Wilfred Middlebrooks, the double bassist whose elegant, understated sound was heard in the band that backed jazz great Ella Fitzgerald and in the Paul Smith Trio, died of heart failure March 13 at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena. He was 74.
Middlebrooks earned a reputation with musicians as an unflappable timekeeper, whose mastery of the instrument allowed him to be "heard as well as felt, but not obtrusively."
"Wilfred's longevity with somebody of Ella's talent had a lot to do with his impeccable intonation, sensitivity and just sympathetic nature," said fellow bassist Richard Simon.
Middlebrooks was born July 17, 1933, in Chattanooga, Tenn., into a family of musicians. By age 11, Middlebrooks was studying with the principal bassist for the Chattanooga Symphony.
At age 15, Middlebrooks joined a traveling vaudeville troupe. In Ohio, he began a friendship with saxophonist and group leader Tab Smith.
"From there on, Tab took him under his arm and taught him how to accompany singers and how to blend in as a musician," said Middlebrooks' wife, Ernestine. "Tab was like a father to him."
During a two-year stint in the military, Middlebrooks played bass and tuba in an Army band. After the service he settled in Los Angeles, where he and saxophonist Eric Dolphy played in a band at the Oasis Club, recalled musician Buddy Collette.
Middlebrooks also played in a quintet with Collette, who wrote the tune "Walkin' Willie" in honor of his bandmate and friend. To "walk" or "run" on bass refers to keeping time.
"We called him Walkin' Willie," Collette said. "He had a way of walking the bass; he never seemed to get tired. He was one of the best at that."
Middlebrooks landed a gig with Fitzgerald, who was playing a Las Vegas show. In the audience that day were Nat "King" Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Pearl Bailey and Jane Russell.
"I was so scared," Middlebrooks said in a 2001 article in the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "I thought if I can just make it through this one show, that'll be it."
The 25-year-old Middlebrooks went on to tour and record with Fitzgerald on albums such as "Jazz 'Round Midnight Again," "Mack the Knife: The Complete Ella in Berlin," "Ella Returns to Berlin" and "Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie!"
"He loved her," Middlebrooks' wife said. "He called her Fitz. She called him Junior. He was her youngest bass player."
In 1960, while playing with Fitzgerald, Middlebrooks and Smith met. They later played together for 13 years at the Velvet Turtle in Redondo Beach, Smith said.
Offstage, Middlebrooks was a family man, who helped raise two of his grandchildren. For a time, he taught free music at the Chattanooga African American Museum.
He remained passionate about his instrument.
"As great as he played and as beautiful as he sounded, he was on this quiet relentless search for better," Simon said.
In addition to his wife, Middlebrooks is survived by three children from a previous marriage, sons Ronnie Middlebrooks and Wilfred Middlebrooks Jr. of Seattle, and a daughter, Tina Middlebrooks; a stepmother, Juliette Gilbert; two brothers, Ronnie Porter and William Middlebrooks Jr.; and a sister, Yvonne Orr, all of Chattanooga; and 10 grandchildren. Another son died years ago.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. today at Calvary CME Church, 135 Glorieta St., Pasadena.