Behind every cherished Motown hit stood a group of unheralded
studio musician. These fabulous, fantastically talented, and
should’ve-been-famous players call themselves the Funk
Brothers. Roxanne Bogucka spoke with four of them (Uriel
Jones, Eddie Willis, Bob Bassett, and Jack Ashford) the day
after the screening of Standing In The Shadows Of Motown
and their performance at the Paramount Theater.
RB: Hi. What’s your name, what instrument do you play,
and what was your first paying musician job?
UJ: I’m Uriel Jones, I’m the drummer. My first paying
job came back in 1958 and I was with Jim Weaver. I
was making $13.00 a night.
RB: Was that good money?
UJ: Oh yeah, to me it was. But I was working at Great Licks
EW: My name is Eddie. Eddie Willis. I play guitar.
My first paying job that I could recall—
JA: Last night.
EW: Um, I think it was, I have to say a blues singer in Detroit
by the name of Little Sonny. That were in ’58 also.
I think he paid $15.00 because he—
UJ: You were making more than me!
EW: Well there was just four with himself in the band, therefore
the owners were paying him very nice—a hefty sum, so he was
able to pay us $15.00 each. And that was probably my first
that I could recall.
BB: Bob Babbitt, bass. My parents sang with the Gypsies.
They were Hungarian, and they got me a job with a Gypsy band.
I think I made $15.00. It was in the late ’50s.
JA: My name is Jack Ashford, and I’m from Philadelphia.
I did my first gig in 1956. I have no idea what I made. I
really don’t. I have no idea, but it wasn’t enough.
RB: Something made you all want to be musicians, and I
was wondering if you could tell me about the musicians you
were listening to that really made you think, “Oh man, I want
to do that!” And especially if you remember something like
the first record you bought or something.
UJ: My first record I bought was Dave Brubeck’s Jazz
Goes To College. And uh, I was listening to drummers,
and my favorite drummers were Art Blakey, Max Roach,
until several years later when I met Benny Benjamin.
RB: Max Roach. I just was in a music store the other day
and—he was with Clifford Brown?
RB: Right. They were playing “Coronado.” People were swinging
around the music store.
UJ: Oh yeah, Clifford Brown. Max Roach played with Clifford
Brown quite a bit.
RB: And how about you? Your first record?
EW: First record I bought? I can’t remember the first record
I bought, ’cause I didn’t buy any very much.
RB: Well who were you listening to that made you want
to get out there?
EW: Well by being from Mississippi, in the country, I would
listen to every guitar player I could hear. Listened to Chet
Atkins, B.B. King, Albert King. I was listening to all
blues, Muddy Waters, all that stuff. I didn’t get into
a bit of the jazz scene until I came to Detroit. I came to
Detroit when I was 14. And I got into liking jazz, and actually
from these guys ’cause they were all into it. I was more blues-oriented.
I didn’t buy records very much. I was just interested in playing.
And every guitar record I heard, I promptly had it and I was
just copying it. I stayed on it.
BB: I was thinking about Ray Brown and Charlie
Mingus at first. And I was studying classical, there were
a couple of classical bass players. And naturally James
Jamerson had a huge effect on me, but uh, I heard a Les
McCann album one time, and the way he way phrasing his
left hand, that really did something, just stuck with me that
I wanted to play my bass that way. It was just something about
the feeling he was getting across to me.
JA: The first artist that I was influenced by was Lionel
Hampton. But the first record that I think I bought was
on the Sensation label, and it was a Milt Jackson with
Cuban conga player named Chano Pozo. And it was on
the Sensation label… it was a 78 and I played it to death.
I wore it out.
RB: So you don’t still have it?
JA: Wish I did. Honest, I wish I did. But you know, over
the years you collect records and you lose ’em so many times.
RB: Has it been reissued in CD, any of that stuff?
JA: I don’t know. I’ve been looking for that label. I downloaded
off of WinMX to see if I could find the Sensation label, but
it was probably one of those fly-by-night labels. But the
name of the song was “Bobbin With Robin.” That was the name
of it. I think that was one of the first records I bought.
But you know, I was around musicians being from Philly—Max
and Clifford and all those cats used to come through Philly.
That was like a Mecca, being closer to New York. So I had
a lot of influence from jazz musicians. I had jazz musicians
in my family. So I had a good exposure early on, from about
12 years old, into jazz.
RB: So most of y’all have been influenced by jazz and
blues. And were influenced by jazz and blues musicians. So
I wondered if you have seen or heard, I guess would be more
appropriate, any current musicians who you can listen to and
say “Hey! she’s doing stuff that I was doing!” Or have you
been sampled, have you heard your work on something recently
and said “Hey, somebody sampled—that’s my line there.”
