Three years removed from the award-winning DVD "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," which finally brought to light the contributions of the legendary label's crack team of studio musicians, the Funk Brothers have split into two camps due to personal, financial and legal disputes.
Percussionist Jack Ashford left the group last year and is now touring under his own name with a band that features pianist Joe Hunter. The group plays New York's B.B. King's Blues Club tonight (Feb. 18), Cleveland on Saturday and Glenside, Pa., on Sunday. Meanwhile, bassist Bob Babbitt and drummer Uriel Jones are mulling a tour of their own in the spring.
Each of those four musicians owns an equal share in the Funk Brothers name, along with guitarists Eddie Willis and Joe Messina (who is now retired) and the estates of the late Richard "Pistol" Allen and Johnny Griffith. None of them can use the name without the consent of the majority of the living individuals.
In recent interviews with Billboard.com, Babbitt and Jones claimed Ashford is breaching that agreement by billing his upcoming shows as the Funk Brothers, and that they have sent cease-and-desist letters to the venues. And while local advertisements for the New York show do indeed list "the Funk Brothers" as playing tonight, Ashford blames the venue for the mistake.
"I own 1/6th of that name, and I wouldn't want anyone to infringe on my rights," he tells Billboard.com. "So, I don't tour that way. I tour as Jack Ashford of the Funk Brothers." Adds his manager, Roosevelt Henderson, "The venues chose not to use what we told them to use. That was their decision. They received the same cease-and-desist letters."
Babbitt and Jones acknowledge that for financial reasons, the Funk Brothers were recently forced to fire their manager, against whom they have taken legal action. Meanwhile, the two have retained new management but say Ashford did a "good job" handling the business affairs in the interim.
"We did a tour of Europe of nine countries," Ashford says. "We haven't been paid a dime yet. We did a DVD and haven't gotten one quarter from it. We did a CD and never got a quarter from that. We did [the TV special] 'Motown 45' and never got paid. Of course, they paid the management and the management won't pay us. There's a whole litany of things that have really added to the disruption and the discontentment of the Funk Brothers."
That being said, Babbitt claims "[Ashford] started to want to make the final decisions. None of us agreed, especially Eddie and Uriel. Next thing I know, he's telling all of us he's quitting." Adds Jones, "When Jack figured he couldn't handle any more money and he couldn't be the boss, that's when he decided he was going to get him a group."
For his part, Ashford admits he set out on his own due to personal conflicts with Babbitt. "I told the guys I didn't want to work with him anymore," he says. "They could keep him if they wanted to. If I don't get along with someone, I don't want to take this last part of my life and cloud it up with a situation that is unpleasant to me."
"This has been a very trying time for me because I've known Uriel since 1963," he continues. "We went to Motown together. [But] I'm not their problem. They need to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people who took advantage of them and try to win, because we're still in litigation. I think that's more important."
The rancor has cast uncertainty over the future of the Funk Brothers, because as Jones notes, "we don't want two separate groups out there at the same time. We're trying to clean all this up, because everywhere we've been, our track record is good. People love us. We just don't want to go out there battling against one another like that."
And while Jones and Babbitt insist they will not work with Ashford going forward, the latter says he's learned to "never say never. Experience has taught me in life that circumstances can arise that make you do exactly what you say you aren't going to do. If I had my druthers, I would not do it. My reason for not doing it is the reason I left: because I really feel as though I have a lot more to contribute to music."