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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 too.

EW: My name is Eddie. Eddie Willis. I play guitar. My first paying job that I could recall—

JA: Last night.

(all laugh)

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!

(all laugh)

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?

UJ: Umhmm.

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…

BB: Liszt.

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.

EW: Yeah.

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 awesome!”

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 to me.

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 nightclub dates.

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]

RB: No?

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, Detroit.

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 performances?

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 talking about…

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 what happens.

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 it.

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.

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