Motown memories

The beat goes on for sax man Frank Bomba

So dig this, hepcats.

The year is 1962, the scene Detroit. Up on stage at the Fox Theater, at Sir Karps, at Michael's Hideaway, at all the smoke-filled whiskey bars this city has to offer, 20-year-old madman Frank Bomba is waxing on his tenor saxophone, belting out charcoal, growling rock'n'roll tunes.

On the dance floor, a crowd of teen-boppers and jive hipsters groove to Bomba's beat, but he doesn't notice them. While he's physically in their presence, his mind is someplace else, in his own universe where musician and instrument morph together as one.

In short, he is THERE.

"When I play, I'm zoning out," Bomba said. "I'm into a zone where I, I ... it's hard to explain. You just get there.

"When everything comes together, when you're playing the best you can, you get to this zone where you're in the music and the sax is a part of you."

That's how Bomba played in his hey day, and that's the recipe -- a mix of musical frenzy doused with Zen peace -- that caught the attention of Berry Gordy Jr., architect of the legendary hit label Motown Records.

In 1962, Motown signed Bomba's group The Squires, a group later known as The Precisions and then The Algiers, to its star-heavy roster of musical acts.

Celebrated for its production of upbeat hits merging blues, gospel, swing and pop, Motown Records operated from a studio in downtown Detroit, on West Grand Boulevard, nicknamed "Hitsville U.S.A." There, at the musical Mecca, Bomba jammed with icons such as The Supremes, the Temptations, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, the Vandellas and a 12-year-old prodigy with a penchant for genius with any instrument.

"Stevie (Wonder) was young," said Bomba, a Craig resident. "This tall black guy came in with this little kid on his hand. Stevie sat in on the drums and just started playing. I mean just like that. We're all going, 'How did this kid do that?' We jammed with him. It was really something."

Bomba and his band members were among the first white artists signed to Motown, a label that is credited with integrating black music into the public consciousness and once boasted that 75 percent of its releases became Top 40 hits. In 1973, the Detroit Free Press dubbed the little label that could the "nation's largest black-owned entertainment conglomerate."

But, no one could predict Motown would become the juggernaut that it did. In 1962, the label was 5 years old and its artists, while on their way to stardom, hadn't quite attained the popularity they enjoy today.

Born and bred in Detroit, Bomba began tinkering with music in third grade. He started playing the saxophone three years later and credits pioneers such as Cannonball Adderley and King Curtis as early influences. He said the immersion into Motown simply meant being around other musicians who shared his love of the craft.

"It was relatively new, and we were involved with the original Motown Studio," he said. "There were (artists) on their way up. The only ones we knew for sure (would make it big) were The Supremes and the Temptations. We didn't know about the others. At the time, everybody was just a plain old guy, but we knew there were some really tremendous musicians playing in the studio at Motown."

But, a long stay at Motown wasn't meant to be for Bomba. Back then, artists received a quarter of a penny for every record sold, which didn't translate into a lot of money if the record wasn't a major hit.

There was once a time when "music was my family," Bomba said. But, as his contract with Motown was coming to an end, he planned to get married. He needed a stable income to provide for his new family, he said, and with its shoestring pay scale and grueling tour schedule, Motown wasn't the answer.

"It finally got to the point where I wasn't making it there," Bomba said.

So he left. That doesn't mean he stopped playing, though.

Sure, he got the requisite 9-to-5 gig, something to pay the bills and stock the fridge, but he kept the sax handy. After all, he'd been playing since the seventh grade, and old habits died hard.

He played fraternity and sorority parties. He played weddings. He played at sock hops and teen dances. He plays at clubs, at bars. He played to an energetic crowd of 3,000-plus at the Walled Lake Casino.

"I played the whole Detroit circuit," Bomba said. "Music was a part-time job, sometimes it was a full-time job. I did quite well. ... I've seen some pretty wild stuff."

He moved to Craig in 1976, spent time working as a mechanic, and later an officer with the Craig Police Department and a deputy with the Moffat County Sheriff's Office.

Today, Bomba is still tickling the sax. He has a band, Legacy, comprised of area residents, and they practice once a week at Bomba's studio in the basement of his home off Moffat County Road 204.

Scattered around the bank of keyboards, microphones, speakers and amplifiers in the studio, there lies a CD collection -- super hit collections of rock, do wop from the '60s and '70s among them -- and a scrapbook of photos from past gigs.

Call it an encyclopedia transporting Bomba's memories back to a different time.

"I'd have to really work and start practicing a lot to get to that state," he said while thumbing a grainy black and white shot of a young Bomba with his sax.

He doesn't regret leaving Motown when he did. Things happened the way they happened, and Bomba made it in music in his own way.

"I made the decision then and I'd probably stick with it now," he said.

Legacy plays various events around the area, low-pressure gigs that are tailored just as much at the musicians having fun as entertaining the crowd. The performances are nothing like the Motown days, he said, and that suits him just fine.

The love of music, and the emotions it generates in the public keep him going.

"Playing music is something I've done all my life," he said. "We do what we can do, and that's it.

"Music used to be my job. Now, we're just playing for fun."

  • Joshua Roberts can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 210, or jroberts@craigdailypress.com.

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