Saturday, August 8, 2009

Real Drama - Fender's Hall of Fame

I have a point to make about fiction writing, and I'll get to that point toward the end of this blog. But before I do I need to setup the event that leads me to my point.

It is a special day today at Fender Musical Instruments. Today is Fender's Hall of Fame induction ceremony. The event is held at the Tempe Center for Arts , a 600 seat performance theatre. This is the third year for this event

This year Mike Yamano and James Jamerson were inducted into the Hall of Fame.
I want to focus on the induction ceremony for James Jamerson to Fender's Hall of Fame.

If you don't know who James is then you will certainly know his Motown work. James was a bassist and a remarkable one at that. He is reported to have played on something like 95% of the Motown recordings between 1962 and 1968. A few examples are, "My Girl" by The Temptations, "For Once in my Life" by Stevie Wonder, "What's Going On" , "I heard it through the Grape Vine" by Marvin Gay, and earlier by Gladys Knight and the Pips. He also had a post Motown career playing on a number of hits in the seventies, eventually his bass playing was heard on more than 30 number 1 pop hit records.

The induction ceremony for James Jamerson was a moving and thought provoking presentation. It included a video featuring the likes of Grammy award winning bassist Marcus Miller (Luther Vandross / Miles Davis / David Sanborn), vocalist / bassist Geddy Lee (Rush), and others. They spoke from the heart about how James Jamerson influenced their work, and how James labored in obscurity through his life.

In those days little credit was given to studio musicians and for more than a decade James worked every day in anonymity. Eventually, in 1971 his name was printed on the sleeve of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. Years later, after he passed away more and more people became aware of the contributions to the music community he made.

Bob Babbitt was at the induction ceremonies today, Bob himself has played on over 200 top 40 records including Inner City Blues and Mercy Mercy Me by Marvin Gaye, Midnight Train to Georgia by Gladys Knight, Tears of a Clown by Smokey Robinson and much more.

Bob took the stage to talk about Mr. Jamerson's playing and the way James influenced generations of new bass players. During his talk, Bob would pause, perhaps being overcome by emotion. The house with hundreds in attendance would go completely silent.

At the beginning of this blog post I said it was a thought provoking event. The thoughts provoked don't have much to do with Fender or the inductees or the Hall of Fame event. But they do have a lot to do with the quality of storytelling and dramatic writing/acting that we are exposed to everyday.

We all have occasion to see a well done movie or television or theatre from time to time. But for me, after today it all just looks concocted and flat. Because today we were treated to the real thing. Real drama, real people , real events, real emotion. I'm not talking about "drama queen" drama. You know,, the daily BS that some people like to roll around in. I'm talking about the real thing.

It was Bob Babbitts talk regarding James Jamerson. As far as I know Bob's not an actor, nor does he play one on TV. He's just a regular guy who is speaking from the heart about a colleague. Bob's talk today makes the best movie drama you have ever seen look pale and dull and lifeless. Like comparing a real woman to a blow-up doll. It makes the best modern drams of today look like the worst dramas of the 30's and 40's.

When Bob first took the stage he mentioned he had thought about writing down what he was going to say. But when it came time to talk he just spoke from the heart.
Words came out that no writer would or could write. They flowed in a way that no actor could fake. The words were well measured and slowly metered out in a way no director concerned with moving the story forward would allow. The professionalism of the writers, actors, and directors would just get in the way. You might say, "Bullshit, I have seen emotionally moving scenes in movies". Yeah, we all have. But it is a matter of degree.

This was a huge reality check for a budding fiction writer (me). When Bob would get to the parts of his talk that were especially emotional or difficult he would pause, the tension in the room was real, hundreds of people wanting him to go on, hoping we would pull it together, no one knowing what to. As an audience member, I wondered, should we start some applause to give him some strength? I looked toward the band on the stage, were they thinking "should we start playing to break the silence? " Was the MC thinking "should I help?" The pause continues, the steady drone of the almost silent microphone buzz, moments passing, more moments. Bob is at the mic he backs away and takes a breath, steps forward again, then more silence, the quiet of the massive room.

Forget about cutting the tension with a knife, you'd need power tools.


  1. Chuck, Beautifully done. As Bob's brother, I will tell you that you captured the true heart, soul and love of Bob that he had for James and the other "Funk Brothers," Motown's group of back up musicians who played on more number one hits than the Beatles, Beach Boys, Elvis and the Rolling Stones combined!! Amazing fact!!
    Bob has always honored the memory and genius of James and the learnings he was blessed to gain from James. As for his true emotions, see the scene from the documentary Standing in The Shadows of Motown, about the then unknown Funk Bros, when he was asked by Meshelle Ndegeocello if he felt any bias toward him as a caucasian playing at Motown with mostly Afro American bros and trying to fill in for James. The scene was cited by some critics as the most emotional and meaningful moment of the film. Bob tried to answer Meshelle and after saying he was accepted and they were like brothers, he could not continue due choking over his emotional love of the bros. After Motown left Detroit, Bob went to NYC and recorded more artists’ hits than you can count on a calculator.
    I'm biased, but I know you captured my bro's true heart and soul. Thanks for the great post.

  2. ChuckK, thank you for the kind comments. Bob is a great guy.

    You should know that the guy's who played in the Hall of Fame band where thrilled to have Bob play bass in the band for a song. It just sounded fantastic!