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Uriel Jones

Interview by Sean Mitchell // February 02 2009
Uriel Jones

Motown had a school within itself. They had a school to train your voice. They had schools to even train the women how to walk, how to talk, how to eat, how to everything. They call that “artist development.”

As Jill, Jayson, or anyone who has sat and talked with me for a couple minutes can attest to, I am a talker. You could be falling out of your chair, passed out bored, and I will keep yapping. It’s just my nature. There isn’t much that can shut me up, other than when I fall asleep, and even then I am pretty sure I keep flapping my gums. Therefore, it would seem fitting that I end the Legends Edition series of The Black Page with the only guy on the face of the planet who has left me speechless. I have sat face to face with some of my biggest heroes and talked drums, but to sit and talk with Uriel Jones is to truly be in the presence of greatness. I won’t even attempt to list his credentials; that is something you really need to make part of your own education. Needless to say, I was completely honored to sit and talk with a great man. Uriel is truly a legend above legends. He helped define not only a genre of music, but a musical movement in the global consciousness-- one that I feel has contributed in one way or another to the incredible events we now witness with the election of President Obama. Uriel helped give our world the music of his culture and made it something so beautiful that generations to follow will now have not only a musical standard by which to aspire to, but a standard by which to live.



How did it happen that two drummers playing different parts of the kit came to be the norm on Motown records?

The first time it happened was when Stevie [Wonder] came in the studio with a tune. Stevie was the type of player, he could play drums, y’know, but he played them so awkward and everything. We’d been playing all our lives and Stevie was a little kid when he started playing. We just couldn’t figure how he played it. If you looked at him play, he looked so unorthodox. So he came in the studio with this tune, and he wanted this certain beat on the tune. He had practiced the beat that he wanted himself. Benny Benjamin was at the session, and I was there, y’know.

So Benny played [Stevie’s groove] and Benny kept saying, “Man, I can’t do that.”

And Stevie says, “Okay, Uriel, come on.” And I try and I can’t do it.

He said, “I’ll tell you what. Benny, you do this [part], alright? Uriel you do this part.” So we did it and it came together.

But the funny thing about it is after we did it, he erased it and played his own stuff because we didn’t have it on there exactly like he wanted it. That’s how, honest to God, he would pick out some of the rhythms he played. Man, it’s just... if you tried to play it, you’d get all mixed up, man. We don’t know how he did it, but that’s when you start with two drummers. And then Norman Whitfield came along, especially with “Cloud Nine”. After that they really used a lot of drummers- - on “Cloud Nine,” “Ball of Confusion” and all that stuff in that era. But when we were using two drummers, people didn’t know it outside the studio. And you had people doing Motown tunes. Drummers, they were going crazy. (laughs) They couldn’t play it till eventually they figured out we were using two drummers, and they were trying to play by themselves what two drummers were playing. They were knockin themselves out! (laughs)

Is it possible that we will ever see an era like Motown again?

The gap is so wide now between good stuff from the heart and what they’re doing now. It’s gonna take a lot to close that gap. I don’t know how long it’s going to take to close that gap, but thanks to young guys coming along, that’s gonna be a big help. We’re gonna need that to close that gap up. It needs to be closed up, if not completely, because this stuff now has so much money in it. It’s so hard, you know. It’s going to be hard. Somebody’s got to come up with some real classics to knock that out of the box.

Who developed the parts for those classic Motown songs?

You know, a lot of the writers and producers and artists, they relied on the Funk Brothers a lot. They came in there sometimes with just a lead sheet, just some chords on there. And usually if a certain producer would come in there with a tune for a certain person, it depended on what the [last] big hit was, we knew just about what they [wanted]. So sometimes they would just have us vamping and vamping, on the same thing, going over. You vamp so long, and somebody might just say, “Do something different.”

And they say, “Oh yeah, that’s good. Keep that in there.”

So after you do around 10 takes or so, the whole tune would consist of “keep that in there.” (laughs) We see a lot of times the musicians will arrange it. Every now and then someone would come down there with a full arrangement, like Ashford and Simpson—when they did their stuff they got full arrangements. The Temptations sometimes had full arrangements. Gladys Knight, she always had full arrangements.

What made Motown fade away as a popular form of music?

Well, I believe if Berry [Gordy] would’ve stayed in Detroit and went that same avenue I think he would still be putting out real good music. Like our group that we got now is just three original Funk Brothers, but we got a 13 piece group, you see. And these guys, we have groomed them so hard to sound just like the 13 musicians that were originally at Motown.

But if Berry would’ve stayed there, I don’t know if it would’ve still been going, but I think it would’ve been going on much longer than it did. But what took him to Hollywood basically is he was getting into movies. That’s what really took him from Motown. And then when he couldn’t get everything to go with him from Detroit, it just lost the sound. See for month’s after they went to California, for almost a year, they were sending masters back for us to overdub them, trying to keep it going as long as they could. But eventually it just…y’know. You send a tune back, you got all the same musicians except one musician, and you bring it back for that one musician to try and do it, it won’t work. (laughs) You gotta have the whole Funk together.

What do you listen to?

