By Richard Skanse
As both a bass player and a record producer, George Reiff had an unerring sixth sense for hearing the music between notes. In theory, it’s a discipline many an experienced musician aspires to, but actually mastering it is a lot easier said than done.
“It’s something that some guys never really figure out, because a lot of people are always worried about filling up that space — but George really knew how to make the song breathe,” observes Austin drummer Rick Richards, who played countless gigs and sessions with Reiff going all the way back to 1980. “George was never worried about the space in between the notes, because he was really good at knowing where the holes should be and understood how effective they could be. That’s a hard thing to learn, but he got it really early on.”
And by the time Reiff started playing with Jon Dee Graham in the mid to late ’90s, he could slip in and out of those spaces like a veritable ninja.
“Very often, he would just not even play,” Graham recalls. “Like, he wouldn’t even come in until the chorus — or maybe after the first chorus, he would just drop out, and you would think, ‘Does he not remember the chords, or what?’ And then when he would come back in, you would go, ‘Oh, shit … yeah! That’s it!’ It wasn’t ever about being a ‘lazy’ bass player; it was about being the perfect bass player. His parts were so organized and so natural and so thoughtful because he always heard the song first, and would serve the song.”
The songs that Reiff, who passed away from cancer at age 56 on the evening of Sunday, May 21, dedicated his entire adult life to serving were rarely his own. Although he could (and did) write, the lure of the centerstage spotlight seemingly had no sway on him. But as both Graham and Richards — along with, among other notables, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Joe King Carrasco, Ian Moore, Charlie Sexton, Austin rock band Cotton Mather, the Court Yard Hounds, Joe Walsh, and Chris Robinson — can all attest, he was ever the consummate sideman, bandmate, and session player: versatile, professional, easy to get along with, and above all exceedingly talented but never a showboat. He also had a genuine gift for hearing arrangements and bringing out the best in other players — singers included — around him that made him a natural at producing, a role he began pursuing in earnest during the last decade of his life, helming several albums by such Austin-area Americana acts as Hubbard, Shinyribs, Uncle Lucius, the Band of Heathens, and the Mastersons. (One of his very last production projects, the Mastersons’ Transient Lullaby, was released on May 19, two days before Reiff’s death.)
“He just intuitively knew what I wanted on every song,” marvels Hubbard, who spent the better part of the last 15 years molding his patented “grit ’n’ groove” sound out of the viscous mud and jagged bones of the Reiff/Richards rhythm section. “I’d come in, play him a song, and he’d go, ‘OK … what about if we lay a 1×12 over two bricks, put a mic under the board and then take off our shoes and beat on it? And we’ll have the Trishas do a chorus.’ And I’d say, ‘OK, what else?’ And he goes, ‘That’s it!’” (Well, and a few handclaps; the song in question, “Whoop and Holler,” is featured on 2010’s A. Enlightenment, B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C), the first of three Hubbard albums that they co-produced together.)
Reiff and Richards were both touring with Hubbard when he made his national television debut that same year on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, performing “Drunken Poets Dream.” After the taping, when they were all packing up and talking to Fallon’s house band, the Roots, Hubbard noticed Reiff had disappeared. It turned out he was in the control room, working with the sound guys on the mix. “Not because he was some pushy guy trying to do it all himself — he just wanted to make sure the mix was just right,” Hubbard explains. “That’s just how much he cared.”
It was Reiff and Richards’ time in Hubbard’s band that directly led to both touring for a spell with rocker Joe Walsh. “He called me up after he’d played my (2011) Grit ’n’ Groove Festival (in 2011) and said, ‘Ray, I don’t want to steal your band, but I really want to steal your band — will you call them first and see if they’ll do it?’” Hubbard recalls with a laugh. “I later got to see them all at the Troubadour (in Los Angeles), and all of a sudden Ringo showed up, so you had Rick Richards playing drums with Ringo Starr, and George Reiff playing bass with a Beatle.”
“For days after that night, there was that thing where George and I would look at each other and go, ‘You remember that time we played with Ringo?’” says Richards, who first played with Reiff 37 years ago, when he recruited the then-19-year-old bassist to be part of a band he was putting together for a Houston singer-songwriter. “Back then, we would never have dreamt that we would someday get to play with Ringo and Jeff Lynne and Joe Walsh. But there it was and here we were doing it. It was like, ‘Hey, maybe we made it.’ And from then till now, every once in a while we would introduce each other as like, ‘George Reiff, the famous bass player that played with Ringo!’”
