By Melody Berger for Tom Tom Magazine
Even if you haven’t heard of Bobbye Hall, you’ve heard Bobbye Hall. Growing up in Detroit, she started recording uncredited on Motown albums in her early teens. Since then she has played with a wide array of notables including: Bob Dylan, Bill Withers, Carole King, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Stevie Nicks, Tracy Chapman, Jerry Garcia, Tom Petty, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Pink Floyd, The Doors — the list goes on and on. Primarily a studio musician, Hall has lent her hand percussion talents to 22 songs that have reached the top 10 in the Billboard Hot 100, six of those reaching #1.
We first got in touch with Ms. Hall for this issue because she’s worked with country greats Dwight Yoakam, Dolly Parton, and Kris Kristofferson. But, really, we’re honored to include her in any issue, any time. She’s been a huge part of American music history. We here at Tom Tom don’t like to bandy about the term “living legend,” but sometimes it’s just the only thing that fits.
Name: Ms.Bobbye Hall
Hometown: Detroit, MI
Lives in: Los Angeles, CA
Drum Set Up: Custom design by MBH / GON BOP, Premiere, Yamaha, Timbales, range-6″-16,”assorted
Cymbals: Zildjian, 6”- 9″ bell-Crash 18″- 22″ Assorted stands, GON BOP
Hand Percussion: Bongos, congas, cowbells,Tambourines, djembes, marimbas UDOS, triangles, shakers, gourds, gongs, cuíca, Kalimba, ugg-Lugs, custom effects made by MBH
Hardware: Rhythm Tech, LP
Fav Band: Miles Davis, “Kind Of Blue”
Fav Food: Alaskan King Crab Sushi
Tom Tom Magazine: You grew up in Detroit and people like Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson were your neighbors. What was it like to start your career in that kind of environment?
Bobbye Hall: I happened to be in the right place at the right time when that light shined upon me. My mother said that I had a dream. I would play on her pots and pans, I’d beat on the garbage cans in the alley. I’d whack on them with sticks and my hands or whatever. I didn’t talk very much as a child. Mama’s baby, only child, my mother did all the talking. I just picked up the drums and that’s where I spoke from.
I was a prodigy. My mother took me to the Detroit Institute and after they interviewed me and I played for them they said, “Mrs. Hall, your daughter just needs to play. We don’t want to disturb that.” I’ve always had this yearning to play, to learn, to study. And that’s what I do now. I’m better at that than I am mostly anything else. I feel better when I’m playing on something.
You were discovered playing at the local sock hop?
I was playing the teen hop downstairs at the 20 Grand and upstairs were the adults with the alcohol and stuff. The acts in the main room included the heart of the Motown roster, people like The Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Diana Ross and the Supremes. And a producer named Paul Riser saw me and he just sort of wooed my mother, “please let her come down!” So I got to record with all those guys. And it was really funny because he’d have to come pick me up because I didn’t drive.
Of course not, you were just a kid!
He’d pick me up and take me to the studio. And my mother would kiss me in front of everyone!
As you continued on with your career you made such inroads for women, playing in a male dominated field…
And I’m a studio musician, so I’m not just another pretty face out there. I’m behind the scenes creating the product before it hits the street. At one time I represented five minorities. They are waning since then. I was just being me: a black American woman, single mom, female drummer —which is, in the union, I represented less than half of a percent of women in the union — I was a self-employed contractor, and a property owner. Those were all minorities back in the day. I hate to use that line “back in the day.” I have a past!
Ha! Well, speaking of “back in the day” you picked up the Ms. moniker at the height of the feminist movement in the states right when it was becoming a thing.
I’ll tell you who gave me that! Carole (King) says to me “Bobbye, what do you want to be known as? Bobbye Hall from Detroit? How about Ms. Bobbye Hall?” And I said, “Great!” and then we went on stage. Because Carole would go out and she would play piano and I would come after her and we’d play piano and percussion. And she would say, “I’d like to introduce you to my percussionist, Ms. Bobbye Hall!” And that’s how I became Ms. Bobbye Hall.
Because “Bobby Hall” sounded so generic and male-dominant. When I changed the spelling to “ye” just before I came to LA it was specifically done so I knew “me.” So I was sort of pre-planning the fact that maybe one day I might see my name in lights. It distinguished me at that point. It gave me a body, it gave me a soul. With a name like Bobbye Hall, in Europe they knew I was a black woman. In the US they thought I was a white male.
