In the last weeks of his life, Rick Wolfe received company on the back porch of his Bearden home. There, his withering, skinny-anyway frame bundled up in a blanket, he smoked as he talked, seeing no point in foregoing one of his pleasures in life. He was dying of pancreatic cancer, the same disease that killed his mother, Maria, last year. Last spring, he thought it was just a backache from lugging amplifiers around.
Wolfe, an integral member of Knoxville's music community for more than 30 years, died Saturday morning. He was 53. As cruelly fast as the disease was, the chemotherapy and heavy pain medication that kept him going gave him a chance to make his farewells and to talk about his time as a bassist, mixer, recording consultant and Pick 'n' Grin employee.
What pushed Wolfe toward music was "the great era I grew up in—the '60s, with Motown and the San Francisco pop scene. And the Beatles. The Beatles had everything to do with it." Wolfe reveled at the memory of delivering the Knoxville Journal at 4 a.m., a transistor radio strapped to his bicycle handlebars. "Just me, alone out there in the world, with the Swingin' Deacon—DJ Eddie Beacon—on WKGN."
One day in 1970, when Wolfe was midway through West High, a boy brought an electric bass to show-and-tell and then loaned the instrument to Wolfe. "I fell in love with bass guitar. But I had fallen in love with the bass sound even earlier, from the jukebox by the swimming pool at Deane Hill Country Club. You can't beat that jukebox bass, man," Wolfe said, remembering those days before the average home hi-fi had big woofers. "It was deep and thunderous: THUMP THUMP THUMP. That's what I wanted to do. I spent a lot of time wood-shedding, teaching myself to play, wearing out the vinyl grooves in my records, putting the needle back over and over until I got a certain riff."
The other aspect of pop music that got Wolfe's attention was the emergence of producers and engineers as ex-officio band members, as demonstrated by George Martin's contribution to the Beatles' discography. "Hearing Hendrix's Electric Ladyland—those incredible sounds—and Led Zeppelin I and II! The sonic landscapes [those albums] would take you to—it was just magic to me."
From playing with reel-to-reel tape recorders as a youngster, Wolfe would graduate to real studies, like The Recording Workshop in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1985. "I never heard music the same way since. I learned about professional mixing consoles, signal flow, mike placement. This was right at the cusp between analog and digital recording. I got to see that transition."
Although his title at longtime friend Gail Meglitsch's Studio 613 (now Independent Recorders) was "studio manager," that hardly describes Wolfe's status as all-around production wizard. As for actually being on stage himself, Wolfe was a late bloomer: "I was 28 years old before I played in public," he said. He was proud to have been in the Delta Flyers' rhythm section, backing Sara Jordan, the late avatar of Knoxville's blues scene. But he's best known for holding down the bottom in Michael Crawley's bands—Crawdaddy, the MacDaddies—over a 15-year period, particularly in '90s house gigs at Hawkeye's Corner, and more recently at the Corner Lounge.
Tami Brewster got to know Wolfe through their long association at Pick 'n' Grin, the landmark music shop founded by her father, Bud Brewster. "He knew way too much for a 53-year-old guy," Brewster says. "Rick was the master of every stringed instrument that came through here." After veering more into technical support after starting in sales, Wolfe nearly had to be hidden away in the shop area just to enable him to work. Otherwise, everyone who came into the shop for repairs or adjustments wanted to schmooze Wolfe. "It's sad now—people coming into the shop and poking their head around the corner, instinctively looking for him," Brewster says.
Jeanne Lane and Grace "Robin" Hodge, two of the "angels," as Rick called several female friends who cared for him, were with him at the end Saturday morning. Lane mentioned that, on a recent car outing, Rick had told her, "‘I hope all of you have a great time together at my wake.' I say we honor his wishes. Let the music begin."
Wolfe is survived by his brother, Dana Wolfe Jr., and family. Services will be Thursday at Highland Memorial Funeral Home in Bearden with burial set for Friday. Ron Tipton and Gail Meglitsch will host a party/jam session in memory of Wolfe on Friday night.