UJ: If you listen to radio, at the rhythm and blues stations,
you hear it every day, all day. All the new stuff is sampled.
You hear a lot of my sampled stuff. I can’t name the different
tunes, but samples, there’s lot of it.
EW: Same with me.
RB: Everybody has the same experience?
EW: Oh yes, it’s all out there, because you know, it was
Motown stuff. Everything Motown’s got out there’s been sampled.
Far as the music and stuff like that.
RB: You said that you were studying classical. What, exactly,
do you think classical means today? I mean I look back at
this music that I heard all my life, that I grew up on, raised
my kids on, that my parents were playing around the house,
and that I play around the house. That’s classical to me.
BB: That’s great. That’s great. I’m glad you said that. Well,
to me classical has always been symphony type music, but through
the years now the music as time goes by, they’re referring
to that as classical—or classic. Classic or classical music.
But I think the definition is a little different, when I say
classical, when I talk about Beethoven or Bach or somebody
like that. But classical has taken on another meaning right
now, another definition. As far as the classic tunes, Motown
tunes are classic tunes without a doubt.
RB: Classic tunes that everybody builds on, you know,
in the way that classical music used to build on folk melodies
that people would then, composers would then take and put
into their composition. Like… the Hungarian man whose name
just slipped completely out of my mind…
RB: Right. Liszt.
BB: He’s my idol. I’ve got his statue, his face in the bedroom.
When I wake up I see him.
JA: Do you really?
BB: Right away, yeah I do. I got into him big-time, because
he was—in the movie when you talk about Jamerson and how he
was fearless and he was adventurous and he had this freedom
that he played and Liszt to me was the same way. When I listen
to him, he was fearless and he went and tried to break new
ground, barriers, with his music. And you know a lot of times
people have a hard time accepting that, but thank God that
those particular people, like I said, Jamerson and Liszt got
accepted. Because it would have been, might have been a dull
boring world without them.
RB: I actually read a short story just a little while
ago, and this is just a digression, but this was a short story
in a book that was called something like Elvis Is The King,
and they posited that when he was born, instead of Elvis surviving,
his twin Jesse had survived, and grown up to be an opera star.
And so the world of the 1990s was people were still wearing
white buck shoes and the sweaters and had their Eisenhower-type
hair and everything and all the teenagers in America were
crazy for opera, and there had never been rock ’n’ roll.
BB: That happened in Europe like that. The people used to
walk around wearing long coattails and suits and shirts and
ties all the time, and that was their music. I went on a tour
over there, in the ’70s, I think it was Germany, and we got
in the cab, and they were playing symphonic music. And one
of the guys in the band said, “Can you change the station
and play something like Motown, or get a station—anything
beside that?” And the guy was insulted. He said, “This is
our music.” So it’s like that still.
RB: Wow. [turns to JA, who has just finished his lunch]
So I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to ignore y’all, but I see you’ve
been working with it over there while we were talking. Have
you heard any of your things sampled, and who are you listening
to? Whose music are you listening to these days?
JA: I just listen to jazz basically. Some of the vintage
jazz, and as far as the sampling, you hear it all the time.
Because you only deal with so much music, so many chords,
so many beats. And so it isn’t really anything new coming
out, to me. But I appreciate it all. I really do. I appreciate
it all, because anybody that can perform, they don’t have
to conform to what I think they should be playing. Just play.
It’s an expression. I enjoy it.
RB: In the movie that came out, some of the interviews—y’all
were all listening to jazz, and still going to jazz clubs
to play in the evenings and you really didn’t’ have an idea
of how the music and the recordings that y’all were working
on were just taking the world by storm. You didn’t have like,
kids or relatives who were like, “Wow! Y’all swing! You’re
JA: Well you always get that from your family because of
the fact that you’re related. But after a certain point, we
knew what we were doing, as far as setting a bar. We knew
it because to be on top, you got to have a certain arrogance
about yourself to be the champ. So we would lay something
down and say, “Let ’em get to that,” or one of them things,
you know. I know I did. Because when I did “War” with Edwin
Starr, I did a little pickup thing with the tambourine,
they haven’t gotten it yet. You know how old that record is.
And the bass player, M’shell (Ndege’Ocello)
asked me, “How did you do that?” And I tried to show her,
but of course she’d never get it. And we used to do that,
you know. I’m sure when Eddie was playing those licks he say,
“I’m going to make something so funky it’ll be rancid by the
time they try to get to it.” You know, and it was, because
some of his licks are legendary. And Uriel does a pickup right
now, Uriel does a pickup I never hear anybody do. He does
like a triplet—boogedy boogedy boogedy boogedy boo—they don’t
do that. When I hear that on any record, he’s the only guy
that does that. Am I right? He’s the only guy does that triplet
pickup. And I heard him do that in the ’60s. No one’s got
to it yet. So you know, you put something in and say, “Well
they’ll never get this.” Because you’re strong, you’re winning.
