Funk Brothers emerge from the shadows

All Bob Babbitt wanted to do was fall into bed. He’d been up late playing bass with the Motown house band The Funk Brothers until the wee hours of the morning at a Detroit club, and the last thing he needed was for Berry Gordy, or his minions, to call him in for early-morning session work.

So, Babbitt called his wife from the club and told her to take the phone off the hook. Babbitt went home and crashed, but not long after, he awoke to a knock at the front door. It seems that Gordy had a job for him, and he wasn’t going to take “no” for an answer. “I looked out the window, and there was a cab driver standing in front of a taxi,” recalls Babbitt with a laugh.

It wasn’t unusual for the Funk Brothers to be summoned at such bizarre hours. To be on call — seven days a week, 24 hours a day — was just part of the job, something akin to production-line work they did willingly for not much money — $10 a song when all work on it was done — or public acclaim.

In fact, for years, the Funk Brothers’ work on a number of classic Motown recordings went uncredited on the actual releases. Their contributions remained mostly under wraps — except to those in the know — until the 2002 documentary film “Standing In The Shadows Of Motown,” based on the Allan Slutsky book, shed light on a musical collective that, incredibly, played on more #1 hits than anybody. That includes The Beatles, Elvis, the Beach Boys… anybody.

A new CD/DVD package from Eagle Rock Entertainment titled “Funk Brothers — Live In Orlando” aims to reveal to the world what R&B and soul magic the hard-working band could conjure onstage — something even fans of Motown’s golden age may never have witnessed.

Over the years, The Funk Brothers, formed in 1959 by Gordy from the best Detroit’s blues and jazz scene had to offer, have housed 77 different musicians.
 Three Funk Brothers — Babbitt, drummer Uriel Jones and guitarist Eddie Willis — performed together at the Orlando show that is the subject of the new DVD, delivering a tight, high-energy performance while  running through Hitsville classics such as “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “(Love Is Like A) Heatwave,” “Shotgun” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” with help from Donna Curtin, Delbert Nelson and Marcia Ware on vocals. Two other musicians with ties to the Funk Brothers, guitarist Ray Monette and drummer Spider Webb, play with the band on Live In Orlando.

As for getting the credit they deserved, Babbitt said that for a long time he — and most of the band — didn’t mind not being named as players on those records. “At that time, the guys were just glad to be working,” says Babbitt. “They weren’t concerned about credits. As the years went by, that’s when it began to catch up with them.” That would change later when prospective employers wanted to see his resumé.

Babbitt, who first played for the Funk Brothers between 1966 and 1972, before Motown moved to Los Angeles, was originally brought onboard to share session work with original Funk Brother James Jamerson, a member of the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame. Among the hits Babbitt was a part of were Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “The Tears of a Clown,” Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours),” “War” by Edwin Starr, “Ball of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today)” by The Temptations and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” by Marvin Gaye.

“I was happy to be a part of that,” says Babbitt, referring to his work on Gaye’s 1971 landmark LP What’s G

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