|Crossroads: Bassist T.M. Stevens|
Pivotal moments in musicians careers propelling them from obscurity to infamy
by Mark E. Waterbury
The South Bronx is a tough neighborhood to grow up in. T.M. Stevens found a way out, a musical path that would lead to his becoming one of the most respected hired guns in the music industry. Emerging from early days playing in gritty dives and strip clubs, the prolific bassist kept up the hard work and eventually put his foot in the door with the right people. From the mid-80's to the turn of the century, he would perform and record with a veritable who's-who of musicians including The Pretenders, James Brown, Billy Joel, Joe Cocker, Tina Turner, Steve Vai and a host of others. In the late 90's, he also began to create and record his own music, something that has morphed into his main passion as of late.
T.M. Stevens had an introduction to music in the boy scouts, where the scoutmaster was a jazz musician who taught the youth to play guitar. He also was used to hearing his mother's James Brown records, and by the age of eleven, became infatuated by the bass guitar. "I had no real plans on how to become a musician,"T.M. recalls. "But I knew that I had the drive to do it. So I used to sit outside of clubs in Harlem and watch people play. And when they came out for a break I'd ask them who they were, what they did, how they did it...I had to learn it myself and had to fight for it."Too young to play in regular clubs, T.M. had to perform in illegal after-hours clubs, as well as strip joints to hone his live performance chops. In the late 70's, he became involved with a group called Creative Talent Association, and also performed in a band called Salt and Pepper, which included future KISS drummer the late Eric Carr. "Back then touring the East Coast was a lot easier then it is now. We were playing clubs in Long Island and all over the place. That's how I really learned how to play in front of people. We just played everywhere."
It was strange that when T.M. caught his first real musical break he was straying towards a different career path, namely Broadway when he was involved with the play "Your Arms Are Too Short to Box With God."One day, he was outside taking a break from the production when he ran into drummer Michael Walden from the group Maha Vishnu. Michael of course would later go on to front Narada and produce Whitney Houston. "He liked me immediately, and the next thing I knew I was giving up something stable to go out on the road for hardly anything at all. We went out on the road opening for Billy Cobham, and that was the beginning for me. After that, I worked with Miles Davis and from there, it just kept happening. I started playing a lot of sessions and was making a good living at it."One of the session jobs that T.M. would end up with was playing with one of his earliest influences James Brown. During one recording session, James' background singers were caught in traffic and he was impatient to get a song for his new album recorded. At the time, T.M. was sitting on a couch in the studio so he could witness the whole recording process. "I grew up on James. I used to go to the Apollo when I was a kid to see all the shows including him, and when I got called to do the album, I wanted to spend as much time in the studio as I could. So when he demanded the background singers, he looked at me, and I told him I didn't know how to sing, and he told me I was 'damn well singing now!'" T.M. heeded the "Godfather's"order, and ended up debuting as a singer on the smash hit "Living in America"which gained further popularity in the movie "Rocky IV".
While working with James, T.M. wound up receiving another job offer that was far removed from the roots R&B and jazz session work he had done most of his career. "I got a call from Steve Jordan, a drummer who recommended me to the Pretenders. They were auditioning a bass player up in Woodstock, and (Chrissie Hynde) was having troubles with him because he couldn't get the part right. So I went up there and knocked out five songs in one afternoon, and I did it with skill as well, not merely knocking them out. So she asked me to join the band. I called a few friends and asked if I should join them because I did not even know about them at the time, and they were all like, are you crazy? But that was the first time I broke the session thing and went out on the road for the first time in a long while."T.M. finished the "Get Close"album with the Pretenders, which included the hit "Don't Get Me Wrong", but when Chrissie asked him to join the band full time after the tour, she told him he had to give up the session work because he was a Pretender now. T.M. declined and quit the band, although in his time, he rediscovered his passion for performing live. "I realized that studio work was only half of what I do. Getting in front of people with the lights and the sound and the smoke and all of that...there is something that is just too electric about that. And I became a road dog again."
Having proven not only his talent but his versatility, T.M. was always busy in the 90's working with top artists of varied styles. He worked with Tina Turner, Cyndi Lauper, Joe Cocker and Billy Joel on his "River or Dreams"album. He later worked on a couple of albums with Taylor Dayne, recorded with Billy Squire and Mick Taylor, and joined Steve Vai for his "Sex and Religion"album. As the decade rolled along, T.M. began to feel the need to express his own abilities in the studio. "Just prior to joining Steve Vai, I decided to make a statement on my own. With my playing ranging from heavy rock to James Brown funk, I started experimenting with my own writing and making demos of it, and I noticed that my own style was a mix of rock and funk. I had already been into bands like Living Colour and Mother's Finest, and I was a big heavy rock funk guy, so that's how I started."T.M.'s first solo album "Boom"was released in Japan and Germany in 1995. He would follow that up with several more solo albums, mostly released in Japan, and would also produce and record a tribute album to Deep Purple in 1997.
In 2001, T.M. went into the studio to record "Shocka Zooloo,"which included guest appearances by musicians Will Calhoun, Bernie Worrell, Al Pitrelli and Chris Caffrey. The album brings ethnic flavorings such as African traditional and reggae into the mix with T.M.'s undeniable signature bass riffs and melding of hard-edged rock, soul and funk. "Shocka Zooloo"was originally released again in Japan, as T.M. searched for interest from a U.S. label. "Right now the labels don't sign very much, period, because I have a lot of songs that are radio friendly on this album. But the companies are pushing these big pop acts these days, and there is a lot of good radio music out there that is just not getting played. When I record an album, it's very natural, if I was just interested in the marketing I would do one thing all one way or one thing all the other way. But I always believe that you do what you do and it will catch up with you. So I play what is honest in my heart."
T.M. has begun to build quite a following, both from his early work especially with Steve Vai and Joe Cocker, and his solo releases. He is constantly touring and, partly due to his tenacious following in Europe has finally found a U.S. label, United One, which will be releasing "Shocka Zooloo"in the States on February 4th. He is really enjoying both aspects of his career, playing his own musical creations as well as lending his adept fingers to his peers. "I still enjoy working with projects with other artists, but I love to come back home and hit my own because it's totally me. When I get up there doing my own stuff and the bass is just raging, playing the way I play it, it's great, although I do like to work with others as well. But my focus now is on the ÔShocka Zooloo' and I want to see that come to fruition because it's something that needs to be out there. It's a narrow band from what is considered to be R&B and what is considered to be rock, and if someone makes it combining that music, it opens avenues up for other artists."
T.M. Stevens' advice for musicians: "I always say proceed with horse blinders. Of course, you are going to have to have wider vision, but see your goal and go for it. Of course, you don't want to hurt anyone in the process, but you have to see yourself there and see yourself successful. I came from the South Bronx, and when I started out people said, "oh, forget it. You're just a poor black man and it ain't going to happen." That's B.S., because I ended up playing with some of the biggest bands in the world. So you have to believe in what you are doing, see your goal, go after it and never give up, and part two; be yourself in what you do. You'll be much better off being who you are.