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Robert Wayne Birch (July 14, 1956 – August 15, 2012) was an American session musician, playing bass guitar as a sideman to a variety of notable artists.
|Birth name||Robert Wayne Birch|
|Born||July 14, 1956|
Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
|Died||August 15, 2012 (aged 56)|
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Instrument(s)||Bass, bassoon, saxophone, backing vocals|
Early life Edit
At an early age, Birch was inspired to pursue music by his father Chet, an upright bassist. Birch began playing the alto saxophone, mirroring the styles of Paul Desmond and Cannonball Adderley. He learned quickly and was soon recognized by the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association for his 1st-place finishes at music festival competitions. Around 7th grade, Birch tried out the electric bass because of his fascination for the Motown sound, as well as groups like Chicago, Blood, Sweat, and Tears. He began playing on his junior high band director Art Dries's Mosrite bass during lunches. Because he also had a strong passion for the classical side of music, Birch focused his school studies on the bassoon. As a senior in high school, he won the Louis Armstrong Jazz Award. He received a competitive scholarship from the state of Michigan to enroll in Wayne State University in Detroit as a pre-med major. Birch played six nights a week on the Detroit club scene while attending classes during the day. Birch went on to graduate with a bachelor's degree in music education and performance from Wayne State.
This section needs additional citations for verification. (July 2023)
Soon after graduating from college, Birch joined a band with his brother Dan and sister-in-law Martha, becoming one of the top bands on the Detroit circuit. While performing at lounges in local hotels, Birch met many musicians from some of the top touring bands of the time including the Doobie Brothers, George Benson, Chicago and Barry Manilow. The conversations he had with these artists influenced him to decide to move to Los Angeles for its music scene.
Birch arrived in Los Angeles in 1981, and was struggling to make contacts when he met saxophonist Michael Paulo at the musician's union. Paulo invited Birch to his house to jam, where he met Akio Katsuyama, a jazz pianist from Osaka, Japan. Katsuyama needed a bassist for his trio and hired Birch on the spot. While they played together, Katsuyama introduced Birch to the Watanabe method of jazz, and Birch helped Katsuyama with his English.
Birch continued to audition for and join every band he could, and soon he was hired for multiple recording dates. He played on every demo that came his way, as well as playing with his long-time friend and established musician, drummer Gregg Bissonette, on a Jazzercise multi-platinum record. Finally, in 1985 he was involved in a record deal with a band named Fortune. Birch's good friend and mentor from Detroit, drummer Jimmy Hunter, recommended him to the band, and soon after they signed a record deal with Camel/MCA. Their debut record with producer Kevin Beamish included the single "Stacey", on which Birch played bass and saxophone. "Stacey" made it on the Billboard Hot 100 singles list for six straight weeks.  The record was stalled after three singles, causing Birch to recognize that he needed to continue looking for other opportunities. He remained in the music scene by playing gigs every night and joining as many bands as possible. During this time, he was able to meet and play with L.A.'s finest musicians, including L.A. vocalist Rainey.
Later in 1985, he met keyboardist Guy Babylon. They recorded together on the Luis Cardenas debut album, Animal Instinct, which went on to get a Grammy nomination. They became a team that often worked together while playing with and recording for many artists. In 1988, Babylon recommended Birch for Mark Ashton's band. Birch joined the band, which included drummer Zak Starkey, and after a few showcases for record companies, Ashton was signed by RCA. The debut album was recorded at A&M studios with the producer Paul Rothchild and was initially highly acclaimed, but did not enjoy much commercial success. At that time, Babylon was asked to join Elton John's band. Because Babylon was involved with the Ashton band, he came to Birch asking what he should do. Birch responded with "What are you waiting for?", and Babylon proceeded to leave Ashton and join Elton John. Birch continued his search for more gigs and was hired by percussionist Bob Conti for a spot in Jose Feliciano's band. He set off on a world tour with Feliciano which lasted four years. In between touring dates, Birch would return to Los Angeles and dig up more contacts which brought more gigs.
When Elton John ended his tour in 1989, Guy Babylon introduced Birch to John's longtime guitarist, Davey Johnstone. At that time, Johnstone, Babylon, and longtime John drummer Nigel Olsson were planning to make a record together and asked Birch to join them. They named their band Warpipes, and their album debuted in 1990. The project was met with management and record company obstacles and stalled while Babylon and Johnstone were called to begin Elton John's The One in Paris. A bit discouraged, Birch proceeded to once again hit the streets to find more playing opportunities. As The One tour was about to begin, John searched for a bassist, asking Pino Palladino to join him, who declined. On February 14, 1992, John asked Johnstone to call Birch to join his tour.
