2007); Coco (2017)
“When we started to record Symphonic Soul, I would play a few bars, stop, play a few more, and stop again. Henry asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was taking a solo. ‘But why are you starting and stopping?’ ‘I’m giving the click room — I’m exchanging ideas,’ I told him. And he said, ‘No, Abraham, nobody’s going to hear the click. That’s just for us.’ I did not know,” says Laboriel, laughing.
“Henry also told me, ‘Don’t play what’s on the paper, Abraham. I can get anybody to do that. I want you to play who you are.’ And that’s what Giacchino has been saying to me. He writes difficult music, and when I told him I might have to overdub, Giacchino said, ‘Abraham, Mancini told you: If we wanted what was on the player, we could call anyone. Please — ignore the paper. Play you.’ Incredibles, Ratatouille, Coco — all that stuff is a result of me being encouraged to just play me.”
Al Jarreau, Look to the Rainbow (1977); Breakin’ Away (1981); Jarreau (1983); Heart’s Horizon (1988)
“I had never met Al Jarreau, but I recognized him when he walked into Danté’s to see Greg Mathieson’s band one night in 1977. I was playing with Greg, and afterwards, Al asked me if I come do an audition. I’m always grateful and very moved when I think about it, because Greg had invited Al Jarreau to hear me play, knowing that if he liked me, I was going to disappear for a while.
“At the audition, with Joe Correro on drums, Tom Canning on keyboard, and Lynn Blessing on vibes, we tried a few songs, and then they asked me to come to Europe for six weeks to do a live album. It wasn’t until we finished the album that they told me they had fired the bass player they’d originally contracted on the gig. I asked them why, and they said, ‘We fired him because at the audition, you were the first bass player who was able to play with intensity even at low volumes.’ They’d never seen that before.
“Besides, Corerro and I got along so well musically — people could build anything they wanted on top of what Joe and I were doing. He was from Memphis, and he had a thing that reminded me of [drummer] Zigaboo Modeliste from the Meters. I said, ‘Man, I’m home.’”
The Crusaders, Rhapsody and Blues (1980); Ghetto Blaster (1984)
“They called me two weeks before the audition. They rented a room at SIR, and when I walked in, there was Wilton [Felder], Stix [Hooper], and Joe [Sample]. They told me, ‘We want to do an album that has Latin colors, so we want to see if we can relate to you musically.’ It was beautiful. We jammed, and within half an hour, they told me to come to the studio.”
Why did Laboriel and Wilton Felder split credits on some of the great sessions for singer Randy Crawford? “Because she was [the Crusaders’] artist, but Wilton really loved my playing, and he very much wanted to be part of what was happening. He was a phenomenal bass player, so he was playing just to be part of it.”
Donald Fagen, The Nightfly (1980)
“Jeff Porcaro, who recommended me to Donald Fagen, picked me up and drove me to the studio for the ‘New Frontier’ session. We arrive, I plug in, and they say, ‘Abraham, give us a few seconds — we’re working on something.’ On this one song, they had Michael Omartian, Victor Feldman, David Foster, and David Paich, and Donald is saying to the engineer, ‘Let me hear David Paich’s right hand with Victor Feldman’s left hand. Okay, now let me hear Michael Omartian’s left hand and David Page’s right hand,’ and they are doing all these juxtapositions. I tell myself that I just might be there all day.
“Eventually, they play the song for me, and I start playing. They ask if I can come up with anything else. I do something different, and they say, ‘Yes! Let’s do that for the whole song.’ When I finish, they tell me it sounds monotonous. I could not believe it [laughs]. So, pretty soon I played [what would become the final part], and they said, ‘Let’s record that!’ We did it in three and a half hours. Jeff told me he had never seen them do anything that fast.”
Laboriel says that one bass player was just as nitpicky as the Steely Dan crew. “Anthony Jackson was even more perfectionist than they were,” he says, laughing. “Steve Gadd told me he had to threaten Anthony to within an inch of his life because Anthony was constantly asking for a pencil, and anything that Donald would say, Anthony would write it on his part.”
Ella Fitzgerald, Ella Abraça Jobim (1981)
“That was a very special day, and I was super concentrated. Alex [Acuña], Henry Trotter on keyboards, and me. We were the foundation, and Toots [Thielemans], Joe Pass, Clark Terry, and Zoot Sims were arriving separately to do their parts. At that time, Ella was legally blind, so they had huge cue cards, and she was reading the words while singing. It blows your mind, doesn’t it? That was a whole other caliber of understanding music.”
Chaka Khan, What Cha’ Gonna Do for Me (1981)
“‘And the Melody Still Lingers On (Night in Tunisia)’ is a very important recording, because they used a sample of Charlie Parker and then overdubbed Dizzy Gillespie to reproduce what they had done 60 years before. That alone was historic — and then they had Herbie Hancock and Greg Phillinganes, who is absurdly talented.
“Arif Mardin put it together at the last minute with Casey Scheuerell on drums and me on bass. Robbie Buchanan, Greg, and Arif were working on the arrangement when we walked in, and that whole thing was born in front of us. It was very elaborate, and Chaka just concentrated and killed it. She is a genius.”
