On 26th December 2016 at a Seattle hotel, our friend Rajko Tolic was kind enough to sat down with BSO bass player Johnny “Spazz” Hatton and conduct an intervew for Stray Cats Collector’s.
I would like to thank both Johnny Hatton for taking the time answering to our questions and of course, to our middle men, Rajko. Without his mediation, this interview never would have happened.
Johnny, first of all, thanks for accepting this interview.
Oh, no problem, it is my pleasure.
I am curious to know a bit about your background. Where did you grow up?
I’m a native Missourian. I grew up in northern Missouri. My dad was a violin player. I wanted to be a violinist really bad when I was 5 years old and when I was 6 he gave me one. He pulled it out of a paper bag in the kitchen of our house, which was a farm house on 12 acres of land on the outskirts of Macon, which is in the northern part of Missouri. And my earliest childhood memory is that violing coming out of that brown paper bag.
Well, apparently you played it.
Oh yeah! I played violin, I majored it in college. I was the concert master of the “old” Missouri Youth Orchestra, concert master of my college orchestra, in high school… I played two years in the Saint Louis Philarmonic, second violin, fourth desk… or second desk I think it was. I am still a good violin player and still every now and then I pull it out and play the “Orange Blossom Special” at gigs and I am playing it on my CD, “Gospel Bop” (Johnny Hatton, 2011).
So, your childhood days were surrounded by a music environmet.
Yes. My father was a music instructor. At the school he conducted the orchestra and the band. My mother was a keyboard, she played piano at the church, directed the choirs…
When did you discover that you wanted to be a professional musician?
I think it was just a given from day one.
So, there was no particular moment when you sit down and think “oh, this is what I really want to do for a living”?
Actually, for a while I thought I’d be a forest ranger because I love nature.
You have that second career in the back of your mind.
I thought about that but then I went to university and I majored in music educacion because, as I said, my father was in the public school system and I thought that I could always do that and when I started working playing jazz at bars in Kansas City, that’s when I decided this is what I really want to do. I don’t want to wake up at 6 in the morning and go to school.
What did your parents say about it? Did anybody try to talk you out of it?
Nobody. My father suggested I should try the bass because I could work my way through college, that is what he said, because he was also a violist and a violinist. He taught, he was a professor at Missouri University and played on a vocal and string quartet, but he moonlighted on the upright bass playing dance gigs. Then, he suggested that I do that and that is how I kind of started playing the bass in high school, at Affton High School in Saint Louis. I was in a swing band, which is real similar to the Brian Setzer Orchestra is in terms of instrumenstation: five saxophones, four trombones, five trumpets.
You have played with many artists: Liza Minelli, Jose Feliciano, Sony Burgess, Bob Dylan, even Elvis.
Even Elvis, yeah! I had one gig with Elvis in Kansas City.
We have to talk about Elvis!
Yeah! That was very interesting because in Kansas City I was in the jazz scene, I was playing trio gigs 6 nights a week with a pianist and I was also in a reading band, in a big band, similar to the Setzer band, and it was called Kicksband. The members of Kicksband were always picked to play the shows that came into town. I remember playing the Righteous Brothers show because in those days nobody toured with a rhythm section or technicians… They just showed up with a box and music so you read the show and that was pretty much it.
I played Righteous Brothers, Liza Minelli was a big band show, Clark Terry was another big band show too and then I got a call to play the Elvis show. That was a big band show as well. We all met in the afternoon to rehearse and at the end of the rehearsal the conductor says to me, and to the drummer, “you guys are going to play the “Two Thousand Miles Theme” and then you are going to lay out for the rest of the show, but don’t leave the stage, and pretend that you are playing”.
The list of the people you have performed with is endless but, from a musical point of view, which style do you feel more comfortable with?
Well… interesting you ask. I was really uncomfortable with rockabilly and slap bass. I never listened to any rockabilly bands until I got in the BSO and the BSO is a jazz band in its root. All the musicians there are jazz players. All the arrangements are jazz arrangements. But it was that I knew a bit of slap bass from experience with another band in Los Angeles called Big Daddy. That is how I got the call. The saxophone player at Big Daddy was the musical director of Brian Setzer at that time and his name was Bob Sandman. He passed away some 10 years ago. That is the connection to the BSO, because he knew I could slap and read. We used to rehearse at the Musicians Union and read charts, just pulled out charts and read them.
