Session bassist Steve Pearce’s career spans over four decades. His credits include playing with artists such as Van Morrison, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Mose Allison, Madonna, Scott Walker, Elton John, Everything But The Girl, Neil Tennant, Diana Ross, Michael Nyman, Sting, George Michael, Mariah Carey. The list goes on and on.
Then there are his numerous film credits on soundtracks such as Quantum Of Solace, Evita, Donnie Brasco, The Lord Of The Rings, The Full Monty, Armageddon and The History Boys. It’s a rich legacy for a hardworking bassist whose inspired playing and impeccable feel and groove have kept him in demand for well over four decades.
“I learnt while I earnt” - how Steve’s career developed from the early days
Steve Pearce grew up in Hitchin, Hertfordshire and was 12 years old when the hits of Slade and T. Rex ignited his interest in music. He also recalls the sonic epiphany of hearing Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells on stereo headphones. “It was amazing,” he beams.
But by the age of 14 he was being drawn towards funk, jazz and Philadelphia soul. “I went to a grammar school where everyone liked Genesis and Yes,” remembers Steve. “I couldn’t bear prog rock. My friend Dale’s brother was a funkateer and loved Kool & The Gang, The Ohio Players and The Fatback Band.”
At the age of 14, he started learning bass, although it wasn’t his first instrument of choice. “My dad was a musician and I told him I wanted to play the drums. He was very wise, because if you’re a drummer that means your house is a rehearsal room. So he said ‘why don’t you play bass and you can come and play with me?’.”
It was the mid-70s and Steve went straight from leaving school to playing full-time with his pianist father at function gigs around the area. “If you did a dance band gig, for the first half of it you did the dinner music, and there was no [sheet] music. All that would happen was the trumpet player would say ‘b flat’ and you’d do 35 minutes of bossa novas. There were loads of those gigs around, so that was my grounding really. I learnt while I earnt.”
Kick-starting a studio session career
Steve taught himself to sight-read and began to share his father’s love of jazz. His father arranged for bass tuition with Soft Machine bassist Roy Babbington. When Steve was proficient enough to go out on his own, his father wrote out a pad full of standards. “So when I was ready to go and do gigs without him I had this amazing book full of things and he used to write actual bass lines out for me to read.”
From the outset, Steve had one overriding ambition: to become a studio session musician. He began spending time at the BBC Studios at Maida Vale, speaking to musicians and picking up advice.
From the outset, Steve had one overriding ambition: to become a studio session musician. He began spending time at the BBC Studios at Maida Vale, speaking to musicians and picking up advice. He calls Maida Vale his “college”. Conductors and musicians were kind and encouraging, he says, allowing him to sit in on sessions and simply observe.
In 1980, Steve joined the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. It was a move that would hone his sight-reading skills and kick-start his studio session career. Many of the musicians became fixers and would provide Steve and his peers with work for decades to come. By 1982, Steve was playing clubs around central London by night and building a career as a studio session musician in the daytime. Jingles initially provided a rich vein of work, he says, at studios around Soho such as Gooseberry Sound Studios in Gerrard Street.
By the mid-80s Steve had established himself as a session player of real note. Work was plentiful and he was sometimes doing up to 14 sessions a week. He recalls having a chart on his wall with a list of 90 bass players in London, who he would dep out work to and vice versa.
The pressure and thrill of working as a studio musician
When asked what appeals to him about working as a studio musician, he cites the pressure and the thrill of the moment. “I just love that kind of thrust,” he says.
You’re all together in the studio, music in front of you, sight reading and the red light goes on. You don’t know what’s going to be in front of you.
“You’re all together in the studio, music in front of you, sight reading and the red light goes on. You don’t know what’s going to be in front of you. And with the huge orchestras for the films, there’s 90 people in Studio One, at Abbey Road. And they’re not gonna stop for you. You have to get it right.”
He accepts that being a studio musician inevitably entails sometimes playing on tracks that you don’t like. “But you have to bring the music out of it and you have to give your love of music to it,” says Steve.
