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A key figure in the history of the blues passed away on October 18, 2011. Bob Brunning, founder bassist with Fleetwood Mac and stalwart of Savoy Brown and his own De Luxe Blues Band, died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 68.

About this time last year I spent a day with Bob chatting about the early days of the blues in Britain. He told me great tales of his beloved 1959 Fender Precision bass, purchased for just £80 from a music shop in Bournemouth. Apart from a brief experiment with a Gibson EB3 around the time Jack Bruce was making it famous, Bob never played another bass.

“My first real inspiration was The Shadows – Jet Harris,” Bob told me. “I started off playing bass in Tony Blackburn’s band – we were at college together – and then I discovered the blues. I heard Muddy Waters on the radio and knew that was the music I wanted to play too.”

Bob acquired his bass after working all summer in a burger bar and on a building site. He told his parents he was earning money to pay his way at university. Then, just before he was due to leave for London, he spent the lot on the bass he had coveted: a sunburst Fender Precision with a tortoiseshell scratch plate, maple neck and rosewood fingerboard.

“I decided I’d just have to get gigs to pay my way,” he said.

Sure enough, he quickly got work with a band called Five’s Company and played regularly while studying for a career in teaching. But he wanted to play the blues, so he scanned Melody Maker and found an ad: “Bass player wanted for Chicago-style blues band.”

It wasn’t just any Chicago-style blues band. This was Fleetwood Mac, created by Peter Green who was fresh from playing with John Mayall, one of the biggest names in British blues.

“They were straight with me,” said Bob. “They really wanted John McVie, but he was still busy with John Mayall. He wasn’t sure how successful Fleetwood Mac might be. So they hired me, but told me that if John changed his mind, I’d have to step down.

“After all, he was the Mac in the band’s name!”

Bob went straight from the club and bar circuit to the main stage at one of the first major rock festivals – the Windsor Jazz and Blues Festival of 1966. He also played on one of the band’s first recordings, “Long Grey Mare”, which appeared on the Mac’s classic first album.

But after Windsor, it was clear that Fleetwood Mac was going to be around for a long time. John McVie came aboard and Bob gave way gracefully, moving straight into another fast-rising British blues outfit, Savoy Brown.

It was here that Bob really made his mark on the burgeoning international blues scene, touring the UK and Europe with a top attraction at the peak of the first British blues boom. It was also with Savoy Brown that he very nearly lost his lifelong companion.

“I always, always took my gear out of the van at the end of the night,” he told me. “But one night, we were just so shattered we decided to leave it all on board. And of course that was the night that someone broke into it and stole everything.”

At first, Bob was distraught. Then his natural level-headedness kicked in. After all, it would have been really bad luck if the thief had actually been a bass player.

“I thought about what I would do if I had stolen an instrument,” he said, “and I knew straight away where I would take it. It was well known that they rarely asked questions when you wanted to fence a dodgy instrument.”

Now we have to be very careful here. The shop concerned was a reputable London music store and naming names would be highly inappropriate. Suffice to say that when I recounted this story to another veteran of the 60s scene in London, he knew exactly which shop it was before I told him.

Bob went straight to the store and sure enough, there was his bass propped against the counter ready to be priced.

“I didn’t confront them immediately,” he said. “I went and found a policeman and we went in together. Naturally, they were unhappy about giving it back, but when I quoted the serial number – 81112 – they had to admit I had a point.

“We didn’t press charges – I was just glad to get my bass back. Not only that, they’d set it up nicely with new strings and cleaned a crackly pot. I never let it out of my sight again.”

When Savoy Brown set off for America, Bob decided he would rather stay and pursue his teaching career. He never stopped playing though; he successfully combined his work as a primary school teacher in south London with gigs, regularly backing some of the biggest names in blues when they toured the UK.

He also wrote several books, including the definitive work on the British blues, “Blues: the British Connection.”

We can measure Bob Brunning’s legacy as a bluesman in many ways, but for me his most valuable gift to the blues is his insight into blues bass playing.

“Playing with the great black bluesmen who came over taught us all a great deal. Your ear became refined to the subtleties and above all you learned to keep things simple – four to the bar. Which is actually very difficult, because it means you have to bring real feel to your playing; you can’t rely on being flash and fast.

“Most of all, if you’re going to play the blues you have to listen. Listen to the great players, and listen to the people you are playing with. Blues is improvised music and it relies on dynamics – light and shade. You have to use your ears.”

It’s a priceless lesson from a great teacher. May Bob Brunning rest in peace – unless, of course, he’s even now locked into a jam with Muddy Waters and the other legendary bluesmen who inspired him.

Son Maxwell, October 2011