There are several obvious ways to rack up recording session credits as numerous as bassist Haig Stephens. One would be to hold on to a position as a house bassist for a prolific recording label, as Stephens did with Decca back in the day when that imprint was recording artists such asLouis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. Discographer Tom Lord places Stephens at a bit less than 100 recording sessions between the mid-'30s and 1950, sometimes doubling on baritone saxophone. This statistic omits involvement in any kind of recording Lord did not consider jazz. It is in the context of the latter genre that most listeners will come across this bassist, yet his emphasis on studio activity makes his background a bit different than most jazzmen.
Much of what Decca recorded with Stephens eventually evolved into part of the Verve catalog, such as the big-band project Armstrong created in the '30s. Discographical evidence places Stephens in those dark, stuffy places where the tape is rolling from the early days of his career. Working with leaders such the talented multi-instrumentalist Adrian Rollini, Stephens warmed up for the Decca days ahead, recording "matcher" dance-band sides based on whatever tunes and dances were currently popular, many of these sides released under fictitious band names. On the other hand, sometimes he would be substituting for a group's regular bassist, which explains his presence on records by Bob Crosby & His Orchestra, an active touring outfit. Very little of the music released featuring this bassist was recorded live. His studio activities inevitably represent a broad base of musical interests, which he either genuinely possessed or, like a good studio player, was able to fabricate to suit whoever was in charge. Those individuals included not only the aforementioned jazz giants but interesting lesser figures such as singer Leo Watson, whose innovative early recordings featured Stephens. Stephens is also the bass player on the country & western recordings of Jimmie Davis, the Louisiana governor whose songs such as "You Are My Sunshine" and "Nobody's Darlin' But Mine" made a mint for Decca. Another aspect of Stephens' career that is more like a studio player than a jazzman is just how anonymous he appears to have been, not showing up in the biographical recollections of the people he worked with and not seeming to inspire personal tributes from motivated fans. Most of the links with his name in cyberspace involve the recordings he played on, as might be expected. Despite the connection with Jimmie Davis, the bassist should not be confused with the Haig Stephens who is selling a tractor online.
- by Eugene Chadbourne
All Music Group