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Bass Player Magazine Article
This was an article that appeared in the December, 1993 issue of Bass Player Magazine, back in my circus days. I was mostly playing the seven string bass at that time. Ah yes, the roar of the tigers, the smell of the elephants...
Rusty Springfield
Seven Strings, Three Rings

Photo by Paul Haggard
"Six months," say Rusty Springfield, bassist for the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus touring band. "That's about how long I thought I'd last. But playing for the circus is an interesting way of life and the travel is fun — besides, it's been a great alternative to a real job."

An interesting life it must be. Imagine living on a mile-long train with clowns, showgirls, and man-eating animals on a cross-country 90-city tour. Imagine playing 600 two-and-a-half-hour shows a year with as many as three shows a day. And imagine playing every show in halls normally reserved for hockey games and monster-truck pulls. Not your average gig by any means! "We're the hardhats of the music industry," says Rusty, who has almost 1800 shows under his belt. "It takes a lot of concentration and discipline to do a gig like this." When the circus rolls into town, it's Rusty and the rest of a 15-piece band who provide the background music for the Greatest Show on Earth.

Springfield, 37, started playing music on a 4-string, but not the one you'd expect. It was his dad's Gibson banjo ukelele. Seeing a rock band at school during his early teens prompted him to pick up a different 4-string — a Silvertone bass. Studying the bass lines of Verdine White and Rocco Prestia helped him to cultivate his chops. He later attended Berklee College of Music in Boston to study jazz with Bruce Gertz. After Berklee, Rusty played with such jazz artists as guitarist Charlie Byrd, and saxophonists Richie Cole and Bill Evans. He also played the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and was in the house band at DIsney World.

So how did he end up with the circus? "In 1990 I got a call from a friend in LA," he explains. "He had played with the circus before and said they needed a bass player. Being a jazz guy I thought it was a prank — it was like, 'Yeah, right, me play with the circus!' So I called them, found out he was serious, and jumped on a plane for Massachussets, where the show was playing. The audition lasted about an hour and ran through the tunes for the show — I read the charts, told a few good jokes, and they let me stay."

With his Silvertone long retired, Springfield's main axe is a bit unusual. It's a 7-string (tuned B-E-A-D-G-C-F) that was custom-built by the Guitar Factory in Orlando, Florida, and spans nearly a 5-octave range with 28 frets; the bass is fitted with EMG-DC humbuckers and a Kahler bridge. Rusty's amplification is all ADA: an MB-1-MIDI preamp and a B500B power amp, which power two ADA Bassline HX 2x10s. An Alesis Quadraverb provides chorus.

Playing around large animals does have its hazards. Rusty recalls one uneasy moment. "For the grand finale, they line up all the elephants right in front of the bandstand. On one particular night, one of the elephants — the one right behind our conductor — needed to relieve himself and started to lift his tail. Our conductor, being a quick thinker, grabbed the elephant's tail and held it down. The elephant's looking around like, "What's going on back there?" So there's our conductor holding down the tail with one hand and trying to conduct the band with a baton in the other! The band was cracking up. He couldn't let go of the tail or else...

How much longer will his life be a circus? "I can't really say," says Springfield. "Id love to play in a Bela Fleck-type of band -- something where the music is challenging and I get a moment to shine. But the circus is steady, and I can't see myself going back to playing bars for $50 a night!"

After playing with the Greatest Show on Earth, who could?

—Scott Malandrone

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