By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
Tom Hall calls me a hired gun." Michael Prokopf laughs, but the
description is accurate. Prokopf has been a working musician for more than 30 years, based in St. Louis most of the time, but he's traveled in swing bands, jazz and fusion bands. He's long been near the top of the musicians'-union list of bass players for hire.
"I started out playing guitar when I was 15," Prokopf explains. "Then I switched over to bass. I played 'teen towns' and made five, 10 bucks a night. These were places where kids could go on Friday night and hang out with adult supervision. This was in '65-'66. We played Motown, Top 40 stuff. But I liked the bass immediately -- the sound, the timbre, the register. The lowness. I listened to Donald 'Duck' Dunn, old groups like the Buckinghams. It's hard to remember it all. After high school I started playing full-time and teaching guitar. In '68, '69, I got into more psychedelic stuff, experimental music. We listened to everybody. The Grateful Dead. A lot of people say I play like (Dead bassist Phil) Lesh, but I don't hear it. I don't know what they're talking about. But I guess there's an influence there."
These days Prokopf can be heard every Thursday night at Riddle's, following the eclectic, old-time brilliance of the Flying Mules, pound for pound St. Louis' most gifted group of pickers. He has a phenomenal melodic sense, a light, lingering touch; and the warmest, ripest tone you'll ever hear in a bar setting. "I try to hold down the bottom, though maybe a lot of players wouldn't think so," Prokopf says. "I keep the bottom while doing melodic things on top, keep it together but make the bass line go through the changes so that I hit the required roots and fifths. It has a lot to do with what the other person plays. I'll just follow them around. John Higgins will take a guitar solo and go somewhere; I'll try to reharmonize underneath him but within the chord structure."
Prokopf's bass work expresses his jazz training and his interest in experimental fusionists like Chick Corea. His complex, out-there sense of melody helped make the Geyer Street Sheiks such a fascinating collision of forces, and now he stretches the boundaries of the Mules' old-time style. "I guess I've come around to where I started," Prokopf says. "My dad played guitar, and I picked up the country stuff from him. Hank Williams. The first tune I learned was 'Under the Double Eagle.' I like the lyrics, the stories the old-time songs tell. The feel of it. There's not a lot of negativity. A lot of the songs may be about murder and drunkenness, but it's not a glorifying thing. There's a lot of redemption in the music -- maybe that's what I feel."
-- Roy Kasten