May 28, 2024

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Since moving to Atlanta, Neal Starkey has been a mainstay in the city’s music landscape: Video, Photos

“I was working a summer job as a waiter at a resort on Lake George and got a chance to play behind John, who was there to do a talent show,” Starkey says. “When the show ended, he asked me if I’d be interested in going back with him to his regular job at another Lake George restaurant.”

To that point, Starkey’s exposure to jazz was minimal. He, like many young people in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, was into rock ‘n roll, Little Richard, et al. But his nightly collaboration with Parks was typically followed by hamburgers at a local hangout with a jukebox full of jazz. “I heard Bill Evans’ ‘Peri’s Scope’ (1959, ‘Portrait In Jazz’), and wow!” Then came Oscar Peterson, and then Shorty Rogers’ West Coast jazz.

Live shot: Mose Allison & Neal Starkey at Blind Willies | Creative Loafing

Since moving to Atlanta 1969, Starkey has been a mainstay in the city’s musical landscape, and beyond.

Starkey, 82, has performed with many jazz notables, including Kenny Barron, Eddie Harris, Sonny Stitt, Duke Pearson and Barney Kessel, in addition to Atlanta-based Joe Gransden, pianist Kevin Bales and trumpeter Gordon Vernick. He toured with Chuck Mangione, and has been a regular at the annual W.C. Handy Festival.

His discography is similarly impressive: recordings with Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Bill Anschell, Toni Braxton, Gary Motley and the CBS Jazz All-Stars. And he’s even made a television appearance here and there, including an episode of “In the Heat of the Night” as bassist for Bobby Short.

Like most musicians who came up in the mid-20th century, Starkey learned his craft on the job. And one job led to another. From Lake George back to his home turf in Schenectady with Sal Salvador’s big band and securing his place, actually his “lock on all the jazz being played in Albany and Schenectady.”

Starkey admittedly didn’t know many of the tunes he was being asked to play, and he was never much for studying charts. He got by with the root of the chords and the strength of his ear. “I don’t think there were fake books back then, or maybe I just didn’t have the money to buy one, but I could hear my way through most any tune,” he says. That skill, he adds, is essential, “because if you can’t learn a tune in three choruses, they probably won’t hire you again.”

Starkey’s career longevity is matched only by that of his instrument. In 1962, he took the last of his money, $250 and enough for roundtrip bus fare, to nearby Troy in response to a newspaper ad selling a Rubner bass. The owner’s family had smuggled the bass out of Germany in 1945 in a hay wagon just as the Russian army was closing the border. It was damaged and it took some time for Starkey to gather the $90 it would cost to repair it.

“It has a good clean sound, good punch, and will withstand some awful winters,” Starkey says.

For Atlanta's jazz scene, Neal Starkey is the godfather of the double bass

Starkey landed in Atlanta in 1969, playing at a club on the top floor of the Equitable Building, then on to shows at the Regency Hyatt House. His reputation for being able to support whatever kind of music was being played spread quickly. “I was getting calls, playing six nights a week,” he says. “Dance music, pop stuff, whatever the band that needed a bass player was playing.”

That diversity got him two calls that established him in Atlanta, one for a Fox Theatre appearance by Tony Bennett and the composer Neal Hefti, another for a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” in Carrollton, which in turn got him a call for Robert Shaw’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

For the next 25 years, Starkey played the string of Broadway shows that filed through the Fox Theatre. Over that time and since, he has taken calls for the symphony pops orchestra, the opera, the ballet and for all types of recordings, including television and radio commercials. He also taught for five years as an adjunct professor at Georgia State University — much of that remarkable, considering his limited reading skills.

“It’s his ability to play by ear that separates him from most players,” says Joe Gransden, whom Starkey has worked with, from trios to quartets to his 17-piece band, thousands of times since the 1990s.

“His sound and timing are exact,” Gransden says. “Big, fat sound and time that doesn’t waver. He plays jazz like the original players, by ear and feel. He instinctively knows what the music is supposed to sound like.”

When asked about the highlights of his years on the Atlanta music scene, Starkey simply answers, “Yes.” He loves to play, particularly jazz, and Atlanta’s grandfather of the double bass remains in demand. While COVID-19 eliminated some of the city’s most popular jazz venues, including the Tuesday night jams at Venkman’s and big-band Mondays at Café 290, live jazz continues as a substantial and important part of Atlanta art and entertainment.

Bassist Neal Starkey on stage with Joe Gransden at the famed Blue Note club in New York City.

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