Just like, can you picture Mohammed Ali selling roses.
Naw. He had to talk about knocking suckers out. And so he
had to be arrogant. They didn’t like him for his arrogance,
but he was still knocking people out.
BB: Well Jack I don’t think, maybe you felt like you were
arrogant, but what I felt was that that was you.
JA: Attitude. That’s the word.
BB: Yeah. It’s a positive attitude and you feel confident.
Confidence has a lot to do with it. And also it was a natural
thing to me—
JA: I was breaking new territory with that tambourine.
BB: That’s, right, that’s what you were going to do anyway.
It’s just a natural thing that’s coming out of you. And then
maybe it comes out a little different today than it came out
yesterday. But that’s part of the whole growing and the progression
of yourself as a musician.
RB: Do you have a particular piece, a particular recording,
like he was talking about where you would do something and
say like, “Now let’s see ’em top that?” Do you have something
you feel “This was my best day’s work as a musician”?
EW: Yeah. I have to say it was Gladys Knight, “Friendship
Train.” You know. What I had in mind, it was like, I always
listened to Jabbo… with James Brown, you know, played
the horn, not the drummer…
RB: Maceo Parker?
EW: Yes. Yes. I loved his solo work. And while working in
clubs I kind of practiced that to do it on the guitar, to
do it my way. And so I worked on it long enough to get where
I could do with it and I decided to put in on “Friendship
Train” with Gladys Knight, because I did have that freedom.
I had a chord sheet all right but I had freedom, you know?
And that’s what I put on “Friendship Train,” a feeling like
Maceo’s tenor horn. I did it on the guitar, my way. That’s
how it came about. I felt like it was some of my best work
I did, I can tell you that.
RB: How about you? Do you have something that stands out
in your mind…
UJ: Yeah, I think I would put on there “Cloud Nine,” The
Temptations’ “Cloud Nine”. That was one of my favorite
sessions. Seems like I just remember the whole session.
RB: What do you remember about the session?
UJ: How it was two different drummers, was two drummers on
it and how they had to do it in somewhat sections, then put
it all together.
RB: Who else was drumming on “Cloud Nine”?
UJ: Spider… what was Spider’s name?
JA: Spider Turner.
UJ: Spider Turner.
RB: And there’s congas on “Cloud Nine” too.
UJ: Yeah. Yeah that was Eddie “Bongo” Brown.
RB: Who is now no longer with us. One thing I really wondered
about in the film, and one thing that was really amazing to
me and to most people was the scene where—and I can’t remember
which gentlemen said it—but there was a session, people showed
up to work for the session, and there was a sign on the door.
Okay. That’s kind of cold, you know.
EW: It was hurting. It was hurting, you know? It was kind
of frightening. It was a frightening thing, you know? Because
this load has been dropped on you, just pounced on you. And
you go to the studio and see this sign hanging up there saying
there’s no work, you know. You can’t explain that [feeling]
really, because this is our livelihood, we thought, was going
to be forever, on and on and on. And somebody drop a load
on you like that, to say well “We’re going to L.A. or wherever,
and there won’t be any work here today,” but I thought, “All
the equipment’s gone so it won’t be no work coming back here
tomorrow!” That was my thought. And it was just devastating
RB: What’d you do after they [Motown] moved to L.A.?
EW: Well, I—I went to L.A. I stayed about six months. And
I was doing well. I was doing pretty good. I came back to
Detroit and started working, started where I left from. In
the nightclubs, you know. Doing what sessions were around
at the time in other studios, just like we were doing that
anyway. We were doing Motown and sneaking in doing other sessions.
And that’s, I continued doing that when I came back to Detroit.
And it gave me a little bit of hope. “Here’s something going
on, so you can make some money,” you know? But that was the
biggest source, was Motown.
RB: Wow. What did you do after they moved?
UJ: I just started jobbing around the city. And before they
moved I was jobbing anyway, you know, in studios and working
the city, so I just kind of scaled up, shift gears with the
RB: How about you?
BB: I just moved to the East Coast and pursued the recording
thing out there. But with some producers that had come into
Detroit and used us in the outside sessions.
JA: When Motown closed? I went to the South, Memphis, Tennessee.
