Bringing the Sideman Front and Center: Slick Joe Fick

The differences between a sideman and a frontman are obvious. The front man is the focal point, while the side man is there to back him up. If the front man wants to leap into the air doing vocal karate chops, the band has to be there to catch him if he falls. In the world of sidemen, the bass player is usually relegated to that dark corner of the stage that no one sees, hidden behind a cumbersome piece of wood and the same three notes. Joe Fick is a bass player, but he’s no sideman.

With charisma to match a stick of dynamite and talent to back it up, he can simultaneously compliment and outshine any member of the band. The roster of artists he has performed with reads like a Who’s Who of Rock n’ Roll, including Cordell Jackson, J M Van Eaton, Roland Janes, W.S. Holland, Wanda Jackson, Malcolm Yelvington, Billy Lee Riley, Sonny Burgess, Ace Cannon, Sanford Clark, James Burton, Ronnie Tutt, Boots Randolph, Paul Burlison of The Rock n’Roll Trio and The Jordinaires. As part of Memphis-based band, The Dempseys, Fick has shared billings with Carl Perkins, Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana.

His musical roots run deep. He began his career at age 5 on violin and after trying his hand at piano, cello and guitar, he finally settled on bass.

“My logic told me if I could fake my way through six strings then four strings was going to be more practical and manageable and I would have a fighting chance,” he says.

By junior high, Joe had formed The Dempseys with best friend and guitar player Brad Birkedahl. While Joe had grown up on classical, jazz and pop, it was Brad who changed the trajectory of Fick’s life by introducing him to the music of Sun Records. Sometimes, a best friend will introduce you to the love of your life, and in Joe’s case, it was the music of Bill Black.

“For someone that had been brought up playing Mozart and Beethoven in the orchestra, you can understand my curiosity in Bill Black’s slapped bass technique. It was raw, energetic and rhythmic, plus he added the comedic element to the band; a true performer,” Fick says.

Fick studied Black’s musical and performance techniques like it was his job. In 2006, all that hard work paid off when Fick and Brad, along with drummer Ron Perrone, were cast as Scotty Moore, Bill Black and DJ Fontana in Walk The Line. From here, Joe went on to explore the music of other influential bass players like Willie Dixon, Milt Hinton, Slam Stewart and Louis Vola.

The Dempseys had gathered a lot of steam through Joe’s high school and college years, finally moving to Memphis in 1998. They held a regular gigs at Elvis Presley’s Memphis on Beale and Blues City Cafe, while also playing monthly gigs at Rippy’s in Nashville. They were known as much for their antics as they were for their wide palette of American music and sheer talent. Often, Joe would stand on top of his bass, playing Brad’s guitar, while Brad would stand below playing Joe’s bass. As great as it was, all good things must come to an end. In 2009, Fick packed his bags and headed to Nashville. Quickly setting up shop with Lower Broadway phenom Travis Mann, Joe became the sideshow dynamo to Mann’s cool frontman persona. He continues to play at Rippy’s on a regular basis with the group Tom, Lyle and Joe, while also holding down weekly gigs with Harry Fontana, Slim Chance, Eileen Rose and The Silver Threads and The Don Kelley Band at Robert’s Western World and Layla’s Bluegrass Inn.

From the Far West to the Deep South, sound stages to main stages and everywhere in between, Joe has become the musician you can’t just hear; you have to see him to believe him.

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