Reiff got to share that night (and the rest of the Walsh tour) with another longtime friend, accordion and keyboard player Bukka Allen. They met in the very early ’90s, as part of Fort Worth jump blues rocker Johnny Reno’s band, and went on to play countless other gigs and sessions together, including notable, multi-album runs with Ian Moore and the Dixie Chicks’ spin-off project the Courtyard Hounds.
“I’m pretty sure I played more music with George than any other person alive over the years,” says Allen. “I don’t know how many hundreds and hundreds of gigs I played with him, but he was literally one of the first people I met when I moved to Austin. We experienced a lot of great music together, in a lot of very different kinds of orbits. And I wouldn’t be the person that I am if I didn’t have that relationship with him as a player.”
Reiff, who was six years older than Allen, already had a decade’s worth of experience under his belt when they first met — and not just bar and happy hour restaurant gigs like the one in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood where Richards first discovered him, either. Though he was born in New York and spent his formative childhood years in D.C., Reiff moved with his family to Houston in his teens, when he he started playing in his first band (the Haskells). At 21, he moved to London for a stint with a one-hit wonder English power-pop band called the Jags; that gig didn’t quite pan out, but by 22 he was back in Texas and off on a four or five-year run touring the world with New Wave/Tex-Mex sensation Joe “King” Carrasco at the height of his early-80s fame. That was followed soon after by a stretch with Forth Worth blues rocker Mason Ruffner that included a month-long arena tour opening for U2, right as The Joshua Tree was turning them into the biggest band in the world.
From the mid-90s on, Reiff would become a fixture on the Austin singer-songwriter and roots music scene, with his name popping up in CD credits seemingly as often as Gurf Morlix, Lloyd Maines, “Scrappy” Jud Newcomb and Glenn Fukunaga; but through it all he remained every bit as active in the city’s rock and indie circles. He recorded and played with Robert Harrison’s psych-tinged power pop outfit Cotton Mather (appearing on the band’s widely acclaimed 1997 album Kon Tiki), was a key member of the eclectic Charlie Sexton Sextet (playing on 1995’s Under the Wishing Tree), and began his long association with Ian Moore just as the former blues prodigy busted out of his next-Stevie-Ray-Vaughan shackles and took off in a far more adventurous and artistically satisfying (albeit not as easily marketable) direction.
“There was an interesting time in Austin music (in the mid/late ’90s) when guys like me and Charlie and Doyle (Bramhall II) and a few other people were all going through these really killer, organic growth spurts,” recalls Moore. “We were totally out of sync with the real conservative blues thing that was still going on at the time, but it felt like a renaissance to me — and I really think that George was a huge component of that growth for a lot of people.”
Reiff played a pretty profound role in Jon Dee Graham’s life at that time, too — both artistically and personally. The former True Believers guitarist and sideman for John Doe and European-loved Texas ex-pat Calvin Russell had recently moved from Los Angeles back to Austin, burned out and ready to “hang up the guns.” But a man’s gotta make a living, so he started picking up session work at the prompting of friend Mike Hardwick. “George was the bass player on that first session Mike got me to come in on, and he and I hit it off right away,” says Graham, who in time got the bug to give a solo career a whirl. Reiff was a stalwart supporter and collaborator from the get-go, playing in arguably the best band Graham’s ever fronted and on his first two solo albums, 1997’s Escape From Monster Island and 1999’s Summerland. Most significantly of all, though, he introduced him to the woman who would become Graham’s wife, Gretchen.
“That changed the course of my life,” Graham says unreservedly. “I owe him for that. There would be no William (Harries Graham, the couple’s son and now a musician in his own right) if it wasn’t for George.”
Reiff and Graham would eventually move apart into different directions. Although they stayed in relative touch over the years primarily through Gretchen (whom Reiff had met in Kansas City during his days touring with Johnny Reno), or when Reiff would occasionally call him in to play steel guitar on a session, Graham admits they didn’t see each other much in the year or two prior to Reiff getting sick. Still, he considers himself lucky to have remained just close enough “to find out pretty early what was going on” — “lucky,” that is, because once Reiff and his immediate family knew themselves, time was exceedingly short.
The clock started in July of last year, the month Reiff turned 56. He had been ailing for some time already, but had initially accounted it to just being black mold sickness; his entire house — and beloved home studio — even ended up having to be gutted to address the problem. But his brother Michael, duly alarmed that George was far sicker than he realized, insisted one day on rushing him to the hospital, where Reiff was diagnosed with stage IV cancer in his brain, lungs, and bone marrow — with a massive brain tumor demanding immediate removal.
