Disreputable Few, Uncle Duane’s Band… Call ‘em what you want, but this outfit comprised of four severely accomplished session and touring musicians share a common enthusiasm for the music of the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead. For bassist Paul ILL, it’s certainly the music of the cosmos and heavens. A go-to, got-to-have player on the West Coast, Paul grew up in the U.S. military bases in Europe during the 1960s and early ‘70s. It was the Beatles that lit the fire in Paul and the servicemen overseas who taught him how to play and mesh within the base garage bands and Sunday morning gospel services. His older sister helped foster in him a healthy curiosity for how music was made, and before he knew it, Paul was following in the footsteps of his heroes, the Allman Brothers. Over the years, Paul ILL has recorded and performed with Butch Trucks, Tina Turner, Mick Taylor, Courtney Love, Linda Perry, Pink, Alicia Keys, Bob Weir, Celine Dion– I have to stop listing names because his resume really is ridiculously and wonderfully diverse. I called Paul out in L.A. to talk about Disreputable Few’s upcoming show– June 6th on the Creek Stage– and we spoke for the better part of an hour about the Brothers, some of the folks he’s worked with, and what it takes to be a successful session bass player. His love is genuine, his emotions unencumbered, and his memory encyclopedic.
It was a pleasure.
AI- Where are you from originally and how did you get started down the road as a professional musician? Was that always the dream?
PI- Well, first of all, let me begin by saying thank you so much for allowing us this platform to express our thoughts and feelings about music– most particular, this particular musical legacy. I grew up on army bases overseas. My father was a military officer and my mother was a former army nurse who worked as a civilian nurse at the hospitals wherever we were stationed. And my older sister– who was six years older than me… It was a very interesting and unique household. My parents were very liberal. They’re both yellow dog democrats. That World War II generation– you know, the Greatest Generation. And my sister was what’s known as a prenatal piano player. She was born knowing how to play the piano. It was a pretty amazing household to grow up in because she was practicing classical music all my life as a little kid… Many, many hours, sometimes three, four hours a day.
What was the timeframe for this?
Oh, I’m 63-years-old, the early sixties and stuff. My sister was also a real big folky and my mom was really, really into Pete Seeger, and my mom really was fascinated with Bob Dylan because of his civil rights activism. Right. So I grew up in a very music-friendly household, and what happened for me was witnessing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. I had just turned eight-years-old. I mean, it’s no accident I’m left-handed. The bass player in the Beatles is named Paul– he’s left-handed! Thank God I play right-handed though! That’s no accident! And because I grew up on army bases, it was such a diverse community, especially overseas. By the time I got to junior high school, I had managed to get a bass guitar by seventh grade.
I was always drawn to playing bass. In seventh, eighth, and ninth grade I got very lucky because there were a lot of GIs stationed at this base in Munich, Germany where the service had gear in it– it had a Fender and Roger’s backline! It had Fender amps, Fender Rhodes piano, some Fender guitars– and a no bass though, ironically– and a Rogers drum set. My mom would let me hang out with these guys that she worked with at the hospital, these two twins in particular that were from Alabama and they were just really happy not to be stationed in Vietnam. And I started playing… The first bass line I ever learned was, like correctly, was “Wipe Out”, you know, garage rock and stuff like that. I also learned “Midnight Hour”, and then by ninth grade, they asked my mom if I could play the gospel service with, with them the first Sunday of every month at the base chapel. My mom was like, “Of course, you can! We’re Catholic, but you could go play. We’ll get you a different Mass, you can go over there and play that.” So I had this amazing experience where I was playing with all these people that would gather… It was predominantly African Americans, like 90%. And I got to play a gospel service at a very young age and witnessed the rise of psychedelic music.