Being John's touring and primary recording bassist opened up more avenues for Birch in his musical career. Though, once again in between gigs with John, Birch was back in L.A. looking for even more playing opportunities.
In 1993, Birch met musician and composer Marc Bonilla and was asked to join his band, 'The Dragonchoir' for the time he had between tours with John. Birch accepted, and with Bonilla he performed live and recorded with Keith Emerson, Steve Porcaro, Glenn Hughes, and Ronnie Montrose. He later played on Emerson's solo album, featuring Bonilla, alongside Gregg Bissonette on drums. Birch teamed up with Bonilla on a few other works. Together they worked on a comedy album, Fuzzatonic Scream by Bobby Gaylor, which Bonilla produced. Also with Bonilla, along with studio producer Mike Mason, Birch played on the soundtracks of the movies The Replacements and The Scorpion King for Los Angeles film composer John Debney. Bonilla also gave Birch the chance to play with one of his favorite vocalists, David Coverdale, at Mark & Brian's Christmas show.
Since Elton John teamed up with Billy Joel for multiple tours which Birch was a part of, it give him the chance to befriend Joel's saxophone player Mark Rivera. Rivera and Birch quickly became good friends, and Birch was "grateful" for Rivera asking him to be the primary bassist at one of the first Rock & Roll Fantasy Camps. The Camp allowed Birch the opportunity to perform with Leslie West, Rick Derringer, Nils Lofgren, Mike Love, Lou Gramm, and as the third member of the 'Detroit Royalty' Grand Funk Railroad with Mark Farner and Don Brewer. Another memorable moment for Birch was when Rick Latham, drummer and friend of Birch's, gave him the chance to play with Edgar Winter and the White Trash featuring Rick Derringer reunion at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1999.
While recording Made In England with Elton John at Air Studios in London, Birch was sitting in the studio lobby reading a magazine during a break and he noticed a shadow blocking his light. As he looked up, he recognized Beatles producer George Martin, who asked Birch if he "would be up for playing on a couple of tracks he was doing for Larry Adler's album The Glory of Gershwin. After Birch "picked his jaw off of the floor", he answered yes. Yet another highlight of his career was building a musical relationship with producer and songwriter David Harris. Harris asked Birch to play on Brian Doerksen's Juno Award winning album, which was put together with drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and Toto singer Joseph Williams. That led to the opportunity to co-write as well as play on a song for Joseph Williams' solo album, This Fall. Birch said that "being a huge Toto fan, it was an honor to be involved with Joseph. Seeing my name on an album alongside my all-time heroes David Paich, Steve Lukather, Steve Porcaro, and Bobby Kimball was obviously an added rush".
In 1995, Birch was badly injured in a car accident in which he was hit by a pick-up truck while walking the streets of Montreal, Canada with his fellow band members. After being hit, he was thrown over twenty feet before landing on the asphalt, breaking both his legs as well as severely damaging his back and spine. The doctors initially told him that he would never walk again, but within six months he was back on tour with Elton John, and continued to do so for the next seventeen years. Throughout those years, Birch struggled with constant headaches, dizziness, vertigo, and severe pain throughout his body. According to friend and colleague Nigel Olsson, he saw "hundreds of physicians, but nothing could reverse the damage which was already done. His entire body was knackered." During his final tour before his death, Birch was forced to perform while seated on a chair because of the pain he was enduring, which had been aggravated by a fall accident at the start of the tour.
During the last two weeks leading up to his death, Birch struggled with severe gastrointestinal issues brought on by his injury, losing over 23 pounds in this short period of time. On August 15, 2012, he died from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound in his Los Angeles home, aged 56. The subsequent autopsy revealed an amount of damage and scar tissue through his back and neck which is usually only seen in those who are disabled.
- "Alumni profiles - Department of Music - Wayne State University". music.wayne.edu. Retrieved 23 May 2023.
- tolsen (2 January 2013). "Billboard Hot 100". Billboard. Retrieved 23 May 2023.
- "thestage.co.uk". Retrieved 8 August 2018.
- Perna, Michael Anthony (August 18, 2012) "Bob Birch Obituary". Los Angeles Times.
- Interview with Elton John and Nigel Olsson in MOJO following Birchs death
- John, Elton (September 8, 2012). "You Never Complained". Elton Daily
- "Bob Birch Obituary (2012) - Los Angeles, CA - Los Angeles Times". Legacy.com. Retrieved 11 February 2023.
- Oldenburg, Ann (August 16, 2012). "Elton John bassist Bob Birch, 56, found dead in L.A.". USA Today.