Well, no I’m sorry, went to California first and worked with
Whitfield Records with Norman Whitfield. And then I
left there and went to Memphis, Tennessee. Tried to catch
a fragment of whatever was left of the recording industry.
Because it was in transition, all strictly disco and they
had so many mechanical devices out there, electronic equipment
until it was just neutralizing the studio musician. I wasn’t
the only one suffered. Any guy who used the studio as a way
of living was out there trying to find his way, you know.
Everyone was affected by it. And it’s never really come back.
I think it’s still the same way.
BB: That’s right. Somewhere around 1980—I was living in the
East Coast—they had a funeral for disco in downtown New York.
The thing about the disco thing was, it wasn’t the greatest
music in the world but it was another form of music. You had
your R&B, you had jazz, you had rock ’n’ roll, you had
Latin music, you had country music, and now you had disco
music. So there’s a lot of work now, right? But when they
had this funeral, next thing I knew, not only did they cut
a lot of artists from the record companies, downsized their
artists, they became aware of one-man bands. Keyboard players
started to get drum machines and I, first I tried to get a
part of it. I went out, because I played a little bit of keyboards,
to buy a bass Moog to offer them. No good. They wanted the
keyboard player to do the bass part too. So that’s when the
music business to me started really falling apart. As a result
it’s a matter of time. When even the musicians who were busy
in New York in the ’70s, by the middle ’80s it was gone. Everything
started to become like a synthesized, robot… what we used
to call in New York, “the giant toy.” And it was sad because
you saw drummers go, you saw bass players go. You saw string
players go. Then they started getting horn sounds. Then it
seemed to me the only guys that were working were some of
the guitar players. And they never saw a full session. They’d
go in and overdub. They’d be overdubbing to somebody playing
synthesizers and stuff. Then when they figure out how the
guitar sounds, they got rid of those guys too.
RB: Between the infamous sign on the door and the story
that someone also told in the film about someone being paid
extra to spy on people going to other sessions, it kind of
reveals Motown as, shall we say, a less-than-benign employer.
I’m wondering, back in the day, did y’all have agents or artists
representatives? Were you in unions?
UJ: We was in the union, but we didn’t have no agency.
JA: No we had no agency.
RB: Nobody had, nobody was represented?
JA: Well the industry was still young then, remember. Only
ones that had agents was the singers. Those type of performers.
But the musicians, we, all musicians played a supporting act,
support the singers or the ones out front. That’s just the
way it was. Then, we didn’t think about it anyhow. Even if
there was an agent available, I wouldn’t really believe that
he would’ve been able to come up into Motown, organize the
guys to defect or to go into a bargaining position. I really
don’t think so. You get kind of complaisant when you get paid
regularly. I was more of a pioneer because I said “Berry’s
making it. I can make it.” So that’s why I started the individual
thing going with my own record company. But there was no one
to do that as such, you know.
RB: So when y’all were making the film did you meet up
with people, admin-type people from Motown? I mean you must’ve
had, the producers must have had a great deal of cooperation
from Motown considering the music list within the film. Did
you meet up with folks you hadn’t seen in years?
JA: I always say, and I’ll preface all of those answers with,
we never received a Christmas card. Ever. That was the end
of that. I got one from Earl one time, from the Funk
Brothers I received cards. We took care of each other, but
other than that [chuckles]
EW: Never. Never. Like you said, I never got a card from
no artists, as well as I knew them. They were just, like we
are to each other—
JA: They stuck together.
EW: And we never received not even a… nothing.
BB: I start to wonder about maybe the reason that happens,
because that happened to me even after Motown, working for
certain people. The only way I got a Christmas card was if
I sent one first. Then I got one. And I started to wonder,
think about it. I don’t think they wanted to get a close relationship.
With you, as you being a musician. For some odd reason, they
didn’t want that. That kind of closeness. It doesn’t make
sense, but that’s, you’re not family to them.
RB: Is that a typical musician thing, do you think? I’m
a film editor for the magazine so my background is more in
film and I know that in film for example you’ll have this
director and she wants that director of photography or something.
Is it just a different world in music?
UJ: No I don’t think it’s so much it’s a different world
in music. I mean as far as Motown, you mean? Oh yeah, it was
certainly producers that came around, they wanted certain
musicians. If they couldn’t get those musicians, they would
cancel sessions sometimes, until they could get the Funk Brothers.
Some people came from out of town, the producers of stuff
up with Motown stayed in different cities. But they came to
town for the session and if they couldn’t hook that session
up, they’d cancel it. If they couldn’t get in the next day
or something, they’d go back to wherever city they’d come
from and make an arrangement to come back another day. There
was certain musicians that they wanted and that was the only
way they was going to cut, was with the Funk Brothers.