I saw Led Zeppelin in 1970 in Munich when I was 14-years-old. I saw, in two days at a pop festival in Munich in June of that year, I saw Black Sabbath, Free, three-piece Traffic, Deep Purple, and Rory Gallagher with Taste, and a bunch of other bands. I remember talking to my friend Marcus Benoit, who was a sax player who was into jazz as a kid, I remember him and I sayin’, “Hey, man, this is it. Between that Led Zeppelin show we saw in March and this, there’s no turning back now!” Right? The next year, I went to a boarding school in Switzerland. At that school, there was a girl that had the Allman Brothers first record and that completely changed my life. The ability for those guys to… I’m getting goosebumps all over my body thinking about the first time I heard that record and looked at the picture! ‘Cause I was jazz aware because of my friend Marcus, I was R&B aware because we had a little band that played in German rock houses– and we played the junior high dances.
Like, I had learned some songs, you know and because of my older sister– who had gone on to college, I was really, really lucky. She had an amazing record collection, and she was sending me records from the states and stuff. I was shocked at the sophistication and the honesty of that first [Allman Brothers Band] record. It was this combination of musical sophistication and honesty. And my buddy Marcus Benoit who was basically– not a jazz snob, but he was in the Coltrane and Eric Dolphy and stuff. He heard the jazz in it, thanks to Jaimoe. Then my dad retired from the military and I moved to Cocoa Beach, Florida in the summer of 1971 just before we lost Duane! I fell in with these guys who were older than me, who I really looked up to, who had been in rival bands in the Florida bar band scene that were aware of the Allman Joys! Bobby Caldwell, the drummer who had ended up in Captain Beyond on Capricorn. Was a local hero. He had been in a band called the Tropics from Orlando. I was going to Cocoa Beach High School. I went to high school and three different countries. I went to three different high schools in three years. I fell in with these guys who had been acquainted with Duane and Gregg. I was so lucky!
I managed to hitch a ride with some people up to Macon. When I was 16, my mom let me go to Macon and Berry was still alive, and I tried to meet the Allman Brothers. I just wanted to meet him. I wanted to go watch him, you know? I wanted to go down to Grant’s Lounge, but I was a kid in 11th grade! And the people I hitched a ride with were in Macon for very nefarious reasons. But the first person I met was Red Dog! I happened to meet Red Dog because they had… A little business with Red Dog, shall we say. [That trip] began this lifelong incredible respect. And then when Berry passed, it really freaked me out… But then what happened was the legacy, the fact that they could emerge from that and be victorious.
I didn’t see the Allman Brothers live until I saw them with the Eagles in Boston when I was going to college in ’75, I think. Summer of ’75. I happened to see them with the Eagles at like a big festival gig– you know, like an outdoor stadium thing. But my dear friend from high school, he went to Merritt Island High School, Austin Pettit– ended up in Grinderswitch? I ended up playing with Bobby Caldwell, the drummer from Captain Beyond. I was in his band out here in L.A. So I’ve had tangential relationships with members of the Allman Brothers Band. And then the peak for me was when our band, Disreputable Few, got to be Butch’s [Trucks] back-up band for the charity thing we did before we lost him… Which is how I got involved with Richard and everybody because we’re kind of like a very small community out here. But anyway, what happened was in the early ’90s out here.
The story continues this lifelong fascination and immersion, literally, immersion in the music. How did Duane lead the band? How did the band work? How could they be by far the best jam band ever? Because their jams have meaning! Their jams are informed by the moment and not only the music. In 1988, I was writing for a music magazine based in New York called the Music Paper, and I was watching Dickey Betts’ band very closely because the fellow that I had played in bar bands in Florida with by the name of Chris Merrell, God rest his soul, Chris Merrell was now singing with the Dickey Betts Band! And I was like, “Whoa!” Brilliant singer who had grown up on Air Force bases overseas like me. And had a band in Central Florida called the Merrell Brothers, they were amazing. Chris was by far one of the best singers I’ve ever known. Well, he left, Dickey’s band and a gentleman by the name of Warren Haynes took his place.
