Jess Oliver: My Time with the Man of Invention
- Chrys Johnson
Today I attended a memorial for the man born on Jan 20th 1926 with the name Oliver Jesperson but was known to most of the world as Jess Oliver ..the man who invented the greatest bass guitar amp of all time…the Ampeg B-15. It was a great afternoon spent with all kinds of people who knew Jess for one reason or another…mostly friends and family. To say he is local legend doesn’t really come close to how people revere him…more like a local superhero of sorts, in fact I had a man come up to me and introduced himself just as a local Long Island Musician and told me a story of how Jess bailed him out of jail and wrote letter to the local court to explain how the man was wrongfully being over punished for a minor drug possession charge…the man claimed over and over that Jess forever changed his life by doing that. You would think this man was an exception but even the folks that just had their amps worked on by Jess had the same enthusiasm about their experience.
I met Jess over the phone in late 2008 when he had called in to buy 50 Ampeg script B-15 logos for his restoration business. I promptly told him there was no way in hell I would sell him those logos…because I was sending them to him for free! He laughed and thanked me…and so our friendship began. Jess started to call periodically to talk and told me about how sad he was about Ampeg being made overseas and how he had sent many letters to our old CEO Jamie Engen pleading with him to ‘do the right thing’ with the Ampeg name and at least bring some of the top products back to the states. I did my best to understand where he was coming from and tried to quell some of his fear by letting him know that there was a few new folk that worked for the company now, including myself, that if we had our way he would see a new line of USA products within the next few years…he was hopeful but wasn’t holding his breath. I was so ecstatic to be in contact to Ampeg royalty and a man I had read so many stories about in the Gregg Hopkins and Bill Moore book “Ampeg; the Story Behind the Sound” that I started almost immediately dreaming about making a super authentic but updated version of the iconic B-15…I mean here I was working for the company that is blessed with having the legacy of the most recorded bass amplifier in history and was also now in contact with the original inventor …tell me how any rational person couldn’t be thinking what I was thinking…we HAVE to make a new REALLY badass B-15!?!? I know Ampeg had done the B-15R before and that you could find vintage pieces online for reasonable prices from time to time but this was an amp that I was getting asked about non-stop ever since I started with the company in 2006…so it seemed reasonable that the Ampeg fans of the world would be interested and support the idea of doing a high end boutique version of this classic amp.
As fate would have it I was introduced to George Metropolous by email through Pyotr Belov because George was looking for some Mackie studio monitors. As soon as I took a minute to look into what George was doing with his own Marshall Plexi replicas at Metropolous Amp company I was excited about chatting him up some more..through a few more really lengthy phone calls I discovered that he was a huge Ampeg fan and owned a ton of vintage SVT’s and B-15’s of his own…I had to ask…”why haven’t you made a B-15 replica?” and George was like “because you can still buy the originals in great shape for a few thousand bucks at most and to build one now like they did back then is super expensive”. To which I replied “yeah but what if it were unequivocally the best B-15 of all time…wouldn’t you buy that for a boutique price? I know I would…oh and if we think we can do it justice…” I said “I can call Jess and get him involved to see if he would want to be a part of rethinking his classic amp!” George got excited and agreed so we kept talking which led me to ask him to try and build a replica B-15 head of his favorite vintage unit and I would look into having a original double baffle cab built from Bob Friedwald down in St Louis at Bob’s Custom Amps. The first couple of cabs Bob made for us were good but not quite right…something was missing.
It took a while for George and I both to get our end of the bargain ready to show due to this all being done outside of our super demanding regular duties at work but if I remember right it was in late 2009 I was able to roll in the very first rough un-silkscreened prototype B-15 into (Ampeg’s VP of Product Development) John Boudreau’s office as a bit of a surprise and to say hey if you want to make this amp this shows it can be done to almost the original spec without too much trouble so if we get Jess and Pyotr involved with George this thing could only get awesome from here! After realizing we didn’t have the cabinet quite right I called Jess to ask some questions and he simply said that there was no one in the world he trusted more than Mark Gandenberger when it came to recreating the original B-15 double baffle cabinets and gave me his contact info. I called Mark and found he was excited to hear about the project and was happy to help Ampeg regain some long lost knowledge of it’s own legacy product. With so many amazing talents on board it was important to contact Jess about what insights he could offer towards this new version of the B-15. (To be Continued)
It didn’t take long for Jess to give me the short list of the things he would do now if given the chance to re release the B-15 all over again…his two most important things (out of a short list of about 5-7 requests) were to put a choke in the power section and he wanted a high powered 4 inch voice coil speaker that wouldn’t break up when pushed. Jess said “Fender had one thing right back then..and that was putting a choke in their power section of tube amps was smart and efficient..” Adding the choke meant the chassis had to grow in size about 15% from the original which also meant changing the original mounting system slightly. Adding such a huge speaker but trying to keep the cabinet the same size meant the head would be a much tighter fit when flipped down for storage or transportation..which later I think John Boudreau or Kim Van Horn realized the best solution was to have sewing party and make nice soft speaker magnet ‘koozies’ or ‘headbands’ to protect the transformer covers from rubbing on the speaker magnet every time the head was stowed. If memory serves me correct once we had a cabinet correctly prototyped from Mark Gandenberger the project was really in the hands of Pyotr Belov and George Metropolous and through their brainstorming had come up with the idea of putting two of the most popular versions of the B-15 preamps side by side ..the 1964 channel and the 1966 channel which quickly was agreed upon as great, simple yet innovative way to add value and bring a little something new to the tried and true classic design.