That was perfect for the Brian Setzer Orchestra. You just show up, read music and perform.
Yes. That was my first gig.
But you had to slap too. Who taught you to slap?
I learnt to slap bass when I was playing with Big Daddy and I am not really sure whether I had any instruction but I just figured it out and it was very simple. I could just do it for a verse or so before it started killing me and then I would go back to pizzicato. I have been stealing licks from Djordje Stijepovic, Jeff Fireball and I admit it. I steal licks from Slik Joe Fick.
The guy running Stray Cats Collector’s is from Spain and when checking your resume, he saw this Spanish artist, Ana Torroja. It got his attention. Question now is, how did you get involved with her?
That was so funny! We recorded in Los Angeles. She was not there, but the producer saw my picture on Facebook from a show I did in Los Angeles with my friend Ricky Silva and he has a band called the Buzzcatz and we were taking pictures and I had the red bass with the flames on it and I made a funny pose, so the producer liked it and he called me out of the blue and I accepted. They sent me a copy of the record. I had no clue who she was but I can understand she was a huge star. I am anyway more than honoured to have played on that album.
Now you are on tour with the Brian Setzer Orchestra and you have been a member since 2002. Is that correct?
I joined in February 2002. My first show was at The Tavern On The Green in New York City. It was a private party for Ortho Pharmaceuticals.
How did you get involved involved with Brian?
Well, as I said, Bob Sandman was the music director and I was playing with Big Daddy and Bob was the saxophone player. That was my connection. There was no formal introduction to Brian, I just got the call. I remember doing the auditions for the band. I was just Bob, a piano player and me auditioning a few people and that was it. Then, Brian called me to do some demos for “Vavoom!” (Interscope, 2000) before I was a permanet member. It was myself, Bernie Dresel (drums) and Brian met at a studio in Santa Monica and we record the rhythm tracks for “Vavoom!”. That went on for a while, there were some one-nighters.
My first show was at the Hollywood Hard Rock, at a private party for some lawyers. I met the guys at the dressing room, I got the music chart, we went on, I pulled out the charts and I basically sidereead the show. I remember thinking when we started the show, “man, this is loud!”. I could not believe how loud it was. I was standing right next to Bernie and Brian has two amps and it took me 3 songs before I reached for my earplugs. It was amazing how loud it was! After that show, I never went on stage without earplugs. There were a few private shows going on before I became a permanent member. I believe the reason that might have been, I am not sure, but it might have been that Mark Winchester was on the road with someone else at that time or that they wanted to save some money in travelling, as Mark lives Nashville.
You have been travelling around the world with many different artists. You have played in Japan, Europe and even Lebanon. What is the best part of being on the road? What do you really like about it?
The food! When we were in Beirut, I was touring with Jose Feliciano last summer and we got treated to a huge feast at a local restaurant with all Lebanese food and it was amazing. I love Japanese food too, Italian, French food is awesome… even German food. The drinks are good too. I love Scotch and Irish whisky, German beers… To meet new people is always great too.
What is then the worst part of being on the road? Any bad things to say about being on the road?
Not really, everything is fine. Well, there is a funny story about when I was touring with Royal Crown Revue. We would double up in rooms. God bless Brian Setzer Orchestra for giving us single rooms. With Royal Crown Revue we had to double up because there wasn’t great money so in the deal you would share rooms with a different guy every night, so you don’t have issues. But by the end of the first week it was decided that I would share rooms with Jim Jedeikin because he snored and I snored.
That’s funny, and this was to be the next question. Something funny to tell about touring?
Never falling of my bass… there is a routine that we do during “Fishnet Stockings”. I climb up on the string bass and I was on it and it was in Phoenix or in New York. So, I had to leap off the bass but I noticed that I was falling and there were monitors on the floor but it worked out well and nothing really happened. I jumped off over the falling bass with my arms in the air, victorious. The audience went crazy! And that was the end of the trick. There are videos on YouTube from different angles.
Well, we have talked about different artists you have performed and recorded with but you also have your own record, “Gospel Bop”, which was released in 2011.
