Though he may not be a household name, Byron “Psychobass” Miller is regarded as nothing less than a bonafide legend in the adjoining worlds of jazz, funk and soul music. His resume, which reads like a Who’s Who of music greats, is jaw-droppingly impressive; his super-funky bass lines have graced records by everyone from the keyboard wizards George Duke and Herbie Hancock to the tenor saxophone titan Sonny Rollins, Latin rock-god Carlos Santana, gravel-voiced troubadour Tom Waits, and the Brazilian song sorceress Flora Purim. And on his latest solo project, an EP called ‘Real Love: Psychobass 3,’ Stevie Wonder features as a sideman, blowing some incredible harmonica melodies over a succulent mid-tempo groove driven by Byron’s elastic bass.
Born and raised in Detroit, the so-called “Motor City” that birthed Berry Gordy’s iconic Motown label, Byron Lee Miller wasn’t really interested in playing music until an accident befell him when he was a freshman in high school. “I was a school sports guy and one day I broke my foot playing football,” he says, recalling an event that changed his life. “Just out of the clear blue sky, my mom came home one day with this bass and put it in my lap. I was like, what am I going to do with this?”
Though he loved music, he’d not had any inclination to play a musical instrument until then but the Harmony electric bass guitar presented to him as a gift by his mom began to intrigue him. “I had this cast on my foot and was out of school for a few weeks so I just started playing it,” he reveals. At first, learning to get to grips with the bass was a good way to alleviate the boredom at being stuck at home but he soon grew passionate about it and began playing along to records. “I started putting Motown records on and learning those songs, and listening to James Jamerson, the bass player out of Detroit, and guys like Chuck Rainey and Stanley Clarke.”
Because of his foot injury, Byron’s aspirations of making it as a professional football player were dashed but playing music seemed like a good substitute and realising he possessed a natural flair for music, he persevered at mastering the bass without any formal tuition. Thanks to incessant practice, he quickly grew into an accomplished bass player. He was still in high school – in his senior year – when got the big break that put him on the path of a professional musician. “I met (jazz-funk vibraphone maestro) Roy Ayers in Detroit,” he reveals. “He was playing a club called Watts’ Mozambique and because I was 17 and wasn’t old enough to be there, I snuck in the club and told Roy, ‘I know all your music, let me sit in and play something.’”
Ayers had probably heard a spiel like Byron’s many times before from a raft of wannabe young musicians seeking to join his band but he took the bassist at his word. “He actually let me play the whole set,” laughs Byron, recalling his good fortune. The vibraphone maestro, however, wasn’t ready to take the newbie on right away and allowed the young man to finish school first. “When I turned 18 and had graduated from high school, he called me to join the band. That’s how I got started professionally, going on the road with Roy.”
Taking over from Wilbur Bascomb Jr in Ayers’ band Ubiquity, Byron made his recording debut on the vibraphonist’s classic 1975 album, ‘Mystic Voyage.’ “Roy was fun to play,” says Byron. “He was so musical and had a big personality, so I learned a lot just watching and listening to him. I also learned a lot about show business hanging out with him. Being a young guy, I’d never met a guy like that.”
He recorded one more full album with Ayers (1976’s ‘Vibrations’) before making a surprising switch to Latin music. “(Drummer) Ndugu Chancler got me with Santana,” says the bass player, who reveals that playing with the band led by guitarist Carlos Santana offered an experience that was remarkably different from playing with Roy Ayers.
“It was different from everything,” laughs Byron, “because Carlos was into this religion, Sri Chinmoy, and he wore all-white clothes and burned incense all the time. You would leave rehearsals dizzy from smelling incense but it was a good experience.”
Byron cut one album with Santana, the fusion-flavoured ‘Amigos’ released in 1976. “It was fun with Carlos but I didn’t really hang in the studio with him; it was do your thing and leave,” he reveals. “He spent a lot of time in the studio alone getting his guitar playing together. He was a very private person.”
In the mid-’70s, Santana were at a creative peak and played much bigger venues than Roy Ayers; something that made a big impression on Byron Miller. “That was the first time I played concerts with more than 100,000 people,” he says. “We opened up for the Grateful Dead and I had never seen that many people in my life. I was scared shitless at first but it was incredible. We did stadiums, big festivals, and it was a lot of fun. I learned a lot about Latin music and I made a lot of money.”
But Byron didn’t stay with Santana long and left to join the rising keyboard star and vocalist, George Duke, after a recommendation from drummer Ndugu Chancler. Meeting Duke and joining his band proved to be a defining moment in Byron Miller’s career. While he was able to have an impact on Duke’s sound – “I brought the Motown and funk thing to George” – the keyboardist also had a profound influence on the young bassist. “He made me a better musician,” he says. “He taught me how to read music and how to play different music in different time signatures. He just took this boy from the ghetto in Detroit and taught him a lot of music.”
One of the highlights of Byron’s time with the George Duke Band was playing on the big US R&B hit ‘Reach For It,’ which was unusual in that it featured a bass solo. “The song started in a club in Washington DC called the Cellar Door,” says Miller, recalling how ‘Reach For It’ came about. “When we got off that tour, George took us into the studio and we started playing that groove again. He told me to start soloing so I soloed for about five minutes until my hand almost dropped off. We did a little edit on it, put some vocal stuff on top and put it out. It went to No. 1.”
Byron also contributed to one of Duke’s most loved LPs, 1979’s ‘Brazilian Love Affair.’ “Ndugu had left the band by then and was replaced by Ricky Lawson,” says Miller, recalling that time. “We all went down to Rio de Janeiro. We were there for three weeks, sharing different ideas with Brazilian musicians and what came out was ‘Brazilian Love Affair.’”
