Bassist Max Bennett Dies at 90

His varied career included stints with Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, and the L.A. Express

Max at Radio Recorders2

Max Bennett at Hollywood’s Radio Recorders studio in the 1960s

Max Bennett, the protean bassist who served as a sparkplug for small bebop units, modern big bands, and contemporary fusion groups alike, died at his home in San Clemente, Calif., on Sept. 14. He was 90. Bennett’s storied career as a member of the so-called “Wrecking Crew” of Los Angeles session musicians included work on dozens of 1960s and ’70s Top 40 hits. He also spent long periods backing up legendary singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, and—as a founding member of the L.A. Express—Joni Mitchell, as well as being a bandleader/composer in his own right.

Born in Des Moines and raised in Kansas City and Oklahoma, Bennett studied contrabass at the University of Iowa. His first jazz job was with saxophonist Herbie Fields in 1949. He was soon in demand for modern jazz groups led by Terry Gibbs, Georgie Auld, and Charlie Ventura. “Max was in the first road band I ever put together,” Gibbs says. “That was with pianist Lou Levy and drummer Tiny Kahn. We worked one gig and then Georgie Auld took those guys and added Frank Rosolino for his own band. Max had great time, a beautiful sound, and great big ears. He knew what note you were going to play on the chord before you played it.”

After two years in the Army, Bennett toured with the Stan Kenton and Sauter-Finegan orchestras. He settled in Los Angeles, where he quickly formed a unit at the Lighthouse. With pianists Jimmy Rowles and Lou Levy, and drummers Stan Levey and Larry Bunker, Bennett backed Peggy Lee through eight albums and numerous tours. The trio also played the 1962 Madison Square Garden bash where Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy. Following a 1957 gig supporting Ella Fitzgerald at Club Crescendo in Hollywood, Bennett’s group toured the U.S. and Europe with Fitzgerald, then returned to Europe as part of a Jazz at the Philharmonic package tour.

Back in L.A., Bennett was the first bassist with the Gibbs Dream Band, a roaring swing orchestra playing Bill Holman charts. “Max brought fire to that band,” Gibbs recalls. “He and Lou Levy had a great musical marriage; they’d look for harmonic substitutions together.  When Max left he was very hard to replace.”

Studio work kicked in for Bennett in the 1960s. He picked up the electric bass in 1962, adding to his versatility. Although he played on countless hit records, he was also called for more demanding music: a Nelson Riddle orchestral date, an Oliver Nelson session, a Quincy Jones soundtrack, or a Lalo Schifrin movie score.

On a musical blind date with Frank Zappa, Bennett was the principal bassist on the latter’s 1969 album Hot Rats. “I knew his name,” Bennett recalled in 2007, “but not much else. The sessions went very well and he wanted me to join his band. I just couldn’t give up my studio work, though.”

A Sunday jam situation at the Lighthouse with saxophonist Tom Scott and drummer John Guerin quickly turned into a band. “After a couple of weeks, we did a night at the Baked Potato,” Bennett said. “The next week the line was down the block. And sitting ringside was Joni Mitchell.”

The singer/songwriter worked with the L.A. Express, as they were named, from 1974 to 1977, beginning with the album Court and Spark. Guitarist Larry Carlton notes, “Max was known as the most lyrical bassist in town, and in the Express, he was a key element to the sound. It was a band that was right up to date but Max also had all this jazz history to him.” Guitarist Robben Ford toured with the band: “I was out of my depth, but Max couldn’t have been nicer or more welcoming. He had so much professionalism as a first-call bassist that it was very reassuring.”

Bennett retired to San Diego County, yet led his own bands—playing a great deal of original material—right up to his passing. His personal tagline was: “Layin’ it down since 1949.” He is survived by his wife, Teri McDermith-Bennett, and his son, Adam.