Percussionist Bobbye Hall Is A Liner-Note Legend

Jan 9, 2015
Originally published on January 16, 2015 4:09 pm

All this week, Morning Edition is talking about drums and drummers. For the fifth and final installment in "Beat Week," Renee Montagne spoke with Mz. Bobbye Hall, a studio percussionist who has recorded with everyone from Bob Dylan to Carole King to Stevie Wonder.


Mz. Bobbye Hall is a liner-note legend. She plays the congos, bongos, triangles, tambourines — you name it — to give other people's music shimmer and life. Since becoming a studio musician as a kid in the '60s, she's played on a string of hits from Motown to L.A.

Hall's earliest memories are of creating rhythms any way she could.

"Beating on my mom's pots and pans — when I'd sit at the kitchen table to eat, I would rock my feet back and forth," Hall tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "And my mother would go, 'Baby, baby, baby, stop rocking. Be still. Hold still.' And I had a little pair of bongos from the downtown music store in Detroit, and that's how I started. Once I got the bongos, the drums were my voice."

A Motown producer discovered Hall at a sock-hop when she was about 11.

"He said, 'Bobbye, would you like to make a session?' And I said, 'Sure, what's a session?'" Hall says.

Besides the lady at the front desk, Hall was the only female at those sessions, surrounded by much older men.

"They became — every one of them was my dad," Hall says. "I said nothing. I sat there very proper and all-ears and very quiet. I had nothing to say, and I would listen to them talk. They would talk about how the music was going down. They would pop their fingers, clap their hands; some of them would do it with their feet — you know, just, 'One [snaps], two.' I can remember it right now today. I felt so much at home."

The first time Hall played outside the studio was with Marvin Gaye's band. She says she was so scared that on the first break, "I ran to the telephone and called my mom and said, 'Mom, you're not going to believe this. They're dancing to the music that we're making onstage. They're wearing heels and mink coats — Mom, it's so great.' And she said, 'Just play pretty for Mom, baby.'"

Bobbye Hall is one of those percussionists that can pick up an instrument and just figure it out, like when she played the Brazilian cuíca in Stevie Wonder's "Bird Of Beauty." But she always wants to understand that instrument.

"When I pick up ethnic instruments, I really kind of shy away from that instrument because I want that instrument to like me," Hall says. "I want it to embrace me and take me where it needs to go. It's a relationship, yes."

When Hall met Janis Joplin at Sunset Sound studios on a weekend in 1970, she says Joplin was a "very vibrant, alive woman and she wore costume jewelry like a gypsy." Hall was supposed to come back the next day to play on Pearl, an album that came out posthumously because Joplin died that night.

"I played [my part] later and I asked the producer if he would dim the lights," Hall says. "And I did it alone."

Over the years, Hall has played too many sessions for her to remember them all. One of them gave her the professional name she's gone by for decades: M.B.H., or Mz. Bobbye Hall.

"Carole King gave me that, because they would introduce me as 'Little Bobbye' from Detroit.' And I said to her, 'Carole, do me a favor, would you please? Please don't introduce me as Little Bobbye from Motown?'" Hall says. "So she would introduce me and she said, 'Mz. Bobbye Hall,' and I just loved her for it. I still wear it very happily."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne, with our last beat of Beat Week.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB DYLAN SONG, "WHERE ARE YOU TONIGHT?")

MONTAGNE: We've been talking with drummers this week, all men. Today let's hear from the woman playing the congas goes on this Bob Dylan track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE ARE YOU TONIGHT?")

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) There's a long-distance train rolling through the rain. Tears on the letter I write.

MONTAGNE: Ms. Bobbye Hall also plays congas, bongos, triangles, tambourines - you name it - to give other people's music shimmer and life. She's a liner note legend. Since becoming a studio musician as a kid in the 1960s, she's played on a string of hits from Motown...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S GET IT ON")

MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) Let's get it on...

MONTAGNE: To LA.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET SEASONS")

CAROLE KING: (Singing) I'm talking 'bout sweet seasons on my mind.

MONTAGNE: Bobbye Hall's earliest memories are of creating rhythms any way she could.

BOBBYE HALL: Beating on my mom's pot and pans. (Laughter). And I don't know why. And when I sat at the kitchen table to eat, I would rock my feet back and forth, and my mother would go, baby, baby, baby, stop, stop rocking. Be still. Hold still. And I had a little pair of bongos from the downtown music store in Detroit. And that's how I started. Once I got the bongos, the drums were my voice.

MONTAGNE: You would have been about 11 years old when you were playing professionally. A Motown producer discovered you at a sock hop.