Soon after finishing a true company effort Prototype #1 and having put it through it’s paces I shipped it out to Jess who had only been involved by phone and email up until this point. I had planned to arrive at Jess’s house a few days after he got the amp to help Chris Jisi conduct an interview for Bass Player Magazine w/ help from Ampeg Product Specialist Dino Monoxelos and Peter Gabriel/King Crimson bassist (and long time B-15 user) Tony Levin …so I was excited to and a bit nervous to get Jess’s reaction to the first to new incarnation of his amp in person. To my elation Jess was waiting eagerly in his basement workshop for us to arrive with his Proto 1 Heritage B-15 on the bench running tests and poking around …one of the very first things he said was “this is a fine amp…George did a good job”. My heart was warmed and the tension in my shoulders released knowing the man was pleased with what we had done with his design. Jess then went on to tell me about how much longer lasting LED lights were than the regular bulbs they had used in the original amps to light up the plexi Ampeg logo then flipped his Proto 1 over and sure enough he had already modded this amp with a flashy new LED..so now instead of the old school yellow tint of a conventional light bulb the plexi Ampeg logo now glowed a bright blue-ish white…yet another great testament to the spirit of this man that even after suffering a severe stroke and losing the use of his left hand he was still all there and just as motivated by his passion to innovate as he ever was. The interview kicked off once we were all introduced (the interview can be found in March 2011 Issue of Bass Player Magazine) and settled into Jess’ basement ‘mad scientist’ lab below his home in Massapequa Park NY. We spent the better half of the day with Jess listening to anything he had to say and playing around with some of his Oliver amps and other really amazing yet lesser known inventions. To be in that basement work shop with Jess was like being inserted into a living Ampeg timeline as the walls were lined with amazing pictures of Jess..all the way back from his early days with Ampeg up to current times with just about every rock star or industry veteran that ever played his gear and cared enough to know about the man behind the amazing sound. I remember feeling overjoyed and humbled for being blessed with this rare opportunity to spend this kind of time with him at his home..secretly I kinda wished I didn’t have to leave and that maybe I could move in and be adopted as his long lost grandson. I was all too aware that Jess might not be around for too much longer due to health concerns so every step of this project became monumental to me because of that understanding.
Upon returning home from this landmark trip to NY (which just happened to be my first time on the East Coast ever) in Sept 2010 I continued to stay in touch with Jess and family to let them know how the next few Prototypes and the subsequent production units were coming along. In the midst of the first production units being built Jess had a sudden late feeling that he would prefer that we used his original XLR style speaker cable system for connecting the head to the cabinet instead of the now industry standard 1/4″ speaker cable and called me to say he would like that to be changed. For those that don’t know …this was a special system that was just another one of Jess’s amazing ideas to protect the tubes and transformers in case of the aloof musician or tech unplugging the head from the cabinet before properly shutting the amp down. The draw back is that with this style of speaker cable is it doesn’t leave any room for experimenting with connecting the head to a different cab or using the cab with a different head…which has become more and more a common practice in the modern world of tone tweaking tube amp enthusiasts. All that being known, I took his request to heart and called a meeting with John Boudreau, Pyotr Belov and George Metropolous to see if there was any way to accommodate his request this late in the game but after quickly doing the math both with our time and resources at hand we determined this is one thing we couldn’t make good on for Jess. I hated making that phone call to tell him we couldn’t do it…he was a bit upset and made many convincing points about how and why should be done ..all of which I mostly agreed with but I knew my role at this point was to just listen and sympathize as he knew there was nothing I could do to change it at this point but needed someone that cared to hear him out. After a few different phone calls and receiving some objective points of view from his close friends and family about the speaker cable issue Jess had come around was back on the train with us to try and deliver all 50 units by Winter NAMM 2011.