Reiff’s brain surgery, conducted just days later, was deemed a success, but that was just the beginning. A GoFundMe campaign set up by his brother helped raise thousands for his medical bills, with Reiff’s friends in the Dixie Chicks (with whom he played a short 2010 tour opening for the Eagles, in addition to his time in the Court Yard Hounds) even promoting the fund drive via video billboards on their 2016 comeback tour. A host of other artist friends — including Hubbard, Graham, Moore, Allen, Sexton, Carrasco, Shinyribs, Cotton Mather, James McMurtry, Bruce Robison, Kelley Mickwee, Uncle Lucius, the Mastersons, and the Band of Heathens — staged a pair of Austin benefits at C-Boy’s Heart and Soul. Meanwhile, Reiff began going back and forth to Houston for treatment at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, where his particular mutation was deemed rare enough to qualify him for a spot in an experimental clinical trial. And for an all too brief spell, there were signs of hope. In one of his periodic updates to the GoFundMe page, Michael Reiff reported that the primary tumor in his brother’s lung had shrunk 62 percent and that there were no new metastases elsewhere in his body. “This is a tremendous success,” he wrote, “especially in light of the stage of the cancer.”
In September, George himself even sat down with friend and fellow musician (and one-time Ian Moore bandmate) Johnny Goudie for a taping of Goudie’s podcast, How Did I Get Here?, candidly discussing his ordeal but sounding not even remotely broken, much less bitter.
“I thought I was as healthy as anybody can be,” Reiff said, noting that he’d never smoked a cigarette a day in his life, ran five miles a day five days a week, and had been vegetarian for at least a dozen years. “Nothing prepared me for this, and there was nothing in my periphery to tell me this was coming, and I never expected it. But, I’m not embittered about it. It’s just like, alright — I just got to figure out how to fix it and get on with it and put it behind me.
“I don’t want (cancer) to be my story,” he continued. “I don’t want it to be the focus of my life. I just want it to be, I’m sick, and I’m healing from it, and that’s what I have to do. And I want to find the new world that I’m going to have, however music is going to relate to that.”
He talked about looking forward to working again, but also about the happiness he was finding in spending more quality time with his brother’s family. Uncle George, who moved in with them while his mold-plagued house and studio were being restored, was teaching the kids to bake (along with his many musical talents, Reiff also happened to be a renowned — and for a time, even professional — pastry chef) and making their school lunches. Above all, he expressed a sincere, overwhelming gratitude toward all of the people, friends and strangers alike, who had rallied around him in his time of need.
“I was never afraid … I was never worried,” he told Goudie. “I went in fearless … I felt the energy of all these people supporting me. It was like a giant, beautiful white cloud of support of love. It carried me through the whole thing. It’s still carrying me now. I don’t know what I did to get so lucky.”
Eight months to the day after that podcast was posted, Reiff would be gone. He died at MD Anderson last Sunday at 9:30 p.m., half an hour after cancer claimed another widely respected member of the Austin music community, singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave. Reiff’s condition took a final turn for the worse after a double bout with pneumonia and a series of strokes from which he never recovered.
“After my show in Houston the Thursday night before he died, I went over and spent from 11 until 2 or 3 in the morning at his bedside at MD Anderson,” says Graham. “And he opened he his eyes, and I think he recognized me, but it’s hard to say.” Fortunately, they’d managed to visit with each other a few times over the 10 months prior; enough, Graham says, “to settle old business, talk about the good times, and sort of put things to bed.”
Hubbard and Allen each got to visit with Reiff in Austin the month before he passed, too. “I went over to his brother’s house, where he was staying, and Patty Griffin was there,” Hubbard recalls. “We talked about a fundraiser that Patty and Chris Robinson and I were going to do for him in October; I’d talked to Chris and he was on, and Patty was pretty much in, too. We were going to do it up at the Round Top Institute, where we cut the Enlightenment record. And we talked about the new record that I just finished. George wasn’t able to play on it, but he was able to mix seven of the songs on it before things kind of went really south on him. We only got to talk for about 15 minutes or so, but his spirits were good. They really were. He seemed real … grateful.”
Allen witnessed the same. “I grabbed some tacos and got to have a really beautiful lunch with him, right before he went into MD Anderson to get his final report,” Allen says. “We sat down and talked for about two or three hours, and I can tell you that I’m more than grateful to have had that time, because of course it was kind of hit or miss as far as what he was up for energetically. But I’ve never seen anyone that faced something like that face it with so much courage and grace. His spirits were always positive.