RB: So how long have y’all been touring with the movie?
EW: Umm… he might could tell you.
JA: For the last at least… within the last 60 days we started
to go out promoting the movie, since, you know, they started
doing the premieres. And so it’s been picking up in intensity
of course. Because next month, the second of November, we’ll
be leaving for New York City and we’ll be out until the fifteenth
of the month. Philadephia, Baltimore, Washington, New York,
RB: And have y’all been doing performances like you all
did last night at the Paramount Theatre, or is that unusual?
UJ: Not all of them.
JA: We only did three.
UJ: This is the third one.
EW: This is the third one, here in Austin.
RB: Have y’all had any sense of the audiences at your
JA: Come back again with that.
RB: I just wondered if you had had a sense of what the
demographic was for your audiences. Was it like young people,
middle-aged people, older people?
JA: It’s been a mixture of everybody. You know, industry
people, things like that. It’s just been a good cross-section
of a lot of, when you say young people I’m thinking you’re
RB: Like those kids who were here.
JA: Some of that. It’s building. The intensity is building.
The interest, I think, is building. Because people are becoming
aware. And then you know, something else, you know, by being
the type of people humans are, they like to do things that’s
hip. What’s in. I think the in thing is becoming to be to
know about the Funk Brothers. Fortunately for us. Because
we’re being discovered. After all of our contributions, people
are discovering who we are. And so it’s in to say “I met the
Funk Brothers” or “I saw a Funk Brothers thing” and people
say, “Oh yeah, man!” And I think it’s building like that.
I think within six months it’ll be the fever pitch, really.
RB: Does it feel nice now to go out—I mean before, you
were playing and people didn’t even know people were playing
any music behind the singers to hear them tell it. And now
you have this adulation. How is that?
EW: I’m up on a cloud. I really, I truly am. For instance,
like last night. The best feeling I got was… the feedback,
you know when we were watching the movie, the feedback, the
little funny things that was funny, the little things that
were really kind of touching, you know, the feedback I got
off of that, it made me feel so good. I mean really. That
they’re discovering something I did so many years ago. I’ve
been in a cloud ever since this thing started, like we started
this tour of advertisement. These guys can explain better
than me, because I feel so good I think, my feeling, I can’t
explain it, really. I just up in the clouds, and wondering
“Is this real?” And I’ve got to know it’s real, because it’s
there, we did it. I think I’ll just sit back and wait to see
RB: Okay. How about you?
UJ: Well, I think what makes me feel good about the movie
is the people that, you know, acceptance that we’re getting
from the audiences and people, it make me feel good because,
for the simple reason that the movie shows, what’s showed
in there is nothing added, fake, or phony. Everything in that
movie is all original stuff, you know? It’s nothing added
to dramatize it or nothing like that. So with the movie so
true to form, that’s what really makes me feel good, when
people really accept it like they are.
RB: And y’all?
BB: Well the thing that gets me is to watch the response
from, well people like you. And you can just see it. See the
look on your face. You can feel it. And that’s a great reward.
And I’m really happy that the names are finally associated
with the music.
RB: Yeah. I mean it is a wonderful film, and the music,
the combination of the music and the film is so great, like,
I was sitting down front last night and we were all kind of
hanging together until they played “What’s Going On?” and
then everybody was, like [sniffles loudly], you know? It was
like, “Awww,” you know? “Can’t hold it back anymore.”
JA: Well we’re the same way. Every time they get to “Ain’t
No Mountain High Enough” it’s hard for me to keep a tear back.
Because, obvious reasons. But you know, like I say, it brings
a little closure for me because after all these years to say
“Well, now we’ll be immortalized.” And that’s a great feeling,
because a lot of people can’t ever say that in their lifetime.
And my grandkids and all of that—which I have a few now—will
be able to look back and see what PopPop has done, you know.
And it’s just nice. If no more than just those people in my
own family. The rest of the people, okay. I know they’ll come.
But it’s getting to the point now, I’m beginning to believe
EW: That’s what I’m saying.
BB: It’s hard. It’s like you’re up here. A musician’s life’s
got so many ups and downs, a rollercoaster. I keep waiting
for [makes tumbling gesture with hands], it’s going to come
down [laughs]. But you know what? Life goes on. And we’re
here and I know we’re all thankful to be here. And what we
can get anything out of this, hopefully it won’t happen to
another, a similar situation down the line where somebody
will have to go all their life wondering if anybody’s going
to ever know what they did. And I’m speaking about everybody
involved. The one’s that aren’t with us here now and the ones
that are still fortunate to be here. And it’s a great feeling.
RB: Thank you all very much.