Tell us about it. How did you come up with the ideas and the title?
The title is a song on the album which was written by a friend of mine, Miguel Enriquez, who is a really good rockabilly guitarist and also a truck driver. He is a super talented guy. He plays bass too. He had a gospel-billy band. There is a church in Anaheim called The Hot Rod Church. There were all the hot rod guys bringing their cars and they would meet at a pizza place on Sundays and Miguel’s band would play there… and he wrote that one.
You have great musicians in the album.
Yeah, I have Fino Roberto who is one of the Los Angeles top session guys, Douglas Livingston who has played for everybody. Bernie Dresel of course, who has with Setzer for 15 years. There are some other musicians like David Jackson who sings a low bass tone, he can hit the low F at pich, that is on my bass. A bunch of vocalists friends of mine. I wanted to record an album and thought, “what should I record?”. I’m going to do an old time gospel. When I was a child growing up in northern Missouri the churches would have these guys coming and be a gospel quartet and they would sing all these cool songs. I might have even heard The Stanley Brothers without knowing it.
What was your aim with your album?
My aim was to get a real rocking album. You know, I am a Christian, I am a minister in my church and I play in the church band. Financially speaking it was a dumb idea because nobody wants to play gospel on the radio stations and maybe I should have done a more of a pop album. But people come over to me and say “I play that thing over and over again”.
We are talking gospel here but there is plenty of rockabilly into it.
Oh yeah, we give a tribute to the devil in “Racin’ With The Devil”.
Is that Gene Vincet cover?
No, that is from a group from Finland called Trenchcoat. They were a big band and they opened for Royal Crown Revue and it was a great song, I thought it was good. “Gospel Bop” is kind of the story of my life, because everybody starts out innocent when they finnd out about religion and they go the way of drugs and alcohol and this and that… and that is in the picture in “Racin’ With The Devil”. And then, it comes the end of life experience. So, you have to think about it. My wife is singing a great song, “All Is Well”, which is about a man dying.
The album is great for many many reasons. It is gospel, rockabilly, country, bluegrass, rock & roll. The background singing, the whole thing.
Yeah, it is a bit of everything!
When you told me back then it was gospel I expected gospel but when I played it in my stereo I was like, is this gopspe? But it is for sure many other things.
Some people are asking me when the next album is coming out. I guess I need to do one more, maybe next year. There are so many great gospel songs out there!
When can you tell us about your “Rockabilly Bass” book?
I was inspired to do it because of my first bass student. My first student was a young girl, she was 15 or 16 when she took up lessons and her name was Julia and we are still friends. She was a beginner and her mother called me and told me that she wanted to learn how to play rockabilly bass. So, I had to start by saying “OK, this is how you snap a string and this is how you slap it” so my book starts out for beginners but by the end of it you are playing Brian Setzer charts. I also did some notations for my “Gospel Bop” bass. It starts simple and it gets more complex. I also use the proper orchestra fingering which is lacking in most rockabilly bass players. Most of them they just grab it and play notes. They get there but, if you know the right fingering, it is easier. You learn to read, you learn to slap and there are videos. You can get them at www.johnnyhatton.com and I will send it autographed for you!
King Double bass is the bass that you are using. Could you tell us more about your equipment?
The first one I had I got it from Jason Burns, the founder of the company, at his apartment in Costa Mesa. That is the red one with the flames. There is another one I know of, that is like that and it is the Jimbo Wallace model, the bass player for Reverend Horton Heat. In fact it went on a sale on the Internet a few weeks ago. It is almost identical. That was the first one, got it half-price, endorsement deal and then I invested in their company and as a return investment they built me another bass which is a kind root-beer flavour that they call it, sundburst. The one I am using now with the Brian Setzer Orchestra on the current tour it is the silver sparkle metal flake model and that is Brian’s bass.
Any other gear?
I am using now Fender speakers. Pick-ups, I am using K&K. They have not endorsed me yet but I guess I have to make a phone call. Also the Shadow people endorse me. It is a very nice pick-up, very rockabilly, very easy to use.
We have talked briefly about other bass players like Djordje Stijepovic and Jimbo Wallace. Do you follow the current bass scene?