Zawinul Syndicate, Immigrants (1984)
“Recording Immigrants was another proud moment. It was also scary because Joe Zawinul is a different kind of cat: He had all the music professionally copied, and when he passed the parts around, everything looked perfect; it was perfectly conceived. We start running it, and anytime somebody would make a mistake, Joe would say, ‘Okay, stop — in this bar, forget what’s on the paper. Everybody write down that mistake, because that’s how we’re going to play from on.’ The music was very nice to look at for a few bars, and then there’d be ten corrections. But I’m proud of what I did on ‘Shadow and Light’ because Joe left my bass part completely the way I played it.”
Paul Simon, Surprise (2006); You’re the One (2011)
“Paul sent me the music for ‘The Teacher’ ahead of time, so when I went to his apartment in New York, which is where he records, I had done my homework. At first, I was playing a very complex bass line, but Paul said, ‘Abraham, can you simplify this? I don’t feel worthy of being on a record with that bass line.’ [Laughs.] The final bass line is not a pattern; I just freely decided to play, and he kept it. I love Bakithi Kumalo’s playing with all my heart, and it was Steve Gadd on drums, so it was really special to get together with Paul.”
4. Louis & Quincy
Perhaps the easiest way to get a handle on Abraham Laboriel’s huge body of work is to consider groups of collaborators as branches of a tree. One limb would be the many Japanese artists he has played with, including Hiroko Nakamura, Mari Nakamoto, Izumi Kobayashi, Yumi Matsutoya, Junko Ohashi, Keiko Matsui, and Yutaka Okukura, whose “Love Light” featured Abraham on bass; Laboriel has also done a dozen albums with Akira Jimbo. Another branch might be the GRP family — musicians like Dave Grusin, David Benoit, Gary Burton, Diane Schuur, Ernie Watts, and Al Jarreau — with whom Laboriel sowed the seeds of what we now call smooth jazz. The Crusaders crew, a separate but related bough, is headed by Joe Sample, Randy Crawford, and Wilton Felder. Abraham’s extensive gospel/contemporary Christian work would be another, as would his lengthy list of Latin connections, featuring icons like Julio Iglesias, Gilberto Gil, Ruben Blades, Shakira, Ricky Martin, and Luis Miguel. Laboriel’s dozens of TV and soundtrack credits over the past four decades, which includes keepers (48 Hrs., Absence of Malice, Beaches, Deadpool, Forrest Gump, Mission: Impossible, Ordinary People) and clunkers (Police Academy: Mission to Moscow), merits its own offshoot. And the mighty Quincy Jones, under whose umbrella Laboriel collaborated with James Ingram, Patty Austin, Jeffrey Osbourne, George Duke, George Benson, Louis Johnson, and Stevie Wonder, is one of the stoutest branches of them all.
What was your relationship with Louis Johnson?
Louis and I loved and respected each other. When he played with Bill Maxwell at the beginning of his career, Bill told me, “Abraham, I’ve never played with a musician who could wear me out like Louis can.” Later, Louis invited me to be part of his series of bass instructional videos, which is how Beginning Funk Bass was born. He was a troubled spirit, but I was always so moved by the caliber of his gift.
Mateo Laboriel Wasn’t there a song that Quincy asked you to teach Louis?
Abraham Laboriel “Betcha Wouldn’t Hurt Me.” Stevie Wonder taught me the bass line, and Quincy asked me to show it to Louis.
How did that happen?
Carlos Vega and I were recording for George Benson with Quincy and Bruce Swedien, and Quincy asked us to stay because Stevie was coming to demo a song for The Dude; Quincy figured that hearing it with a rhythm section would give him a better sense of how the song would fit the record. Many hours later, Stevie shows up with an entourage — and no song. He was hoping to arrive, apologize to Quincy, and then go out and socialize, right? But Quincy tells him that Carlos and I are there to play the songs with him, so he sits at the piano.
He starts playing and singing, and it was beautiful! Quincy says, “That’s great!” And Stevie says, “No, that’s not for you.” [Laughs.] Quincy was recording while Stevie basically made a demo for himself. When Stevie was done, he sat down and said, “Abraham, play this [sings a long and complex rhythmic figure].” It was hard! He’s improvising the song on the spot, and he says, “You can keep this one, Quincy.” That’s what became “Betcha Wouldn’t Hurt Me.”
A few days later, Quincy calls me and says, “Abraham, you know I’ve always been honest with you. I want Louis to play the song on the album, but Louis cannot read, and I know this is a difficult bass line. Will you please come and record it so that he can learn it?” That touched me, because Quincy was not playing games. I said, “I’ll be there.” I recorded it for Louis, who made the final recording.
When Bass Player organized the tribute to Louis in 2014, I played “Betcha Wouldn’t Hurt Me” and told the story, and it was really touching. Greg Phillinganes said he never knew that Quincy had asked me to teach Louis that bass line, and I told him it was important for people to know that we are not in competition with each other — we are a community of people that support and love each other.
Read part two of our interview with Abraham Laboriel, which will run in the July issue, to learn about his favorite drummers, the secret of the shuffle, how his faith affects his musicianship, wisdom he passes on to students, and his career as a solo artist—plus, get a front seat at a recent L.A. gig with an all-star quartet.