A talented, self-taught kid from the east side of Detroit falls in love with music, cobbles together a drum kit, scrambles out of a life of poverty and physical abuse and becomes a top session drummer on both coasts, working with icons like Harry Belafonte and Aretha Franklin.
If it sounds like a movie, it is — finally.
Lansing recording engineer and filmmaker John Palmer spent six years painstakingly assembling “Spider Webb Untangled: The Life and Times of Legendary Drummer Kenneth Rice,” released Tuesday (Jan. 24) on DVD and the streaming platform Vimeo.
Palmer had a minuscule budget and no crew — just himself and Spider. (We’ll call Rice “Spider,” because that’s what everyone calls him, and “Mr. Webb” seems a bit formal.)
Yet the film stands proudly in the tradition of “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” the 2002 Paul Justman documentary on the Funk Brothers, the uncredited musicians who created the immortal drum licks, irresistible bass lines and indelible grooves that fueled dozens of Motown hits.
Spider, 78, was a Funk Brother himself for a while, but that was only a part of his career.
You can hear his drumming on the Temptations’ hits “Cloud Nine” and “Runaway Child, Running Wild,” Etta James’ “(You Can) Leave Your Hat On,” Eddie Kendricks’ “Keep on Truckin’,” Grover Washington Jr.’s “Feels so Good” and Freda Payne’s 1970 megahit “Band of Gold.”
As a first-call session and touring drummer, Spider played with the Commodores, Roberta Flack, Robert Palmer and many others.
Part of the fun of the shoestring-budget saga is rooting for the spirit of Detroit as Spider storms the international music world.
“I was raised three blocks from Motown,” Spider said. “We had bands, the guys on the corner singing doo-wop. If you wanted to hang out with the guys in my neighborhood, you had to play a musical instrument.”
But it took talent, perseverance and luck to make the unlikely journey from a shockingly brutal childhood to a head-spinning round of gigs and recording sessions in New York and California.
Spider never took music classes, but he played in his high school drum and bugle corps and in a group with the unlikely name Samson and Delilah and the Soul Detergents.
“I found myself in situations I never thought I would be in at a very young age,” Spider said. “I was working a lot of the clubs around Detroit before I graduated from high school.”
Faced with physical abuse at home, he struck out boldly to make his fortune in New York. He quickly built a reputation as a drummer who combined lightness with substance and a musician who listened carefully, picking up instantly on whatever the leader or vocalist was laying down.
“I gave you what you were giving me,” he said with a mischievous smile. “You had to like it!”
In the early 1970s, a tour with calypso icon (and civil rights leader) Harry Belafonte rocketed him into the top echelon.
“That’s where I learned everything,” Spider said. “And the guys in the band, we’re still friends.”
He called it the “school of Belafonte.”
“There were people in that organization from all around the world — Africa, Brazil, Puerto Rico,” he said. “It was like a small United Nations. I take my hat off to Harry because we were so young at the time, and he saw the potential we had. He just let us grow. I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Palmer, an Ann Arbor-born audio geek who moved to Lansing and became a recording engineer and musician, was intrigued by Spider’s 2009 autobiography. To his surprise, a relatively small but elite corps of top-notch musicians kept popping up on one 1970s and 1980s hit after another.
“I was kind of naïve, thinking every singer had their own group,” he said. “A lot of the same musicians were flying back and forth, playing on the East and West coasts and in between, running into each other over and over. To have a group of people who could play at a high level, without a lot of takes, was the most important thing.”
Making the film was a labor of love for Palmer. He couldn’t afford the glitzy musical numbers that punctuated “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” or even pay for the rights to entire songs. To his disappointment, there was no studio footage available, and concert or broadcast footage was extremely limited.
“So, instead of a performance film, it became more about his life story,” Palmer said.
Most of his tiny budget was spent on music rights, and even then, he only had enough money to pay for snippets of most songs.
But Spider’s remarkable life journey was too compelling for Palmer to leave untold. One musician after another, from keyboardist Lyman Woodard to bassist Marion Hayden, testifies to Spider’s skill and exuberant presence on the bandstand, and Spider talks frankly about the ups and downs of his musical and personal life.
“I’m not considering filmmaking a career but a means of telling a story,” Palmer said. “We look forward to people rediscovering Spider, finding some of the recordings he played and appreciating the diversity of his work.”
“Everybody knows Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, the Temptations, the Supremes,” Spider said. “But you never know who is helping to make it all go.”
Spider said his life “has been a wonderful ride,” but decades of bending over a drum kit left him with three herniated discs and a bout of debilitating back pain.
“I was young and thought I was invincible,” he said. “I was trying to be cool, bending all over those drums. Nobody told me I was not sitting up straight, not stretching before I play, all these things drummers need to do.”
Massage, adjustment and therapy have straightened him out, and he’s ready to get back to work.
“I’m not finished by any means,” he said. “When a lot is taken out of you, it takes a lot to put it back.”
With nothing left to prove, he hopes to train to the point that he can pick and choose session work and live gigs that turn him on musically. He’s also doing drum clinics and teaching stints.
“Music is a learning thing,” he said. “Once you’re satisfied, you cease to be creative. Once you say, ‘I got it,’ I’m going to say you don’t have it!”
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