Byron was much in demand as the ’70s rolled into the ’80s – playing on Marvin Gaye’s last tour and working with The Crusaders, Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross and numerous others – and as a consequence, his first solo project didn’t materialise until 1990. The album was called ‘Git With Me’ for the US Nova imprint. It was a cache of sophisticated smooth jazz grooves where the bassist’s sidemen included George Duke, Stanley Clarke, George Howard and Kirk Whalum.
“I can’t listen to it now,” laughs Byron. “I’ve gotten so much better at production. I hear what I would have done differently, but at the end of the day, that’s how you learn.”
His second solo effort, ‘Until…,’ didn’t get released until 1997. “That was with a subsidiary of Warner Bros called Discovery Records,” remembers the bassist. “I recorded it at my house. I engineered it and played a lot of the instruments myself on that record. I was still learning.”
His third album, 2003’s ‘I’ll Come By,’ featured the great Luther Vandross on vocals. It was released via the indie label Big + One Music but didn’t receive much promotion and consequently slipped past the public largely unnoticed. The bass player, who says he hopes to reissue the album, has fond memories of working with Luther: “When I played in his band we were all like family. I started with him in 1988 and played with him until he passed (in 2005). He was a great friend and was the godfather to one of my daughters.”
It was another twelve years before Byron Miller issued a solo project, 2015’s self-released ‘Pyschobass,’ a collection of stylish funky grooves that rekindled the spirit of ‘Reach For It’; that wasn’t surprising because it featured his old buddies, George Duke and Ndugu Chancler. “That was the last time I played with George and Ndugu in the studio,” reveals Byron. “After that session, we sat up and drank red wine until five in the morning and actually talked about putting the George Duke Band back together. And then George got sick, and then ultimately he passed away.”
Explaining where the “Psychobass” nickname comes from, Byron reveals that the inspiration stemmed from a record executive. “When I started to come back and record my own solo records again, I talked to a guy who was like a father figure to me – Don Mizell,” says Byron. “He used to run Elektra Records when George Duke was there. He said, ‘B, you’re a great player, you write great songs but you’ve got to have another name; you can’t do a Byron Miller record because they’re going to confuse you with (bass player) Marcus Miller.’”
Byron went home and mulled over different names he could use. Nothing seemed to fit or be appropriate so he went to bed and the next morning woke up with a name lodged in his mind. “The name came in a dream,” says Byron. “I called Don and I said ‘I’ve got the name, Psychobass.’ He said, ‘Hmm, what’s that about? Tell me the story.’ I told him the name reflects the way I feel about music. I don’t just love music, I’m psycho about it. The name really caught on. A lot of people don’t call me Byron anymore; they call me ‘Psycho’ or ‘Psychobass.’”
Byron followed up ‘Psychobass’ with a sequel album in 2018; ‘The Gift – Psychobass 2.’ It featured the popular single ‘The B Spot,’ which is the bassist’s most popular track on Spotify having racked up over three million streams.
Now, the 65-year-old is back with a new EP, ‘Real Love: Psychobass 3.’ He’s already given his fans a taste with three singles from it; the title track featuring Stevie Wonder and Walter Beasley; the funky, upbeat ‘Love On The Run,’ and the current single, ‘Better Days Are Coming.’ The latter song is a quality smooth jazz number with dazzling keyboards from Mats Öberg. “He’s from Sweden, an incredible keyboard player, who is blind and almost deaf,” explains Byron. “He plays his butt off and he came up listening to George Duke and Stevie Wonder. I first met him when I did a tribute to George Duke and Frank Zappa in Sweden a few years ago.”
Byron began the EP during the pandemic but found it tough-going: “I was shut down in the studio but it got to the point where I didn’t want to hear any music, so I said to myself, I’ll just finish what I have and put it out.”
As well as the aforementioned Stevie Wonder, there are some other big names in the soul, jazz and funk world involved. “Paul Jackson Jr is playing the guitar on some of the stuff; he’s one of the most incredible guitar players I’ve ever known, especially in the studio,” says Byron. “(Guitarists) Doc Powell and Gordon Campbell, who played with George Duke, are also on there.”
Byron is already working hard on the follow-up to the EP, which he reveals is a full-length album. The record business has been transformed beyond recognition since he first started out in 1974 but he says it works to his advantage. “I have my own record label now and I do just fine,” he says. “With the Internet and being able to get on Spotify and iTunes, people all over the world are able to listen to my music. I have my own following, something I would never have because it’s so hard to get on a major record label.”
He loves the freedom, control and independence that having his own label gives him. “Being able to release my own music was a good thing for me,” he admits. “I don’t have time limits or an A&R guy in my studio saying we need this record by next week. Now, the middle man is gone and all the money comes to me. I own the masters so it’s a win-win situation for me.”
Reflecting on the highlights of his action-packed six decades in the music business, Byron got to collaborate with many of his idols and says “My whole career has been like a fairytale.” He adds: “I grew up as a kid listening to Marvin Gaye and Santana, who I both played with. I also played with two more of my heroes: Joe Sample of The Crusaders on their Street Life tour and also with Herbie Hancock on ‘I Thought It Was You’ from his ‘Sunshine’ record.”
But his biggest highlight was the time he spent with a musician who became a beloved friend – George Duke. “He’s number one on the list and always will be,” declares Byron. “The more I played with him, the more I was able to develop my sound and the way I played. He was just a one-of-a-kind musical genius. He could play like Herbie (Hancock), funk like George Clinton and then he could sing a ballad like Philip Bailey.”