This magazine I was writing for called the Music Paper [said] “We’ve got this amazing record by this guy that plays with Dickey Betts named Warren Haynes, and we think you’d be the best reviewer for it. Would you like to review this?” And I said, “Well, I’d like to interview him.” So Warren and I think that the first interview he did for a regional/national magazine was with me! And then what happened was, is in the early ‘90s out here, I met Matt Abts whose Dad, like my dad was– God rest his soul, Matt’s dad died a couple of years ago– his Dad was a World War II veteran, an army colonel. Just like my dad. So Matt and I became very close. We were playing in bands together because we’re drawn to this kind of music, and Matt had played with Dickey. I got Matt in Mick Taylor’s band. We played with Mick Taylor before the Mule took off. And we made an amazing record with a guy who had been an acolyte of Duane’s named Gerry Groom. Jerry owned the SG Les Paul for a while. He’s the guy that sold it to Graham Nash– and there’s the famous bootlegs where Duane’s showing Gerry licks and stuff. Gerry was a brilliant slide player.
And so we played with Gerry Groom and Mick Taylor together. We made a record that was very critically acclaimed, a traditional blues record. It almost made the Grammy ballots in ’92 or ’93 for Best Traditional Blues Record. So Matt and I, we’re in a band with a former Rolling Stone, and we all took off! And I was at the Mule’s first official performance, which was at a place called the Captain’s Cabin in North Hollywood on off night from a [ABB] multi-night stand at the Greek Theater… I remember they were staying at the Hyatt House, and Allen, God rest his soul was staying under the name of Harley Davidson because he and I were hanging out in his room and he said, “Hey, Paul, do you think I should go downstairs and get the Harley Davidson and bring it in the elevator and just, you know, ride it down the hallway?” And I said, “I don’t know, that might be an arrestable offense!” (Laughs) I don’t know, he might have done it! That began my lifelong relationship with the Mule too. I’m so honored and humbled to be a frequent guest with them. Occasionally, they asked me to be one of their jammers, and I’m very fortunate to have had this lifelong affiliation with this musical legacy because it has a profound emotional meaning to me not only as a musician but as a person. The lyrics and the songcraft in the Allman Brothers and the stories that Gregg and Dickey wrote. The narratives really appealed to me as much as the music and the feeling in the room when they play. And the same with Warren! I mean Warren’s written some evergreen songs that have stayed with me my whole life– like “Soul Shine”!
I want to talk about the Disreputable Few. You guys are all card-carrying members of the Allman Brothers Band Fan Club. What you’ve got coming here to Macon, you’re calling it Uncle Duane’s Band… But is it, in fact, The Disreputable Few?
That’s correct. It may seem confusing at first. What happened for us was, like we played with Butch [Trucks], we had the opportunity as an ensemble to back Bob Weir two and a half years ago. Out of the blue, right? That came to us through Matt Sorum and a producer friend of Matt’s named Chad Schlosser. That gig went really well. In the aftermath of that, Bob asked me to continue to play bass with him, ’cause I play upright bass too. So I did some more gigs with Bob in the aftermath of that prior to him starting Wolf Brothers with Don Was. He started a band called the Bob Weir Small Band with me and Wally Ingram, a trio like Wolf Brothers. And what happened was, in our jams, Disreputable Few started morphing Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers songs together, mashing them up like a DJ would. We started seeing the similarities in the music and we started thinking about that really famous Fillmore West gig– I think it was in ’71– where it’s the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead, and Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green. We started thinkin’, “Hey, maybe we’re onto something here!” And as soon as we started playing a combination of Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead music, we found our audience out here in Southern California. So we’re reinventing ourselves and renaming ourselves. And then, and I guess in the common vernacular of 2019, we’re rebranding ourselves. We’re becoming Uncle Duane’s Band on this tour and if Disreputable Few still exists, we have that body of original music, and we still play that music… But I have a feeling we’ll come out of this run through the Southeast… We feel like we’re coming home. We’ve got nine shows in nine days and the peak of the tour, the high point of the tour is Macon. For us, to be honored, to be involved with the Big House and a gig during the 50th Anniversary year of the Allman Brothers is, for all of us, a lifelong fulfillment.