“That’s the thing about George that I think so many people were attracted to,” Allen continues. “He had this ability to put a real positive angle on whatever was in front of him. It was almost like with him, there was always a possibility of moving forward. When I saw him last … his body was failing, and it was pretty clear at that point that things were in pretty bad shape. But his eyes were just crystal clear with his spirit, that spirit of full of courage that he always put across.”
It’s a spirit that comes across just as clear, and beautiful, when Reiff’s friends — still reeling from his recent death — smile fondly and even laugh through their tears when reflecting on the impact he made on their lives, both onstage and record and off.
“Most of my favorite memories with George are about our friendship more so even than the music,” says Allen. “I just loved having coffee with him, just sitting and talking to him. I mean, the first day I met George, we just talked about paintings. He was one of the few people that I could really talk to about paintings, and for years on the road, we would play our gigs, but we would also go off and pop around every museum in every city that we could.”
Looking back to his first solo from 20 years back, Graham still marvels at a subtle little bass lick Reiff played right at the head of the song “Airplane.” “I’m not even sure how does it, but it’s actually pretty difficult — and every bass player that has ever played with me since has had to learn it. So, George left a wicked little stamp there. In fact, another bass player in town said that George’s DNA will just go on and on and on the Austin music scene, because you cannot play with a band that recorded in Austin in the last 30 years and not probably have to learn some of George’s parts.
“And here’s another thing, which I’m pretty sure not many people know about George,” Graham continues. “In the early ’80s, there was this sort of loose collective of punk-rock/New Wave street skaters, like a roller blade gang, that would take over downtown Houston at night. They would go to these parking garages, take the elevator all the way to the top, and then skate all the way down, going like 60 miles an hour our by the time they exited the garage. And you’d hear them and go, ‘What the fuck is that sound?’ And then around the corner would come this whole herd of punks and wild people on skates. Not skateboards, skates. They called themselves the Urban Animals — and George was a big part of the Urban Animals.
“Also, George had more shoes than any other straight man I’ve ever met,” Graham adds with a laugh. “Yes, even more than Alejandro (Escovedo), in fact! You could always count on George to look well put-together.”
Moore concurs. “We used to call him ‘the Phantom,’ because George had some serious game, but his game was so good that nobody even knew he had it,” Moore says. “George was just so sophisticated, so cool, so smart — everything about him was just almost too much to believe. I think Charlie said he was the first hipster in Austin; he was the first dude who was cooler than anyone else.”
Which is not to say that the was tease-proof. “George had very definitive tastes,” Moore continues with a laugh. “Like he went through this polka-dot phase at one point, where he was just wearing polka-dot shirts all the time, and I was like, ‘Man, come on.’ And he would always try to bust my balls, too, saying things like, ‘Remember when you used to tuck you jeans into your boots?’ And I’d be like, ‘Remember when you used to wear spandex, motherfucker?’ Because he was a little bit older than me, and had been through the whole New Wave thing with Joe King. But he always really had his own thing going on, and was just real confidant and real hip. And really sweet. You really can’t ask for anything more. When you’re playing with somebody and they’re that good of a hang … I just felt really really lucky every single day that he was in my band.”
Moore, who now lives in the Pacific Northwest, regrets having not been able to visit Reiff in the last year; every time he was back in Austin, George was inevitably at MD Anderson. But he recalls with intense fondness one of their last sessions together, cutting an EP of soul covers — The Noble Art — at Reiff’s Finishing School home studio three years ago.
“It was just for fun, but that might be my favorite thing I’ve ever recorded,” Moore says of the project, which he finally got around to releasing last fall. “It was just me, (drummer) JJ Johnson, George, and Bukka, and I feel like we laughed the whole week we were making it. But I mixed it myself, and I literally sat there in the studio and wept a couple of times, thinking, these guys are every bit as good as the Motown players, every bit as good as the Hi Records players, every bit as good as the Muscle Shoals guys. I swear to God, JJ and George are one of the great rhythm sections that ever lived. And George … just from all those years of playing with all those different players in all those different environments, he just became a monster.”
Hubbard, speaking two days after Reiff’s death, smiles as he recounts a conversation he had with Sexton about their mutual friend earlier that afternoon.
“Charlie was telling me about the time Chris Robinson called him up saying, ‘I need a bass player.’ And Charlie said, ‘Here’s your guy, his name’s George Reiff.’ And Chris said, ‘Who’s he played with?’ And Charlie said, ‘It doesn’t matter — he’s the guy you want.’ So anyhow, Chris tried out George, and Charlie said he called him back and said, ‘You’re right, he’s the guy I want.’
“He said he called Charlie for a bass player, and got a brother,” Hubbard says. “That’s the way I think everybody felt about George. He was like a brother.”