You’ve played on so many hit recordings, can you tell when something is going to be huge? Or vice versa, are there times when you think something is going to be huge and it’s a flop or you’re in the studio thinking, well, this isn’t going to go over well and it ends up being incredibly popular?
I’d like to give you this kind of an answer. I don’t want to seem too boastful, but when I get the call that’s when I say: it’s going to be huge. I prepare myself for that. I come from platinum and gold. That’s what my purpose is in the studio, is to create that platinum and gold. That’s what I do. I’m more of a studio musician than I am a stage performer. However, this is part of my philosophy I guess, if I don’t play on it, if I don’t record it, if my DNA is not a part of that baby when it hits the street then I really don’t want to be called. I don’t play other people’s music. I play the music that I’m called to do. And that’s how I built my career, on that understanding.
There was a time when out of the top 10 on Billboard consecutively I was in that category, somewhere, for 10 years straight. It was that much work done in the studio back in those days. I would be working 24/7.
Yeah, it is. And I was the only girl in the studio. So, that was even more amazing. And people did not know what I did. When I came home my neighbors would tell me, “Oh man, did you hear the Marvin Gaye thing? Did you hear the James Taylor thing?” And I would just say, “Oh, really?” It was my way of saying to myself, “I’m ok.” Because where do I go, who do I ask? I had to create something for me to say “I’m ok.”
You were in the studio with Janis Joplin the day that she died. Could you tell me about that night?
(Her voice gets very quiet and somber.) We were at a place called Sunset Sound on Sunset Blvd. I recorded with Bill Withers there and Dylan, quite a few other people. Anyway, it was on a weekend after midnight and Paul Rothchild called me and he says, Bobbye, I need you to come down now, and I said ok, I’m on my way. And that’s a tip, that’s my “A list” tip and that’s: always be available. Because if you don’t take the call then they’ll get someone else. When I went down she was sitting there behind the console. And I couldn’t get my equipment! In Hollywood you have a service that will carry your gear for you, and I couldn’t get anyone on the phone. So, I sat next to her and we stayed at the session until daylight and we all went home, and I was supposed to come in the next day — and that was the night she died. I got the call that she had passed away. Then the following weekend I did, at another studio, Ocean Way, I did what I call my only “wake recording.” And I asked him out of respect for her, Janis, that we turn the lights out. And I played. She was a very sensitive person.
That’s quite a story.
I did get to meet her and talk to her, but then she moved on.
How about something a little more upbeat. What was it like recording with Dolly Parton?
Oh, she’s just this petite, tiny woman who is just beautiful. The pictures don’t do her justice. And when I worked with her at The Hit Factory she brought fried chicken. So, when I met her I felt like I was coming into her house because I’ve eaten at a studio before but never on my session! And she’s inviting me into the studio,’hey, how ya doing!’ and she’s got the fried chicken, it was just great. She had blue jeans on and this red and white checkered western shirt, I’ll never forget it. And she just looked so much like “Dolly Parton!” But she was just this little thing in person, and full of love.
Dolly Parton and fried chicken. The country issue is complete!
I very seldom get to work with women.
Is that why your entire crew is made up of women?
Yep! No testosterone!
Will you humor us with one more anecdote?
Well, I worked with Ray Charles at his studio. He’s sitting behind his board, and I’ve never seen a board like this before. There’s no markings on his board, what markings there are are in braille. And I’m looking around the room, at how different the studio is. There are windows in the studio! No one puts windows in a studio! They’re up high, they’re not where you can see people walking, but you can see the sky and lots of light in the room. Big huge room because he carries a big band. And he says to me, ‘I just want you to remember something, baby girl. I want you never to become plastic.”
And when he said that to me it was like, Oh my god, this man is reading my soul. And he can’t see me!
Do you have any parting words of wisdom to aspiring musicians out there?
To have music be your sole appointed income you have to be over the top driven. Because it’s not easy, it really isn’t — but it’s a beautiful life. On your down time you really have to be centered and you have to know and think about the next gig. ’Cause I’m the most hired and the most fired. Carnegie Hall today, unemployment tomorrow. When I go on a job, on a gig, on a session I am working my way out of that job when I leave there. It no longer exists. It’s a life-long dedication that I wouldn’t change one thing about. ’Cause I listen now on the radio and I just smile and I remember the whole scene, the whole recording, the whole studio experience comes alive again in me.