HALL: Yes. That's correct. And he said, Bobbye, would you like to make a session? And I said, sure, what's a session?

MONTAGNE: That's what I was thinking, that it would be like, I'll be there but...

HALL: What is it?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOING TO A GO GO")

SMOKEY ROBINSON AND THE MIRACLES: (Singing) Well, there's a brand-new place I've found where people go from miles around.

MONTAGNE: Those sessions that you played on, I mean, you would have - I would have thought really stuck out in the sense that they would've probably been mostly or all guys...

HALL: Yes.

MONTAGNE: ...And you'd be an 11-, 12-year-old girl.

HALL: Yes, all guys, except for the lady at the front desk where I had to sign in every day. But it was all guys, and older guys, at that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOING TO A GO GO")

SMOKEY ROBINSON AND THE MIRACLES: (Singing) I'm going to a go go. Going to a go go. Baby...

MONTAGNE: Did they sort of adopt you? I mean...

HALL: Yes. They became - every one of them were my dad. I said nothing. I sat there, very proper and all ears and very quiet. I had nothing to say. And I would listen to them talk. And they would talk about how the music was going down. And they would pop their fingers, clap their hands. Some of them would do it with their feet, you know, just - one, (snaps fingers) two - you know. The first time that I heard that - I can remember it right now today - I felt so much at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARVIN GAYE SONG, "INNER CITY BLUES")

MONTAGNE: This is "Inner City Blues" by Marvin Gaye - pretty classic song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INNER CITY BLUES")

GAYE: (Singing) Oh, make you want to holler the way they do my life.

MONTAGNE: You may or may not remember that particular session.

HALL: I remember it.

MONTAGNE: Do you?

HALL: Yes, and I remember the first time that I was asked to go with the studio band, my first time being on stage outside of the studio with Marvin. And I was so scared. (Laughter). On the first break, I ran to the telephone and called my mom, and I said, mom, you're not going to believe this. They're dancing to the music that we're making on stage. And they're wearing, like, heels and mink coats, and, mom, it's so great. And she said, just play pretty for mom, baby.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEVIE WONDER SONG, "BIRD OF BEAUTY")

MONTAGNE: There was one person I thought you - might be close to your age group, Stevie Wonder, I was thinking.

HALL: Stevie, yes. Yes.

MONTAGNE: 'Cause he was a child star.

HALL: Yes.

MONTAGNE: Little Stevie Wonder.

HALL: Yes, he was Little Stevie Wonder, and we were very close.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIRD OF BEAUTY")

STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) ...Says that now your mind desires a vacation.

MONTAGNE: You're playing a Brazilian instrument.

HALL: Yeah, and that's called a Cuica.

MONTAGNE: Cuica. And it's - you're hearing it in the back.

HALL: Yes.

MONTAGNE: It's this (imitating Cuica)

HALL: Yes, it's carrying a constant repeating rhythm that's infectious, that's sensual.

MONTAGNE: Did you study it, or...

HALL: No, I didn't. And actually it was a very difficult piece for me to play because it had a Brazilian instrument, and I'm not Brazilian. So when I pick up ethnic instruments, I really kind of shy away from that instrument because I want that instrument to like me. I want it to embrace me and take me where it needs to go. It's a relationship, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME AND BOBBY MCGEE")

JANIS JOPLIN: (Singing) Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waiting for a train.

MONTAGNE: Janis Joplin is someone else with whom you played.

HALL: Yes. Janis, I met her on a weekend. And we were at Sunset Sound Studios. And she was very vibrant - alive woman, and she wore costume jewelry like a gypsy.

MONTAGNE: Bobbye Hall says she was supposed to come back the next day to play percussion on the album "Pearl," an album that came out posthumously because Janis Joplin died that night.

HALL: Yes.

MONTAGNE: So you played your part later.

HALL: I played it later, and I asked the producer if he would dim the lights. And I did it alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME AND BOBBY MCGEE")

JOPLIN: (Singing) Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose. Nothing, that's all that Bobby left me, yeah.

MONTAGNE: Over the years, Bobbye Hall played too many sessions with big-name artists to remember. One of them gave her the professional name she's gone by for decades, MBH, or Ms. Bobbye Hall. Ms. Bobbye Hall, I love that.

HALL: That's right. Carole King gave me that because they would introduce me as Little Bobbye from Detroit. And I said to her, I said, Carole, do me a favor, would you please? Just don't introduce me as Little Bobbye from Motown. And so she would introduce me, and she said, Ms. Bobbye Hall. And I just loved her for it, and I still wear it very happily.

MONTAGNE: That's percussionist Ms. Bobbye Hall, our last guest on Beat Week. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.