The older stuff. The tunes the artists are singing now, the lyrics are not the same. Back then, y’know, the lyrics really meant something. It was a lifestyle to some, just like Marvin [Gaye]’s stuff. All that stuff he did has something to do with his family, his wife, his kids, and everything. When you sing about yourself or the people around you, you put more of your heart into it. Now…I don’t know. The singers [are] all the same. You hear this big name, you never heard him or seen him before, and in a week he’s a millionaire.

Back then, artists came up step-by-step. When they got to the top, they stayed up there, y’know, because they were good. Motown had a school within itself. They had a school to train your voice. They had schools to even train the women how to walk, how to talk, how to eat, how to everything. They call that “artist development.” When they sent acts out on the road, all the acts were groomed. They knew how to go with people, sit down and talk to people, how to act, and you didn’t hear too much about Motown artists doing this or doing that. Every now and then you would, but, y’know, it was a big family thing.

Back in the day, who were some of your favorite Motown artists to play with? Well, my favorite was Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder—Marvin Gaye especially. I was in his first band. That’s when he had “Hitch Hike,” “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” all that stuff. And I was with Stevie’s first band. And then I always loved The Four Tops ‘cuz we all came up together.

Where did the nickname “Possum” come from?

All of the Funk Brothers had nicknames for one another. James Jamerson, the bass player, he called me “Possum”. He’s the one who named me Possum. The funny thing about it, my neighbor across the street from me, he’s a white guy, y’know, so you don’t call no black guy a possum. (laughs)

So I was sitting on my porch one day, my neighbor’s a cool guy, he’s riding in the truck, and he goes, “Hey, Possum!”

I say (mimics a tough guy voice), “What did you say?”

He says, “I saw the movie! I saw the movie!” And I say, “Oh, okay.” (laughing)

Back in the Motown era, what was it like to be creating that music, to be living in that time?

When we came in the studio, it was just like, “This is a job for us, when we get there then we go to our gig and have fun,” you know what I’m talkin’ about? So it was just a job, and for years it didn’t phase us—how strong that stuff was affecting the country. Because when we listened to the radio, we listened to jazz stations; we weren’t listening to no rhythm and blues, so we really didn’t know what was going on until I gradually came down on it and I said, “Oh, looky here!” But, had we known then what we know now, we’d all be rich.

But we were content with what Berry was paying. After we got away from that ten-dollars-a-tune stuff, he was treating us pretty good. We all lived a good life. But had we known then what we know now, yeah, we didn’t know it was so powerful. And I never, never, never thought that this would happen— what’s happening to us now since the [Standing in the Shadows of Motown DVD]. I thought when Motown left in ’72, we’d just shift gears into working more nights in clubs. Everybody split up. Funk Brothers, they left, y’know. Everybody went to different cities. Out of 13 of us, 3 of us are now travelling, one is in Mississippi, one is in Nashville, and I’m still in Detroit.

What has changed for you since the release of Standing in the Shadows of Motown?

It’s really different. When the guy came up to do the movie with us, it took him 11 years to get funding to do the movie. A lot of the guys hadn’t played their instruments for 10 or 15 years! And, y’know, Allan [Slutsky] was always calling the guys saying, “Hey man, y’know, we’re getting close. Your chops up?”

And everybody says, “Oh yeah, man. We’re working our butts off.”

They weren’t working worth hell! So when he called, “Hey, man, I got the money,” a couple musicians would say, “Ah hell.” (laughs) They hadn’t been playing. I never did stop playing.

The surprising thing was when we got together and started rehearsing, in about 3 or 4 days, it just all came together. The guy [interviewing us] heard us rehearsing and he said, “Man, you know it seems when Motown left they took you guys and froze you. And after 25, 30 years, they unthawed you guys and it was still there.”

But we were scared as hell though, man! We didn’t know Motown stuff for 20 or 25 years. Our guitar player that’s working with us now, he hadn’t played his guitar for 17 years. And another guitar player Joe Messina, he hadn’t picked his up in 20 years. But that’s why I said back then musicians were different than the ones now ‘cuz a lot of musicians that are on the records coming out now, they’re not musically educated at all.

You know, a guy going into the basement with a keyboard and comes out with a record? (laughs) It’s really different. That’s why it makes it different in the musicians back then, when they were groomed musicians and they stayed groomed. To look at those guys playing, y’know, their chops and stuff, they [had guys doing] amazing stuff, man. They were doing it, y’know. It’s amazing. I guess it’s just like it’s a certain era that mattered, that groomed so many of these musicians like all the jazz guys. Detroit had so many jazz giants, it’s ridiculous!

In the city of Detroit, some of the high schools are beginning to turn out some good young musicians now. They’re all musically educated. That’s what we’re gonna need to change this music. So, it’s up to you guys, man.


Uriel Jones: June 13, 1934 - March 24, 2009 



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About the Author
Sean Mitchell

Sean Mitchell has been an active participant in the drumming industry for over 20 years. He has studied under Crash Test Dummies drummer Mitch Dorge and Drumming's Global Ambassador Dom Famularo. Sean is also a songwriter and regularly performs with his wife (and singer) Jill Mitchell. Sean proudly endorses Aquarian Drumheads.

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