I have to say, jazz is cool but it leaves me disappointed in their response to it because it is such a complex art form that it is only appreciated by musicians, usually. That is unfortunate, because that is what I like about playing rockabilly. I can do jazz licks and lines and my solos are influenced by jazz background but rockabilly is so much more fun. I just love rockabilly! Most of my shows in Los Angeles are now rockabilly or vintage swing. It is really nice because I can play stand-up bass instead of Fender bass, which I have played for years. Brian has some very good arrangements to it that he made with Mark Jones. He’s written most of the books and it is so cool to play those jazz chords but still, you need to slap it a bit.
One thing all the fans want to know is your biggest bass influence.
First, it was Ray Brown as far as the upright bass and the group with Oscar Petersson’s group. My favourite album was “Night Train” and I just love Ray’s choice of notes. It is harmonic, it is harmonious constructed. He has lots of body hit, he is such a great time keeper and a good note player. Before that, Paul McCartney. Tim from James Brown’s band. James Jamerson who actually borrowed my bass at a club in Detroit. He just sat in when he came in when I was playing with Gene Harris and he ended up playing my Fender bass.
You play a lot of different instruments besides the bass. Violin, mandolin… do you get to play them often or are you mostly a bass player?
I am mostly a bass player but occasionally I play the mandolin or the violin at the church gig. I do a version to “Orange Blossom Special” which is a lot fun. I started doing it with Big Daddy and then a at party band that I am co-founder of, The Hodads. We will throw that one live. I also played violin in Japan with the BSO. We did a couple of hillbilly songs. He brought his banjo out and this is maybe 4-5 years ago during the Trio set. This was actually Julie’s violin, Setzer’s wife, because she plays violin. We did “For Elise” which is on the “Wolfgang’s Big Night Out” and she played there and then I would come out, used her violin to do some hillbilly songs. We did “Boil Them Cabbage Down” and “Orange Blossom Special”.
Going back to your record, you sing on it. Do you enjoy being a singer?
Oh yeah! I sing backing vocals with Setzer, I also arrange some of the harmonies during the show for Julie and Leslie.
You are involved in many bands. Is there any space for you to sing?
Oh yes! In the Hodads I sing a lot of leads.
Before we close the interview, I would like to make you a series of short questions to get to know you a little bit better.
Favourite place / city: I have great memories from every place and city. We were in Dublin looking for some real Irish music like the Chieftains but all we could find were loud electric bands so we kept walking and we found this little pub at the end of the street where there were three guys. One of them was singing and playing a penny whislte. There was a guitar and a banjo and they were siting on a corer of the bar. No microphones, no amplifiers. The singer had such a voice quality that I was like I needed my earplugs, but he was singing at the top of his lungs. Awesome. Experiences like that are awesome. Also playing golf in Dublin was very good.
Food in Paris backstage, it was a gourmet restaurant there. Food in Italy, the same. Going to La Scala with Chris D’Rozzario… we were walking around, “where is La Scala?”, the opera house and we were walking just in t-shirts and sandals. We pass by and there is this guy out there, a scalping tickets for a show called “An Italian In Tunisia” or something like that and it was some 35 Euros but we kept walking and then we came back and then we got the tickets from the very same man for 15 Euros. The funny thing is that they let us in in our shorts and t-shirts and sandals. So we went to the opera that afternoon and everybody was in their gowns, suits and ties… and here we are! Nobody gave us a second look. The show was really good. Our seats were not that great, we had like a third balcony, we could not really see much but we moved around a bit and we found the booth with good lights and we could see the orchestra. If we had had binoculars we could have read the charts!. That was a funny moment.
Favourite food: Japanese food. I like it all. I like barbecue. I like Mexican food, Indian… It is hard to tell.
Favourite band: The Band.
Favourite drink: I like a good single-malt whisky. A good Irish whisky. Even Japanese whisky. If I drink beer I have to go to the toilet all the time but not if I drink whisky.
Favourite hobby: Wood-working and automechanics. I am restoring a ’53 Ford.
Right Johnny, we have covered pretty much everything, every topic… something you would like to add, something we have missed?
I have a new t-shirt, the Spazz signature t-shirt. Go to www.johnnyhatton.com. Check out the book, the CD… Check the web!
Thank you very much!