For Joe Chambers, every instrument tells a story. Picking up a guitar donated by Eddie Willis, a key member of Motown Records’ famed Funk Brothers session group, he fires off classic hits featuring the artist and the instrument: “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” by Stevie Wonder, “Cloud Nine” by The Temptations, “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” by The Four Tops, “Heatwave” by Martha & the Vandellas, “Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles.
The guitar will be on exhibit at the Musicians Hall of Fame, the first museum dedicated to those who play instruments behind the singers and stars in the studio and on the road. Chambers, the museum’s founder and curator, fulfills a dream when the museum opens on June 9 at 301 Sixth Ave. S., a block from Country Music Hall of Fame and half-block from a corner of the Gaylord Entertainment Center.
“This is ‘the rest of the story,’ as Paul Harvey would say,” says guitarist Duane Eddy, who created the twangy, low-note sound that went on to influence scores of early rock ’n’ rollers. George Harrison, for one, cited Eddy as a primary influence on the guitar part for The Beatles’ recording of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
Eddy’s only one of a large group of stars lending their name and words to support the museum. A video promoting the Hall features enthusiastic comments by Neil Young, Garth Brooks, Steve Wariner, Gary Tallent and Max Weinberg.
“There are museums dedicated to singers, museums to songwriters, museums for different styles of music,” Eddy continues. “But this is the first one to single out the musicians. There’s a whole lot of us out here who really appreciate that.”
Chambers, a veteran songwriter and producer, has long believed that instrumentalists are unsung heroes of the American popular music business. Ten years ago, he worked to develop a TV program based on interviews of famous musicians. That fell through, but along the way he decided there should be some permanent way of honoring musicians and educating the public about their crucial role. The idea for the Musicians Hall of Fame was born.
But Chambers couldn’t get corporate sponsors interested—although Sennheiser, a firm best known for its microphones and headphones, has now signed on to help wire the museum’s sound system. The lack of help only steeled Chambers’ resolve. He funded the development of the museum personally, paying for everything from the rental of the building, a former electrical supply store, to the construction of the exhibit showcases and the design of the layout. Even the interior signs are made by craftsmen hired by Chambers.
“Joe knows what musicians do for the artists,” says Marshall Grant, former bassist for Johnny Cash’s pioneering Tennessee Two and another vocal supporter of the museum who will also contribute memorabilia. “It’s been a true labor of love and one that’s long been needed. It’s going to go a long way in helping people realize the importance of the people playing behind the stars.”
Chambers emphasizes the museum is devoted to all popular recording styles, not just country music, though it will feature plenty of artifacts of interest to country fans—such as a one-of-a-kind instrument owned by Grand Ole Opry musician Lightnin’ Chance. Chance rigged the standup bass so that it had a small snare drum on the back, using it to augment the beat in the days when the Opry banned drums from the stage.
The museum will devote a section to Music City U.S.A. that includes an opening exhibit honoring the A-Team, a loose-knit group of outstanding Music Row session players who appeared on most country hits of the late ’50s and ’60s. Another exhibit will honor producer Owen Bradley’s renowned Quonset Hut studio with its original recording console, while another highlights steel guitarist Pete Drake, a local musician who recorded with Dylan, The Beatles, Grateful Dead and others. It’s Drake’s playing that can be heard on such rock classics as Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” and George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.”
Chambers has collected artifacts from rock, soul and pop history, making equal space for Detroit, Memphis, Los Angeles and New York. “A lot of the great musicians played on all kinds of records,” Chambers points out. “You couldn’t really honor them by restricting them to one kind of music. This museum doesn’t have a genre. It’s just about good music, about the guys who created the songs we all sing along with.”
Chambers also plans to include a 350-seat performance hall and an active demo-recording studio where visitors can peer through glass and see a session in progress. He will also begin a school of music with donated instruments and professional instructors that will be aimed at helping underprivileged, school-age children receive free lessons.
Chambers’ dedication to his task is evident each time he picks out another sample artifact. He lifts a snare drum showing the signature of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer Chad Smith with the written inscription “Give It Away—Now,” a reference to one of the rock group’s best-known hits.
Next, Chambers unzips a beat-up tan leather case and pulls out a Fender Jazz bass covered in decade-old signatures by Neil Young, Paul Simon, Karen Carpenter, Merle Haggard and others. “This belonged to Joe Osborne,” Chambers says proudly. “This is a really historic instrument. It’s been on over 200 No. 1 records. It was on ‘California Dreamin’.’ It was on ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ ‘Heart of Gold’ ‘Lucille,’ ‘Close to You,’ ‘Secret Agent Man.’ That’s just barely a few.”
In this case, the story isn’t just in the songs, but in the instrument’s origins as well. “This was one of the very first Fender Jazz basses made,” Chambers explains. “Before they put them in the catalog, Leo Fender took this bass to Joe. It’s the one he used on every session he played on for 20 years or whatever. It was the bass for him, the only one played. You can tell looking at it that it’s been through a lot. Joe played with a pick, which is against what most bass players do, because it’s usually played with your fingers. But that was Joe’s sound—using the pick on this particular bass. And he never changed the strings, ever. Those stretched-out strings also made his bass sound like no one else’s.”
To Chambers, that’s the beauty of peering into history through the people and instruments that were there.
“We’re really heavy into the actual instruments used on records,” says Chambers. “We’re wanting to feature the guys who played on the most famous records ever made. These are the guys who came up with the signature licks that we all know, and these are the instruments they used on those songs. Their work is well known, but they’re not. We want them to get the recognition they deserve.”