One of the reasons, Randy Ray Mitchell, our brilliant producer and one of our guitar players, one of the reasons he and I work together, is the first time I ever walked into his recording studio, he had the gatefold picture from “Live at the Fillmore”– the album cover picture? He had the poster up on his wall, mounted on poster board from when he was a kid. I go, “Oh, God, I’m home!” Mark Tremalgia, our other guitar player, grew up in Connecticut. His first guitar teacher was Duane Allman’s guitar teacher. The guy that Duane studied with in Daytona Beach moved to Connecticut to this little small town where Mark grew up. Dan Potruch, our drummer, was always enamored with the fact that the Allman Brothers swung like they swung. He loved Butch and Jaimoe’s drumming and the fact that two drummers could play together. So we all converged to do benefits for Matt Sorum’s charity as Disreputable Few. We named the band Disreputable Few because of “disreputable persons” seen in the company of the Allman Brothers from the “Live at the Fillmore” liner notes, right? And then what happened is over time, we said let’s play some gigs as Uncle Duane’s Band and do mash-ups of Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead songs and see what happens. The Allman Brothers fans love it. And the Grateful Dead fans love it, and it’s expanded our audience!
One of the guys that I work with really wanted to do this interview and he happens to be a huge Black Sabbath fan. So I promised him that I would ask how you got involved working with Bill Ward.
Well, flashback to the Munich pop festival in June of 1970 when me and my good buddy, we went out to see all these bands and we witnessed Black Sabbath live. And we go, “What is this? This kind of sounds like Cream. These guys can kinda swing!” Early Black Sabbath was a jam band. They were jam, right? They were trying to copy Cream. So what happened was, in the early nineties, I started making a name for myself as a studio bass player in Los Angeles. Mutual friends of mine were working with Bill Ward, and I was surprised as one of them was a drummer named Ronnie Ciago, who I had gone to Berkeley College of Music with and played in bands in Boston with. Ronnie reached out to me and he said, “Hey, Bill Ward needs a bass player for a cover of “The Wizard” for a tribute record that they’re making to Black Sabbath [Nativity in Black].” They’re gonna play on their own record, right? They’re going to do one song and [Rob] Halford’s gonna sing it.
So we put together a band around Bill that was me, a guitar player by the name of Pete Comita– who had been the bass player in Cheap Trick for a minute– and on vocals, I got the brilliant Jimmie Wood, who has the band Jimmie Wood and the Immortals. He’s a songwriter and a blues harp player. He is the frontman and has been in long-time association with the post-Belushi, post-Dan Aykroyd versions of the Blues Brothers. And he’s a very busy studio musician out here– and songwriter. So the three of us did a version of “The Wizard” with Bill for this record as the [Bullring] Brummies, they called it. And then they sent the tapes to England and Tony [Iommi] and Geezer [Butler] overdubbed on us. But they kept some of my bass! They blended my bass in some parts of the song– not the jam that they cut over Bill’s jamming. Because I used a Neutron? I used an envelope follower that would “Waaammmp” on the sound of it when we tracked it. I have a gut feeling they left my track on the record because they also credited me. So that’s how I met Bill. Then I ended up playing in Bill’s solo band for three records, and we have a life long friendship as the result of it because Bill is such a supremely premium talented songwriter and singer. He’s had a couple of vocal cameos on Black Sabbath’s records, and he’s by far one of the most misunderstood musicians by the public that I’ve ever met. He’s so much more than a musician. He’s a brilliant songwriter, a brilliant conceptualist.
