From Bill Gray:
In 2010 I was sharing with a Christian brother in Mississippi, Jim Miller, and reminiscing about my time when I was stationed at Osan Air Base (K55), Korea, in 1956-57. Our dialogue turned to one of our favorite subjects, music, and I shared about my best friend when I was stationed at Osan Air Base.
During that year in Korea and Formosa (Taiwan), my best friend was a guitar player named Bob White. Bob grew up in Detroit and learn to play the guitar in his home town church – and although he did not read music, he was an amazing guitarist. During our time in Korea, Bob organized a Jazz Trio and they played on our local base radio station. Many times I sat in the music room of the Enlisted Men’s Club for hours listening to him and his Jazz Trio jam. Just the three of them, a black piano player, a black bass player, and Bob on guitar – and the audience, me, a skinny white kid from Alabama.
One funny coincidence happened that year. The Air Force sponsored an Air Force Talent Show and since our Osan Air Base was the Wing Headquarters base – the regional show was held there. It was a two night event and whoever handled the logistics did not have enough programs printed. So, on the first night they gathered all the programs and redistributed them the second night. Would you believe, in a packed audience both nights – that on the second night I, Bob White’s friend, was given the program used the night before by one of the judges. On the program the judge had written his/her notes from the night before – and the note regarding the Jazz Trio was: “Guitarist obviously professional.” He wasn’t, not yet, but he was that good.
Bob White taught me to love jazz, introducing me to many of the jazz greats. Bob and I had side-by-side bunks and he kept his record player in between. Many times we made the trek to the BX (base exchange, i.e, our local store) to peruse and buy 33 rpm LP albums. For my younger Friends, 33 rpm Long Play albums were our iPod in those days.
In 1957, we were both being rotated from Korea back stateside to Bergstrom Air Force base in Austin, Texas. Waiting for our transport plane to board – I was shocked when Bob told me, “Bill, you know that when we get back to the states; we won’t be able to run around together.” He did not say it to be nasty; but, only as the reality of America in 1957. I was hurt, shocked, and angry – not at Bob, but at the reality of those times. And, I suppose I was still a bit naive. Here I was, a white boy from Alabama – and it took a black boy from Detroit to remind me of the reality of what awaited us back home in America.
When we got out of the Air Force, I lost track of him – and only later learned that he had been one of the founding members of the original Funk Brothers of MoTown fame. The photo below is of them jamming at a local Detroit night club.
Fast forward to the late 1990s, early 2000s – I had often told my wife, Dory, about Bob and his guitar playing. She sings, plays piano, and was learning guitar. I knew she would have loved Bob. One evening we were watching TV and an infomercial for 1970s style Chicago Jazz comes on. It had Ray Charles, Etta James, and a few other singers. And, then, there was a group fronted by a guitar player with no singer. As I watched, the guitar player made a specific move, a dip related to a certain note, that I had never seen anyone do, except Bob. I was so excited and told Dory, “That is Bob White.” But, I had no idea how to find him.
Fast forward a few more years. One day I get the bright idea to send an e-mail to MoTown just to see if anyone had ever heard of Bob White. In less than half an hour, I received an e-mail from Billy Wilson telling me that Bob was a good friend, the co-founder of the Funk Brothers – but, that he had died in 1994 – in Los Angeles.
Wikipedia tells us: Robert Willie White (November 19, 1936 – October 27, 1994) was an African-American soul musician, one of the guitarists for Motown’s in-house studio band, the Funk Brothers. White is best known for performing the guitar riff on The Temptations’ number-one hit single “My Girl”, but played the guitar on many successful Motown records, including “Can I Get a Witness” by Marvin Gaye – “You Keep Me Hanging’ On” by The Supremes – “My Cherie Amour” by Stevie Wonder – “Something About You” by the Four Tops – and “It’s a Shame” by The Spinners.
White died of complications from open heart surgery in Los Angeles in October 1994, aged 57.
Born: November 19, 1936 Harrisburg, Pennsylvania ~ Grew up: Detroit, Michigan ~ Died: October 27, 1994 (aged 57) Los Angeles, California.
Can you imagine? Bob lived here in Southern California and I live here – but, never knew he was here. As it turns out, I guess in the late 1970s MoTown had moved to Los Angeles. Bob had started a recording studio with Donna Summers. In 1994, he had a heart problem and died on the operating table. All that talent which began in a church in Detroit – was gone.
Another opportunity to have reconnected with Bob was lost in the 1980s. Through business connections Dory and I became Friends with Eddie and Barbara Singleton. Eddie and Barbara both had been with MoTown – much closer than I knew at the time. Barbara was an ex-wife of Berry Gordy, founder of MoTown – and Eddie had been married for a while to Berry Gordy’s first wife, Raynoma. Then, Eddie and Barbara were married and it lasted the rest of their lives. Eddie and Barbara were very active in MoTown and certainly would have know Bob White – but I never connected the dots while they all were alive.
Another interesting note: From the first time I heard the Platters sing in 1956 – they were hands down my favorite musical group. Some of my early romances were enhanced through their music. In 1964 Barbara Singleton, under her recording name Barbara Randolph, joined The Platters, replacing singer Zola Taylor. Barbara sang with the Platters for a year and, on December 9, 1964, led the last song that the Platters recorded for Mercury: “Hard Hearted Hannah.” An era had ended. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etsu64oYbXw).
And, the sad part is that during the time we were friends with Eddie and Barbara – I had no idea they knew my friend, Bob White – and I had no idea that on many of the Platters songs I loved to dance to – it was Barbara singing to me. By the time I learned that Bob White had been with MoTown and lived in Los Angeles – he had died. And before Dory told me that Barbara had sung with the Platters – she had died of cancer. Two beautiful opportunities missed.
In Korea and Formosa, while the rest of us would head for the night life in town – Bob White stayed on the base and played his guitar. Now, I am sure he is playing it in heaven. One day I will be his audience again as he plays heavenly jazz music.
God bless, have a wonderful, blessed day,