In December of 2010 I was neck deep in booking my biggest Artist involved NAMM show yet which meant not only organizing and booking about 20-25 different rockstars into a cohesive signing/performance schedule over the three main days of the show but also booking any and all flights and hotel rooms for our guests. Jess was to be our guest of honor and was scheduled to fly in with his with wife Betty, daughter Mary, son John and son in-law David and be present for the official release of the Heritage B-15…then I get a call from Jess saying that he doesn’t think he will be able to make it because his wife Betty wasn’t feeling very good and he couldn’t stand to go and leave her there feeling bad while he was off having fun at the NAMM show. I told him that we were sad to hear about this turn of events but of course we understood. I got off the phone with my mind racing…”how could we do this NAMM without Jess?!” He was such an integral part of this project that it just didn’t seem right that he didn’t go. Soon after that phone call had ended I got a another call from another of Jess daughter’s, Roberta who told me that the family was going to encourage him to come out to the show anyway and that they would find someone trusted to take care of Betty while he was away so I shouldn’t give up hope just yet. A few days later Jess called to re-confirm that he would in fact be there and was super excited for the whole thing.
As soon as we had most of the details locked in for Jess to be at the show I remember sitting at my desk and having my co-worker (and PR Manager for Ampeg/Mackie) Shaunna Thompson say out loud…”seems like we should do something special for Jess at the show..like maybe a Lifetime Achievement award or something?”. A light bulb went off in my head and almost immediately saw what the award would look like but instead of just any old lifetime achievement award I said something to the effect of “Yes! We should give him the ‘Godfather of Bass Amplification’ award because there really is only one other person other than Jess that would even compete for such a title and that was Everett Hull but seeing as Everett is not around and Jess’s creations are the ones that revolutionized the Ampeg name and bass amps forever I think it’s just as perfectly unique of a status as the man himself.” So I called George and told him what I was up to and wanted to have a one of a kind award created for Jess that would mimic the look of the head (power section) of the B-15 so I would need a tube cage and a couple empty black transformer covers to make it happen. George again was excited and helped me without question and we were able to get the award created just in time for the show.
Just prior to the start of the 1st day Winter NAMM 2011 I was honored with the task or presenting Jess with that one of a kind award. I had spent a considerable amount of time writing a few nice long paragraphs on what this whole event meant to Ampeg to be reconnected to Jess and once again honor him ….but when it came time to speak on stage I was total nervous wreck and barely said anything I had meant to say (and may have repeated a few things) but was able to get out the basics and managed to present Jess with the award regardless of my voice cracking and legs & hands shaking uncontrollably. The show proved to be a giant success for both Jess and Ampeg. During the show I did my best to have a few Ampeg artists plug into the Heritage B-15 and play some jazz for Jess…he really seemed to enjoy seeing young people use his amps and seeing the evolution of a music that he loved so much. Jess w/ the help of long time friend Gregg Hopkins was able to make his rounds on the show floor and see a bunch of long time friends, fans and supporters …not to mention Jess really loved seeing all the new gear as that was a part of who he was…an engineer, an inventor and most of all an innovator so you can imagine the pleasure it brought him to see so many amazing things happen in the music technology business in his lifetime.
Post Winter NAMM 2011 Bass Player magazine released their March issue which featured the Heritage B-15 front and center right on the cover, a huge spread that is the interview that we did with Jess in his basement back in Sept 2010 and also a raving review of the amp itself. If you haven’t read this issue I highly recommend it. Shaunna Thompson sent Jess a handful of copies for his own use and after getting them he called me to let me know that he couldn’t be happier with how things turned out and thanked me for my friendship and for following through on the project for him.
I was fortunate to see Jess in person one last time in April 2011 as a work trip had brought me back to NY to do a photo shoot with Stanley Clarke, Owen Biddle (The Roots) & Nathan Peck (Alex Skolnick Trio) and seeing as I had a few extra days I thought I would stop in to see Jess and bring Nathan Peck with me to get his Ampeg Baby Bass signed. Is was another great visit and Nathan had a blast hearing some old Ampeg stories straight from the man’s mouth, Nathan played some Jazz for Jess on the Baby Bass right there in his kitchen while he watched in awe. This would be the last time I would see or speak to Jess in person.
Jess Oliver passed away on June 30th 2011. To say it was an honor just doesn’t come close to doing my feelings and emotions about these events in my life any justice. When I received the news that he had passed I cried as intensely as if I had heard my mother or grandmother had passed away. I was marveling and a bit dumbfounded about how I could be this invested in a man I barely had time to get to know. After calming down I had a bit of a revelation that this was what it was all about…being sensitive enough to truly recognize someone’s contribution is often the biggest gift you can give to another person and in this case not only was I able to help give that gift to Jess …but he gave it right back to me with his kind words of appreciation.
Chrys Johnson – Artist Relations Manager of Ampeg.