Resplendent in purple, Billy Haynes took to the stage in the Cambodiana Hotel last weekend launching straight into a brace of Bill Withers classics, “Just the Two of Us” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
“I do the music,” was his understated introduction to the act, which will be resident six nights a week at the hotel.
It sums up his general demeanor and attitude to a craft which, though it has seen him grace the stage alongside the likes of Tina Turner, Lou Rawls and Ray Charles in places like Carnegie Hall and Caeser’s Palace, has never gone to his head.
Despite his formidable CV, Haynes admits to an attack of nerves the first time he took to the stage in Phnom Penh, having never played in Asia before.
But he let his music do the talking, and last weekend was happy to engage the crowd, performing impromptu versions of songs he didn’t know on request, smiling all the while.
Louie Armstrong, Little Richard and Stevie Wonder all feature in what is a dreamy voyage down the treasure trove that is 20th century black American music.
“I’ve got my sincerity and dedication to present this kind of music to the masses,” he said in an interview.
Though he has played extensively in the Middle East, this is his first time in Asia and he’s curious about the possibilities here.
By playing here, Haynes said he hopes to present something Cambodia has rarely if ever seen before. Authentic, pure old-school black American music, played as it was meant to be.
“American Hip-hop has taken off here and I want to demonstrate to the people where that came from,” he explained. “It’s just old black music with new lyrics.”
Haynes also said he was intrigued by the Khmer music he has heard since arriving a couple of weeks ago.
“Cambodian people are very soulful and they really sing from the heart,” he said, adding that he would love to reach out to that scene. “I could play a groove on stage and a Khmer hip-hop guy could rap long with it.”
Two shows a night, six nights a week is a tough schedule, but Haynes insists on the benefits.
“It helps me to build up my chops, bass-wise and vocally.”
Given the band has only been playing together for a few days, last weekend’s show was surprisingly tight. Haynes’ bass playing drives the performance and links comfortably with King Dizzy Lengo on lead guitar, David Zunk on drums, keyboardist Bert Neri and backup singers Donna Joy De Guizman and Alma Glor De Liz.
Haynes claims over 5,000 songs in his repertoire, so unsurprisingly, he finds it hard to pick a favorite. When pushed though, he admits that his tastes have come the full circle, back to the gospel music he listened to in church growing up in California.
“All black music came from the church,” he said.
The 58-year-old said he first got hooked on music when he went to a James Brown concert at the age on 10.
“There was so much emotion in him,” Haynes recalled of the show. “The whole performance was incredible.”
Four years later he began performing live, eventually getting his big break in 1977 when he was hired as Tina Turner’s first bass player as she launched her solo career.
“I was there at the start,” he recalled. “I saw what she had to go through with Ike [Turner] and I saw her rise.”
Tina Turner’s success was based on the fact she gives absolutely everything, he said. “That’s why she can fill a stadium.”
The pressure of the touring schedule started to tell though, and he left the band after four years before accepting an offer from the late Lou Rawls, the Chicago-born soul, jazz and blues singer famous for his silky smooth vocal style.
He subsequently shared the stage with artists as varied as Ray Charles, Chaka Khan, Dr John, Clarence Carter and the Temptations.
The Turner experience was his happiest, he said, because he was an integral part of the band. Other big-time gigs were more prosaic by comparison.
Nothing comes easy to a good bass player, according to Haynes, who says he practices up to six hours a day.
“If you want to wow people it’s not the glamour or the light show,” he said. “You have to know what you are doing and become one with your instrument.”