The first record I did for him, Aaron, he had every bass part in his head. I sat with him in a room in his home down in Seal beach with a couple of basses and a couple of chairs… And sitting across from me, he had a Casio keyboard and he’d say, “Okay, this is the first song,” and he’d play the notes on this Casio, and he would sing me the bass lines that he wanted me to play, and would I transcribe them. He had every note to the record in his head… For every instrument. I’d never seen anything like it before in my life.
That ability for you to be able to sit down with somebody and then to be able to transition from style to style… How do you adapt from working with somebody like Bill Ward or Wayne Kramer or Matt Sorum who you mentioned earlier. And then you go to work with someone like Celine Dion or Christina Aguilera? Or is there a difference for you at all to do that?
Yes, there are differences. Absolutely. Because the feeling in the room that you create with someone is the context of what you’re doing. Like for example, working with Celine Dion or Christina Aguilera, those gigs came to me through my association with Linda Perry…
Who I’m a big fan of by the way.
Yes, sure! She’s amazing! Unbelievable! She’s a force of nature, right? Supremely talented and a wonderful person. Linda would say to me occasionally, “Hey Paul, don’t be ‘Charming Paul’ today, be ‘Wallflower Paul’. I just need you to sit in a corner and play bass. Okay? Put a lid on it. I know you’ve got a lot of ideas, and you can play anything, and you’ve got more than one way to do these things. But just sit there and be quiet.” But other times she would encourage me like with Alicia Keys, she’d say, “I have a feeling you and Alicia are gonna get on like wildfire ’cause you’ve played a lot of funk in your life. Let’s see what happens!” I ended up being more verbal and more involved. Me and my sister, when we were kids, I came home one day and she had made two piles of records. Right? I wrote The Studio Musicians Handbook for Hal Leonard Music Publishing, right? It’s a college textbook basically. And one of the things that my sister did when I was a kid… I remember I was in sixth grade going into seventh grade, she made two piles of records down in the basement by our stereo. And I said, “What’s going on here?” And she said, “Well, these records are made by the people that are on the cover. These other records are made by other people. And I go, “Who are these other people?” And she goes, “Well, look!” And she started showing me– there were some studio musician credits back then, right? And she had kind of figured out what a studio musician was because she was going to the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore at the time as an undergrad– you know, as a high school kid, right? She was on her way to becoming a potentially brilliant performing pianist. I said, “Wow, really?” And she said, “Yeah, look at this… These same people played with Sonny & Cher, but then they played with The Beach Boys. But now look at this…”
The Wrecking Crew!
Yeah, yeah, exactly! And she figured out what a studio musician was while she was in 11th or 12th grade. She wrote a letter to Columbia Records. Maybe to Phil Ramone at A&R Studios? And she wrote a letter to Capitol Records, maybe to Nick Venet– the guy that produced the early Beach Boys stuff– asking who are these people and what’s what and how did they get these jobs? She was interested, right? So what happened was, the New York person wrote her back– boy, I wish I had these records– and explained what the musician’s union was, explained what a session was (laughs)! It was a wonderful letter that this guy wrote back. Whoever it was, the A & R person at the label or Columbia or whoever it was. She and I became really obsessed with the idea that, yeah, it would be really cool to be a Beatle or be in the Rolling Stones or [to be] Bob Dylan… But it would also be really cool to be a studio musician too! If you could do both? If you’re a studio musician, that’s not a bad deal either because you get to play with so many different people, you know?
So then when I moved to Florida in 11th grade, the guys that I had fallen in with, especially these two twins, Tim and Terry, who had really, really idolized Duane [Allman] at a young age, they knew that he had gone to Muscle Shoals. ‘Cause they knew, they told me that, “Oh yeah, he went and he played on records by Aretha!” And I went, “Oh s–t, I didn’t know that!” I had heard those records, you know, on the radio. You heard ‘em on the army base, on the jukebox, but I didn’t know! I went, “Holy smoke! He’s a session musician too! Oh Wow!” And then once Derek and the Dominoes drops and Push, Push by Herbie Mann… To start thinking, “Oh, there’s a way to have a really broad musical language, but be true to yourself.”
