photo used with permission

Not just another bass player from Detroit

An appreciation of Rocky Rocheleau (1949-2013)

Rocky Rocheleau’s last public appearance was on Aug. 3, 2013, in Detroit at Hitsville U.S.A, the Motown Museum, at the third annual meet-up of Detroit Bass Players. In a photo (above) from the group’s website he’s in the second row, seventh person from the left, in a red t-shirt, brandishing his prized 1962 Fender Jazz bass.

Rocky was one of more than 100 bassists who showed up that day to celebrate the music they loved and played their entire lives. Some of them were successful pros, while most, like Rocky, were never famous. But when he died too soon two months later, on Oct. 18, at age 62, I lost my first and most important influence — who taught me about music, Detroit and the meaning of soul.

Just 10 years older than me, my uncle Robert Rocheleau was my personal rock star, and I was his biggest fan. (Some school chums gave him the nickname Rocky after Detroit Tiger Rocky Colavito.) Whenever he came to our house, I wanted him to go outside with me so the neighborhood kids could see me with my cool, teenage hippy friend. Usually, though, I saw Rocky on Sundays, when we would visit my grandparents on Kramer in St. Clair Shores. As an 18-year-old working musician, he, of course, would sleep in very late. By mid-afternoon his bedroom door would open and he would emerge, usually in his beat-up bathrobe, long tangled hair and beard. Today we’d say he looked like Jeffrey Lebowski, but back then my father would just look at him and announce “Christ has Risen.”

Those Sunday afternoons were like church to me. This is when he would sit me down at the foot of his bed and play records. We didn’t just listen to them. We devoured them. Over the years his favorites would change, but his taste would remain impeccable: In 1968 it was Cream, Hendrix, the White Album and, of course, Motown. By 1970 it was James Brown, Sly and Miles Davis. By 1972 it was Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal, John Coltrane, Stevie Wonder and Parliament Funkadelic. By 1974 I was borrowing stacks of his albums and memorizing the names of the session musicians. Keep in mind that all of this was going on while Detroit was recovering from the 1967 riots. It was the era of racial polarization, George Wallace and Coleman Young. Every white family, including ours, was fleeing to the suburbs. Yet there was Rocky, turning me onto black classical music, black pride and black culture. Rocky was too intelligent, too insightful to buy into racism — instead his everyday life was lived respecting all people and their varying experiences. So his influence on me went beyond music. Rocky was my musical pastor and ethical-spiritual tour guide.

Rocky picked up the bass guitar in his early teens and never really put it down. Over the years he remained loyal to the same ‘62 Fender Jazz with the sunburst finish. He played it with his first bands, White Heat and Attack. He played it when Attack got its ultimate gig: February 21, 1969, at the Grande Ballroom, where they were the first act on a bill that included Van Morrison and The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. I asked Rocky about that night a few years ago and this is what he wrote: “Paul Butterfield, a delight, walked into the dressing room, and put down a case of Budweiser and said ‘Help yourself.’ I never saw Van Morrison backstage. Did not meet him. We went on first. The crowd put us at ease with very polite applause. They probably noticed the look of absolute terror on our faces. I was the oldest one in the band, by the way [he was 18]. Van came on next. I can honestly tell you, that the crowd liked us much better than Mr. Morrison. You see, he went acoustic that night.”

Update, April 14, 2016: On the Facebook group “The ’60s and early ’70s Detroit Rock Scence,” I stumbled upon this poster for the Mt. Clemens Pop Festival, Aug. 3, 1969 (12 days before Woodstock). It shows a group called “Attack” near the bottom of a bill that included John Mayall, MC-5, the Stooges, Muddy Waters, Alice Cooper and Rush. It’s wonderful to think Rocky shared the stage on that historic day in Michigan rock and blues.

Rocky sensed my musical inclinations early on and encouraged me to start playing. I started trumpet at age 12, after he turned me onto Miles, and he was kind enough to come over and play bass when I formed my first rock band. By 14, in awe of Herbie Hancock, I started studying piano and have been playing jazz ever since.

Rocky was never famous and he never wrote a hit single. But through the years, he remained my gold standard for what is hip and musically legitimate. He also had a subtle, subversive sense of humor. A master of the pithy aside, his best lines would explode on you like a hand grenade. One day in the late seventies, I couldn’t wait to tell Rocky about going to Cobo Hall the previous night to see Gino Vannelli — he of the flowing curly hair and skin tight leather pants. Amazed by his musicianship, I said to Rocky: I don’t know how he does it. Rocky replied: “I think he paints them on.”

When Rocky married his wife Gail in the late eighties, it was like a second lifetime for him. He was already pushing 40, but it was like suddenly he had grown up. He took his responsibilities as a husband and father more seriously than I’d ever seen him take anything. And it was beautiful to see. His children, Danielle and Michael, grew up not only to be remarkably similar looking to their parents, but also sharing in their traits. Michael replaced me years ago as Rocky’s sidekick and understudy — and in recent years he has outdone even his old man with his love of making people laugh. To paraphrase Lennon and McCartney: Rocky you’ve met your match.

In all his life Rocky never particularly enjoyed traveling, or even driving very far. If he were a species of bird the field guide would say: Reclusive and hard to spot outdoors. Habitat limited to 3-5 mile radius of Eastpointe, rarely spotted north of 12 Mile Road or west of Woodward. And he sure as hell never enjoyed doing anything early, whether it was showing up or waking up — which was tough, considering he worked crazy shifts for nearly four decades as a security officer at Cottage Hospital in Grosse Pointe.

So for a guy who preferred to stay close to home and hated being early, it’s understandable that it seems so wrong for him to now be so far away, and leaving us so soon. Except, of course, Rocky will always be close to home, in the hearts and memories of those who loved him. Although I was his nephew, Rocky was my brother. He laid down the bass line for me — and I’m grateful for every note he played in my life.

—Mike Mills, October 26, 2013

Words, music