Session Musician Spotlight: Bobbye Hall

The great percussionist played on countless hit records by artists like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

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Bobbye Hall Body Language For Lovers album cover
Cover: Courtesy of 20th Century Records

Detroit-born Bobbye Hall was an eleven-year-old prodigy playing drums at a sock hop when Motown arranger Paul Riser heard her and asked her mother if she could come to Hitsville USA for a recording session. She remembered her early sessions in an interview with NPR, “I sat there very proper and all-ears and very quiet. 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 felt so much at home.” She became a regular, playing percussion – with an emphasis on bongos and congas – on sessions for artists like The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, and Diana Ross & The Supremes.

She moved to Los Angeles as a young adult and continued her career as a touring musician and first-call studio musician, leaving her imprint on classic recordings such as Janis Joplin’s Pearl, Bill Withers’ Just As I Am, Joni Mitchell’s For the Roses, Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key of Life, Stevie Nicks’ Bella Donna, and Lone Justice’s self-titled debut. She explained to Liner Note Legends, “Working in the studio is like a laboratory. We’re not thinking about [a] hit, but we know that that’s what we do. That synergy, that spark that ignites and makes hits, that’s what I think I do. That’s the way I was brought up, making hits…gold and platinum.”

Here are a few exceptional moments from the career of Ms. Bobbye Hall.

Marvin Gaye – I Want You

Bobbye Hall had several iconic moments with Marvin Gaye. She’s the bongo player on “Inner City Blues” from What’s Goin’ On and was also a musician on the steamy Let’s Get It On sessions. On this gem, the title track from Gaye’s 1976 release, Hall’s bongos float in the mix, almost melodically, as essential to the track as Gaye’s vocal.

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Willie Hutch – Slick

By the time of this session in 1973, Bobbye Hall was already entering American homes weekly by way of television on the Sanford & Son theme song, which was composed and produced by Quincy Jones. The soundtrack for The Mack, recorded at the height of the popularity of Blaxploitation films, was produced by Willie Hutch, providing Hall one of her early opportunities to play for the silver screen.

Slick (The Mack/Soundtrack Version)

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Quincy Jones featuring Leon Ware & Minnie Riperton – If I Ever Lose This Heaven

This recording from Quincy Jones’ 1974 Body Heat put Bobbye Hall in the room with many of her peers from Motown, including James Gadson, Chuck Rainey, and Wah Wah Watson – as well as Leon Ware, co-writer of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You.” In addition to Ware and Minnie Riperton on vocals, Al Jarreau adds vocal effects to the jazz/soul pastiche. As with “I Want You,” Hall’s intuitive rhythms accent the track’s diverse instrumentation. Body Heat was certified gold and topped Billboard’s R&B and Jazz album charts.

If I Ever Lose This Heaven

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Stevie Wonder – Bird of Beauty

While Bobbye Hall had done other sessions with Stevie Wonder, “Bird of Beauty” from Fulfillingness’ First Finale captures her playing the cuíca, a Brazilian drum often utilized in samba music. Fulfillingness earned Wonder three Grammy Awards and topped Billboard’s Top LPs & Tapes chart.

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Holly Near – Singer In The Storm

“I very seldom get to work with women,” Bobbye Hall remarked to Tom Tom Mag, but this collaboration with Women’s Music icon Holly Near gave her the chance to play with an artist who had recorded numerous albums with exclusively women musicians. On this track, Melissa Etheridge handles the guitar work, while Hall drives the rhythm.

Looking for more? Check out our series of articles on the greatest sessions musicians ever.

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