For this trip through New York, bassist Nathan East is in a familiar role; the musician — who has played with everyone from Barry White to Daft Punk — will be on stage in Eric Clapton’s band. It’s the latest entry in a 30-plus year relationship between the bassist and the songwriter.
“I had black light posters in my room of Cream, sat around playing ‘Sunshine of Your Love,’ and the next thing I know I’m playing it 1,000 times with the man himself,” East says. “The thing I take away from all of it — first of all, you just count your blessings. Every time’s like your first time.”
There are plenty of lessons to learn from the 61-year-old East, who has played alongside so many of the most important artists of the last four decades. So amNewYork caught up with him in advance of this Clapton jaunt to see what else we could divine from his career.
1. Always be at your best
East got his first taste of the professional musician’s life on tour with Barry White in 1971. “I was 16 years old, in a tuxedo, playing the Apollo Theater, Madison Square [Garden], Kennedy Center, all these places,” he says. “That’s when I knew: get a good suitcase, because this is what I’m going to be doing.”
To play those types of venues at that age is intimidating enough, but to be thrust into the world of White, to have to match the level of the types of musicians with which White was famous for working, was a quick introduction to what it meant to be bringing one’s best every day.
“In the professional world, there was a level of game that he seemed to be bringing,” he says. “I was thrust into the pros, the big leagues, and this is how they do it. To get that example at that early age? … I often say I went to BWU.”
2. Remember the wins, forget the losses
East can tell you who else was in the room when he worked on Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” But it wasn’t the first time he was offered the chance to record with the legend.
“My first tour with Kenny Loggins, the day I left I get a call, and Quincy [Jones] calls for me to play on ‘Off the Wall.’ Or ‘Thriller’? It was one of those,” he says. “And I was gutted, because I had just left to go on tour, and there was nothing I could do about that. I had to turn that one down.”
The regret of not getting to play on either of those albums could haunt a musician forever. But for East, they were just speed bumps on his way to working with Jackson later. M>
3. Good is the enemy of perfect
It should be no surprise that two musicians who have fashioned themselves as robots would be big on precision. But East got a close-up look at exactly how exacting the French duo Daft Punk is when contributing the bass line to the worldwide hit “Get Lucky.”
“They mastered the record, I hear, like 50 times, something incredible,” East says. “Somebody said they mastered it 25 times here, took it back to France, and then kept mastering. And so when you listen to the record, it’s perfect sound. Everything’s in the right place, you can hear every part. Successful people really fuss. They don’t settle for anything less than great. And the difference between good and great is just a tiny little sliver.”
4. It’s never too late
“I didn’t get married until I was in my 40s, and then I had kids in my 40s,” East says. “I didn’t rush into anything.”
That’s also true for the bassist in music, as well. More than 40 years after first standing on stage next to Barry White, East released his eponymous, solo debut album in 2014. In three years since, two more collections have arrived: “The New Cool” in 2015 and “Reverence,” earlier this year, featuring guest appearances from Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind and Fire, and Chick Corea, among others.
“But the good news is that I have all of these first time experiences now,” he says. “Normally by the time you’re 60, you’re kind of retired. But first time leader in a band, going out with the guys, it’s pretty exciting.”
If you go: Nathan East performs with Eric Clapton on March 19 and 20 at 7:30 p.m. at Madison Square Garden, 4 Penn Plaza, 212-465-6741, $75-$500.