Funk Brothers to bring Motown to Ann ArborWritten by Vicki L. Kroll | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Babbitt remembers the first song he played bass on for Motown: Stevie Wonder’s cover of The Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out.”
He also was in the studio for Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” Edwin Starr’s “War,” Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “The Tears of a Clown” and a host of songs to come out of Hitsville USA in Detroit.
But Babbitt didn’t get credit for any of his thumping groove work until he strapped on his guitar for Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me” and “Inner City Blues” from the 1971 album “What’s Going On,” the first Motown record to give credit to the session musicians known as the Funk Brothers.
“You don’t think about it when you’re younger like that,” he said from his Nashville home. “I think what happened was when Motown left Detroit and the years went by, that’s when it starts to hurt the most because you hear stories about other people talking about how they played on the records, and you would tell people you played on some of the records and they would say, well, there’s no names, I don’t see your name, how do I know you’re telling me the truth? I ran into that a lot. People don’t believe you.
“That was one of the best things about the movie — some of the people who were claiming they played on records you didn’t see them in the movie.”
That movie was “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” a 2002 documentary directed by Paul Justman and based on Allan Slutsky’s book of the same name published in 1989. Slutsky’s book chronicled the life of Motown’s original bass player, James Jamerson, and the film spotlighted the players who crafted that Motown sound from 1959 to 1972.
“What people don’t realize is it took 11 years to find backers [for the movie]. Every time [Slutsky] made a presentation to somebody, they didn’t seem to care about the musicians; it was always, well, who’s the artist going to be? Is Stevie Wonder going to be there? Is Smokey going to be there? The Temptations? It was never the musicians; nobody seemed to care,” Babbitt said.
More people have taken note since the film came out. The Funk Brothers were invited to the White House in 2003 and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.
“When [the movie] came out, it was a great feeling,” Babbitt said. “I still didn’t believe it; I had to call the local show times to make sure it was being played: ‘Standing in the Shadows of Motown,’ 2 o’clock, 4 o’clock, 7:30 — OK!”
The remaining Funk Brothers reunited to tour to promote the movie.
“There’s three of us touring, doing some shows, some recording,” he said, adding a new CD and DVD, “Live in Orlando,” just came out.
The Funk Brothers — Babbitt, guitarist Eddie Willis and drummer Uriel Jones — will be joined by vocalists and musicians when they play the University of Michigan’s Power Center at 8 p.m. July 5. Tickets for the show, which is part of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, range from $28 to $48.
“Motown is its own thing; it has its own identity,” Babbitt said. “It’s a combination of the music, the songs — it’s timeless.”