I join with the musical community of Savannah, Georgia—and, in fact, of the world—in mourning the death of upright bass great Ben Tucker this past June 4. His loss leaves a void in the hearts of jazz fans everywhere.
Although the Gretsch Company is best known for drums and guitars, the Gretsch Family is keenly interested in all aspects of music—and in the great players, like Ben, who have blessed us by their creation of that music. In addition, my wife Dinah and I are residents of the Savannah suburb of Pooler, and we had the opportunity to get to know Ben as a personal friend. It is in that context that we will miss him the most.
Ben had a long and distinguished career, performing with stars including Quincy Jones, Buddy Rich, Dexter Gordon, and Peggy Lee. He also had success as a songwriter. His “Comin’ Home Baby,” co-written with jazz vocalist Bob Dorough, was recorded by Mel Torme, Herbie Mann, and most recently Michael Buble.
After settling in Savannah in the 1970s Ben made his living playing his upright bass—which he dubbed “Bertha” and claimed was 240 years old—at jazz festivals, in nightclubs, and for wedding receptions and bar mitzvahs. As one of Savannah’s best-known working musicians, he was a beloved mainstay of the city’s musical scene. On the day of his death he was eighty-two years old . . . and he had a gig that night.
In addition to being a stellar performer, Ben was one of the most likeable individuals you’d ever want to meet. And it always seemed as though everyone did want to meet him. Any performance taking place in Savannah was likely to be as much a love-fest for Ben as it was a musical event. Ben’s long-time bandmate Howard Paul—a great jazz guitarist and president/CEO of Benedetto Guitars—memorialized Ben by saying, “When we played with Ben we could count on being interrupted at least three times in a song because Savannahians would walk up and shake his hand while we were playing.”
Losing Ben is particularly tragic because, although he was advanced in years, his death did not come as the result of failing health, sudden illness, or even what could legitimately be called an “accident.” Instead, it was the senseless result of reckless and reprehensible behavior by someone else behind the wheel of a car. So it cannot be said that Ben “left us.” The truth is he was taken from us, which makes his absence all the more painful.
Dinah and I were honored to attend the musical memorial that was Ben’s funeral. We know that Ben would have been flattered—and perhaps a bit embarrassed—by the outpouring of feeling that was expressed by those in attendance. And he would definitely have enjoyed the raucous New Orleans-style second-line parade and jazz fest that followed. I’m sure that he was there in spirit, expertly plunking his beloved “Bertha” and grinning from ear to ear.
Fred W. Gretsch