What is it that I try to bring to Wayne Kramer that I also try to bring Celine Dion? The first thing is what I call the surrender of authority, right? I have to surrender my ego and my ideas about music and these people to the muse, whatever that is. And whoever is usually writin’ the check or the birth parent of the music is my conduit to the muse, right? I have to, as a studio musician, bring something to that, that serves their vision for what the end result’s going to be. But I also have to be able to catalyze it, right? And bring things to it that may lead to co-authoring songs with them. You know, I’ve written songs with Christina Aguilera, Pink, Courtney Love, Juliette Lewis… And so a lot of the artists I’ve played with, I’ve often found myself in the very fortunate position of being a co-author of a song with them that’s ended up on the record. Not all the people but some of them, you know? Enough to really give me a strong sense of what it is to be a real collaborator.
So as a bass player, you gotta drive the bus, right? But you gotta remember who owns the bus. You gotta serve the drummer too. You’ve got to make sure that the drummer is really happy with the way you play. And I learned that from the guys that I played with on the army base as a kid and at that gospel service we played, we had a drummer in there. And I also learned that from an interview with John Paul Jones, that was in Guitar Player magazine in the ’70s before they published Bass Player magazine. I think there was a sidebar where John Paul Jones said, you know, the first thing he realized playing with John Bonham was that the band was going to be huge and one of the reasons it was going to be huge is because he was going to subjugate his will as a bass player to Bonham’s responses to the tunes. Because at the end of the day, if it’s a song, Aaron, people are listening to the singer and their body is feeling the drummer.
So if the singer’s happy with you and the drummer’s happy with you, you’re doing a good job as a studio musician bass player. You got to bring to each set of circumstances a certain level of willingness, willingness to do what’s right for the song regardless of what you think, and you’ve got to really enjoy that process.
Richard [Brent] was telling me that you want to invite some local players to come jam with you guys when you come to town.
Yes, yes, yes. 100% yes.
Is this something that you guys do often?
All the time.
How’s it usually work out?
It’s great! The last gig we did, a couple of months ago… We play all the time, but the last officially announced live show we did was at the Topanga Community Center with a band called Jerry’s Middle Finger that does Jerry Garcia Band stuff. At the end of our set, we had eleven musicians on stage. We had two drummers, John Molo, two percussionists. We added John Molo, we added Matt Abts and Wally Ingram on hand drums. We had Katie Skene, who’s a brilliant guitar player/singer and Andrea Whitt who plays viola and pedal steel– who has a duo are going to be the backstage music for the Dead and Company tour this year in the VIP room. We added Matt Butler on keyboards and a singer by the name of Halina [Janusz] from Jerry’s Middle Finger. We had a great time and it worked out! It’s on YouTube… The peak of the set was a mash-up, but I don’t want to tell people what the mash-ups are because I don’t want to spoil the fun!
That would it indeed! Because you got to catch ‘em off guard just a little bit in order to get that little extra effort.
You gotta surprise ’em! We gotta keep it surprising– but it worked out fine! In this situation, because it’s Macon, we know that these people are as into this music as we are! What we would like to say is, “What songs do you want to do?” That we know, right? And are you going to sing it or are you just gonna play? Ideally, vocalists are welcome, guitar players are welcome, bass players are welcome, drummers are welcome. Keyboard players are welcome– we’ll have to finagle a keyboard rig because we don’t have a keyboard player on the road with us this tour. Neither does Tyler Boone, but we’ll figure it out. And then it’s just like the way the Mule does it– you kind of wing it that night. “Hey, who’s here? Who wants to play? Okay, what songs are we going to play with them?” And then at soundcheck, if we go through the song, we do. If we don’t, we don’t. We’ll be fine.