SKF NOTE: In my Life Beyond the Cymbals post interview with Motown songwriter Brian Holland, I tell the back story of how tough it was, in the early 1980’s, for me to find information — especially reliable information — for my History of Rock Drumming series for Modern Drummer. That was especially true for Motown which, again, I spell out in my intro to Brian Holland’s interview.
My goal was straightforward: Who were the drummers on Motown’s records? Period. Today that info is well chronicled, although there may be missing pieces to the Motown puzzle. With that in mind, I decided to post verbatim, transcripts of my research intervews about Motown with key people. Maybe some Motown historian willl discover a new fact or the answer to a longstanding riddle.
This is my interview with recording engineer Tony Bongiovi. According to Mr. Bongiovi’s web site bio, “At the age of seventeen, while conducting experiments with equipment in his Raritan, New Jersey home, Tony Bongiovi discovered the secret to duplicating the well-guarded audio formula for the Motown Sound. After contacting Motown, his abilities so impressed Motown President Barry Gordy that Tony was flown between New Jersey and Detroit on a regular basis to engineer records for Motown greats such as Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Temptations, and other leading artists.”
In this interview, Bongiovi tells me, “I was at Motown from ’67 to ’70.” And he shares some great insight into Motown drummers, especially Benny Benjamin.
I admit I’ve forgotten how Tony Bongiovi and I connected for this interview. He designed and founded Power Station recording studio in New York City. I was spending a decent amount of time with drummer Max Weinberg when Bruce Springsteen was recording Born in the USA at the Power Station. In fact, I attended a couple of recording sessions with Max. I don’t remember meeting Tony Bongiovi, but it’s very possible Max — who loved the Motown drummers — deserves credit for my interview with Mr. Bongiovi.
Final note: This is a verbatim transcript. I may have left out some of my questions. That is, I might have asked to clarify something said. In the interest of time — because I always transcribed my own interviews — if I could leave out one of my questions without interrupting the flow of Mr. Bongiovi’s answers — I might have done so. That wasn’t always my practice. But it was sometimes. Also, this transcript has a Bongiovi reference to a Motown song, Agent Double-O Cool. As of this writing I cannot find that song. Maybe Mr. Bongiovi had the wrong song title or maybe I misunderstood him.
I thank Tony Bongiovi was sharing his knowledge with me.
Tony Bongiovi: The drummer who did the main stuff, most of the Supremes hits, and the records that they were famous for like Reach Out, and Smokey Robinson records, Ooh, Baby, Baby, and Can’t Hurry Love — the guy’s name was Benny Benjamin. He’s dead.
My stay at Motown was rather brief because I was working mostly on the production of records. I worked with the producers so I didn’t attend that many sessions. But I know there was Benny Benjamin, and then there was Uriel Jones, who played the stuff from the later 60’s. We did Love Child with Uriel. And a fellow named Pistol [Allen]. He played on Uptight. They’re all around there except for Benny.
When they played they used the traditional grip. One thing that was interesting about Benjamin, if you listen to the records, the drums have a pretty amazing sound — and it wasn’t because of the engineering at Motown. It was because of the way the drummers’ played.
If you walked about ten feet away from Benny, you couldn’t hear him anymore. He played accents, and he knew all of his rudiments. He applied all that knowledge — and he could read music. All of them could read music. All of them played with the Detroit Symphony at some point. They all had an amazing feel, and Benjamin had an amazing foot. He was the best around.
He played sort of backwards. He was a right-handed drummer and instead of leading with his right hand, he’d lead with his left hand. That’s why all the fills and stuff sound like they come in at weird times. That’s the style that he did.
He didn’t play very loud. None of them played real loud, but they played with a certain snap. When they use to hit the back beat, they would crack it in there. And they weren’t loud. None of them played overhead like today’s guys do. They bounced more. Today’s guys, from what I’ve seen in the studio, they lay into the beat more. They just whack it real hard. But those [Motown] guys sort of snapped it in. You could tell the difference.
Even when I was working out there [Detroit] and I use to come to New York. You know, who played like that too was Buddy Saltzman, who played all The Four Seasons records. He played the same same way as they [Motown’s drummers] did.
They didn’t have the muffling like they do today. And the drummers controlled the way it sounded themselves. We just stuck the microphone right in front of the bass drum and, depending on how he hit it, that’s what gave it that sound.
Scott K Fish: I’ve heard about West Coast players doing Motown sessions.
TB: They weren’t doing the original…. I’ll tell you right now. All the records that were done, the majority of hits that we know, were James Jamerson on bass, Uriel Jones, Earl Van Dyke, Robert White, James Giddens, and whoever played percussion just showed up. There was a vibes player from the Detroit Symphony who use to play.
I use to go into the tape library and pull the tapes and I know where the stuff was cut because it was written all over the tape. I know in New York they use to cut the discs here in the beginning, and then they got…. RCA in Chicago ultimately ended up cutting all the discs that came out. The mastering of the discs. One of the engineers from RCA helped them [Motown] build their studio in Detroit.
The musicians in Detroit were on some kind of a retainer. I know that. Most of the hits — like Mr. Postman and all those early records that were smashes — they were all cut in Detroit. Even Cool Jerk and Agent Double-O Cool [?] and The Platters’ record With This Ring — they were all cut in Detroit.
Bob Babbitt played bass on some of those records. There were a lot of hits where a lot of session players at Motown were moonlighting at a placed called the Golden World. It was the same rhythm section on those records too and it was all done out of Detroit. Some were done at Golden World.
But, I don’t believe this California bullshit. I just don’t, because I was there and I actually lived it. I wasn’t there that much, but I saw and I had access to all the tapes in the library. I use to go and pull some of the Mary Wells stuff. And it would say, Universal Recordings, Detroit, right on the box. Three track. Some of the stuff was four track.
I would pull the tapes and listen to them and see what they’d do on the earlier stuff. I’d be very skeptical of what they tell you in California. Even in New York, for that matter.
But New York, I would tend to think, would be a little more honest about it because they…. There wasn’t too much done here other than I remember The Supremes overdubbing in New York. And we did a Gladys Knight and the Pips record in New York live. But most of the serious records were done right there in Detroit.
When Benny died the rhythm section fell apart. I know Uriel Jones is selling aluminum siding or something like that. I was at Motown from ’67 to ’70. I use to pull the tapes and I could recognize different drummers right away. They all sounded different.
The Junior Walker records weren’t made with his band. That’s all Benny Benjamin. He was about 40 years old when he started doing this stuff. I guess he was in his 50’s when he died. He was a heroin addict. He died poor as shit.
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