Getting along with people and having a good attitude is also paramount, he says. Steve cites a moment early in his career when he and drummer Bobby Worth found themselves playing a tiny pub in Hoxton with a piano player “who thought he was Frank Sinatra”. A few years later Worth asked Pearce if he would like to go out on tour with Buddy Greco. “Now if I’d been sour-faced and miserable that night in Hoxton, I might not have been offered that gig,” says Steve. “But we just laughed.”
“Adapt or die” - keeping up with industry changes
As his studio work burgeoned, Pearce rolled with technological changes. The perceived threat of bassists being replaced by bass synth came and went and the emergence of click tracks didn’t faze him.
By the 90s, he had started working in West End musicals and when in 2002, Norah Jones’ debut album Come Away With Me sparked a resurgence in the popularity of the double bass, Pearce spotted an opportunity.
“I could see the way things were going, and that if I wanted another gig in the West End, I might have to double on double bass.” Pearce threw himself into learning this new instrument.
“I went to lessons with Mike Lee, a beautiful, beautiful man. I thought ‘I’m just gonna do this because I’ve never been to college and there is an academic way of playing and learning the double bass, which I did. It’s been incredibly useful, but then as Phil Todd, my great friend, the saxophone player says: ‘adapt or die’.”
Touring as a session musician
While studio session work is his first love – “because it’s so varied and it uses all my skills” – he has also done his fair share of touring with artists such as Tom Jones, Everything But The Girl and Van Morrison.
He played on Van Morrison’s 1987 album Poetic Champions and his first gig with Morrison was the main stage at Glastonbury that year.
“We did three days’ rehearsal at Nomis Studios and Van didn’t come,” recalls Pearce. “The keyboard player Neil Drinkwater, a great friend of mine said, ‘Well, we’ll do this one and we’ll probably do this one’. I had 50 numbers on a large score sheet that I gaffer taped to the monitor. It was like busking in a pub gig but absolutely glorious. It’s now a very famous bootleg.”
Pearce has been in Morrison’s band three times and finds the Irish singer inspirational to work with. “I remember we did Hammersmith Odeon. And there’s 3,500 people in there. He takes it right down. He’d go into a groove and he’d walk like nine feet off the mic at Hammersmith Odeon and we couldn’t play quiet enough. And in fact, the drummer was just playing the thing coming out the top of the hi-hat because he couldn’t play his actual hi-hat, it was too loud. It was complete silence, it was like being in church. But that’s Van’s thing, you know. It was a glorious, glorious experience.”
“It’s always about playing for the song” - strengths and legacy
For the past 27 years, Pearce has been part of Hamish Stuart’s band. It’s a gig that is close to his heart and they regularly perform at the 606 Club in Chelsea. “Hamish has made me more of a player than any other musician,” says Steve. “He’s never told me once how to play. It’s just being around that legacy of The Average White Band, that sort of music, beautiful blue-eyed soul – amazing.”
If you’re a professional musician and want to make your living at it, then you’d better learn to play for the song.
When asked what he feels are his strengths as a bass player, Pearce ponders for a few seconds. “People say I’m groovy. I try to be as groovy as all the people that I love listening to. Musicians from different instruments say to me: ‘The length of note you play is amazing. That’s always what knocks me out about your playing’. But I mean, I’m blessed to play with amazing drummers, such as Ralph Salmins, Neil Wilkinson, Ian Thomas, Jeremy Stacey and Ash Soan.
“And of course, it’s always about playing for the song. If you’re a professional musician and want to make your living at it, then you’d better learn to play for the song. I’ve just sort of carved my own path. And I’m glad that the phone still rings.”
The MU And Me
“I joined the MU when I was 17, straight out of school. My dad said, ‘You’ve got to join the Union now, because you’re a professional musician’. You couldn’t work in theatres unless you were a union member.
“I was always chuffed to be in a union, and I’ve seen great changes but I’ve also previously seen people decrying the Musicians’ Union. And I’m thinking that’s out of order because they are enjoying pay rises, holiday pay, sick pay, people negotiating conditions on their behalf, all from the MU.
“I’ve never understood why these people are not in the Union, the fact that they have these benefits. Also, in the past, the MU have got me money when I’ve been owed. I get money from TV shows that I did many years ago, repeat fees. So I’m a great believer and a fan of the MU.”