Electric bass player extraordinaire Bernard Reed is one of music's unsung heroes, a gladiator who has survived more than 35 years in a cutthroat business. He was born in Chicago and raised on the west side by his grandparents, who took a liking to the deep-voiced, brown-skinned baby when he was a toddler; his mother and brother, Danny, lived on the north side, but the families visited each other frequently, and with the telephone, were really one family living in two houses. Reed went to Calhoun Grammar School, Manly Jr. High, and Marshall High. A fascination that turned into infatuation with pretty girls inspired the songwriter to begin putting his yearnings on paper.
Doo wop was as influential in Chicago in the '50s as it was in most major cities in America with large African-American populations, and Reed took to the style like brown bears to salmons. He formed the Constellations, a quintet whose motto was "practice, practice, practice." With Reed handling the bass voice, they performed at school jamborees, talent shows, and private parties before graduating to gigs at Chi-town's famous Regal Theater. Though they never recorded, they backed artists on Chess, Smash, and Roulette Records in the studio. The inner workings of recording studios captured Reed's attention, and he became consumed with Johnny Pate's arrangements, Phil Upchurch's bass playing, Reggie Board's guitar, Al Duncan's drumming, and the great horn and string players who sweetened the sessions.
Still in school, Reed took up the tuba, and by the time he graduated was first-chair tuba. The training and discipline he received from playing in the school band had a major impact on his approach and dedication to music.
Danny Reed was already playing guitar on recording sessions. Danny (deceased), was known for his melodic, harmonic chord structures. As Bernard Reed puts it, "He sounded as if he were calling the morning flowers to bloom." Danny Reed left school to go on the road with Major Lance, who was hot with "The Monkey Time"; he also played guitar for the Artistics, a group Lance discovered, and Billy Butler and the Chanters -- whoever was gigging. Bernard Reed developed a burning desire to play bass guitar, and would often go to his brother's house to practice along with him. One day, while intruding on Danny's woodshedding, he discovered the Artistics practicing with Danny and asked if he could play along, which they didn't mind; soon, Bernard Reed was a member of the Artistics.
His first duties were choreographing their shows; their producer, Carl Davis, didn't let him play on recording sessions until months later, though he accompanied them live. He co-wrote "Trouble, Heartaches, Pain," "Sweeter Than Sugar," "You're Wonderful," and "One Last Chance" for the flashy group. While loaded with potential, the Artistics didn't grab as much gusto as they should have; dissension did them in, namely Marvin Smith's desire to solo. Smith left the Artistics the day after cutting their biggest hit, "I'm Gonna Miss You," at CBS Studios. Consisting of Smith, Jessie Bolian, Larry Johnson, and Aaron Floyd, the Artistics were a magical quartet. They carried on after Smith left with Tommy Green for about a year, before Smith returned for two albums then left again. The first gig outside of Chicago that Bernard Reed played with the Artistics' was in Cleveland, OH, at the Music Box on a co-billing with Little Milton.
Reed is quick to note that the OKeh/Brunswick gang, under Carl Davis, was one big family. "Soulful Strut" by the Young-Holt Trio was a Milli Vanilli-type rip-off before anybody coined the term. Bernard Reed played bass and Floyd Morris played lead keyboard; the session was designated for a Barbara Acklin track ("Am I the Same Girl") that Brunswick released but neglected to promote. Acklin's voice was removed and Brunswick released the voiceless track as a single credited to the Young-Holt Trio, who were signed to the label and needed a hit; the Young-Holt Trio didn't even play on the track. Constants on the Brunswick R&B sessions were Bernard Reed (bass), Danny Reed (guitar), and Quinton Joseph (drums). Pictures of the Artistics usually also depict Bernard, dressed like the group, caressing his bass. The happy family became unpleasant when Carl Davis appointed Eugene Record to a production post; Bernard thought he deserved the position, which came with a more generous salary than he was getting playing sessions.
He left to work with Peter Wright doing sessions, writing, and recording with a group named Pieces of Peace on Wright's Twilight/Twinight Records. Wright previously owned Quill Records. Pieces of Peace, a funk/spiritual band, recorded "Pass It On," "Happy Feeling," and "If You Don't Stop Hurting Me, You'll Get It Right Back," among others; the latter have a similar feel to the Emotions' "Best of My Love," which came out much later. Twinight's other artists included Annette Poindexter, Syl Johnson, and the Guys & Dolls.
Bernard Reed built a solid reputation working in the studio; he was dependable, was neither alcohol- nor drug-dependent, and was ingrained with a strong, innate work ethic. A complete list of his session work is numerous. Some notables include work with Barbara Acklin, Ruby Andrews, Billy Butler, the Chi-lites, the Dells, Natalie Cole, the Independents, Erma Franklin, Jerry Butler, Walter Jackson, Andre Williams, the Notations, Syl Johnson, Little Richard, Otis Lavelle, and Major Lance.
Adapting to blues, he's backed Johnny "Swamp Dog" Jones, Little Milton, Junior Parker, Mississippi Heat, Howlin' Wolf, Mighty Joe Young, Dave Weld and the Imperial Flames, and Matthew Skoller. And he's performed on jazz sessions featuring Art Brown, Geraldine Dehausse, Ramsey Lewis, Corky McClurkin, Della Reese, and Carl Wooley and the Jazz Masters. He's appeared on sessions with gospel singers such as Inez Andrews, the Rev. Clay Evans Fellowship Baptist Church Choir, the Soul Stirrers, the Violionaires, and the Marvin Yancey Church Choir.
He's worked radio, television, and film sessions. He has played on commercial ads for Kellogs, Coca Cola, Hamms, McDonalds, Kraft, People's Gas, Leggs, and Gibson Guitars. He's contributed to the soundtracks of such films as: Lovely Way to Die and Short Eyes, as well as the following documentaries: the Jerry Butler Story, the Otis Redding Story, the Brook Benton Story, the Marvin Gaye Story, the Other Cinderella, and Chicago Golden Soul. Reed has backed an assortment of artists on-stage, and travels have taken him throughout North America (including Canada), Japan, Africa, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Europe, and the Virgin Islands. A short list of artists he's worked with includes: Brook Benton, Syl Johnson, Harry Blackstone, Lola Falana, the Fats Domino Band, Ramsey Lewis, Rodney Dangerfield, Redd Foxx, Barbara McNair, and Stevie Wonder.