Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Funk Brothers

By Eric Hilton

The movie, Standing In The Shadows Of Motown made a huge impression on me for a couple of reasons. First of all, it taught me a lot about the history of popular music, a subject I had thought I knew a fair amount about. Obviously I had been flattering myself because, before watching this inspiring movie, I had no idea that the Funk Brothers existed.

Actually, I was hardly alone in my ignorance because before the 2002 release of Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, very few people had heard of them. But, despite their anonymity, as the creators of the "Motown Sound," the Funk Brothers had an enormous impact on popular music. Secondly, the Funk Brothers can still get down, the movie features great performances with people like Chaka Khan, Joan Osborne, Bootsy Collins, Meshell Ndegeocello, Ben Harper, Gerald Levert and the eight Funk Brothers who were still alive at the time of filming.

The name, "the Funk Brothers" refers to thirteen of the studio musicians that Berry Gordy procured from the clubs and bars that were the venues for Detroit's vibrant music scene in the late '50s and early '60s. Scores of musicians played on Motown tracks during the decade or so of the company's Detroit era, when its distinctive sound came into being, but these thirteen musicians became the core who were there on a day to day basis laying down the tracks and cranking out the hits in assembly line fashion. They shared a love of jazz, inventive genius, and the need for a more stable source of income. Through countless hours of playing together, they became an incredibly tight band, and great friends who would do anything for each other.

It's already become a cliche that the Funk Brothers "played on more No. 1 records than the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley combined." The location where all these hit records were made was "Hitsville USA," a place similar to Graceland, Abbey Roads Studios and the old Fillmore East in that it is one of the great shrines of popular music - a place fans make pilgrimage to.

The holy of holies at the museum that now occupies the first floor of the small two-story house is the tiny basement recording studio called "Studio A," better known to the Funk Brothers as "the Snakepit." This was where they labored during Motown's fabled Detroit era. In their heyday, they cranked out three or four songs in a three hour session down there. They usually did two three-hour sessions a day, and occasionally three or four.

I was moved by what Jack Ashford, the Funk Brother's percussionist, had to say upon entering the Snakepit after a thirty-year hiatus, to record for the Standing In The Shadows Of Motown project:
This is the first time we've been in here to play since the '70s. A lot of people who come here for the first time, they have no idea what's in here; because, along with our creativity, there were Berry's prayers in here, that we would be successful in what we were doing to make those hits. And we used to hear it in his voice, we used to hear the way he would talk to us, we used to hear, the artists how they would talk to us, a lot of prayers were in this building. You have no idea of the gravity of what went on emotionally. I swear to God, when I went in there tonight, I could just feel it, I could almost touch it. It never left that room, it's in there.
The Funk Brothers were gifted musicians who not only played on, but helped create, many of the most memorable and influential tracks in the history of popular music. Many people who have seen the film remark (so many that this has also become somewhat of a cliche) that, "They played on the soundtrack of my life." But there still remained the problem: nobody knew who they were.

At the beginning of Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, Funk Brother Joe Hunter describes how this fact eventually made him feel:
It was bigger than we thought it was going to be. We didn't know it was going to be that big. At first we didn't notice what was going on. We were too busy creating the music and the magic. Finally you know that you have played on hit records, and the juke box's and the radio's playing, and someone says, 'Oh boy, that's Motown.' But they never know us, nobody never mentioned too much about us, you know. Really a long time it goes and finally it gets to you. Finally when the dust cleared, it was all over, and we realized we were being left out of the dream. It's the end! And as the years go by, we wonder if any one will ever know, who we are and what we did.
The world may in fact never have known about the Funk Brothers if it hadn't been for the heroic efforts of Allan Slutsky. Inspired by an obituary of James Jamerson - the Funk Brothers' genius bass player - that he happened to come across in Rolling Stone in 1986, he decided to tell his story. James Jamerson was a fascinating character. Nobody who talks about him fails to mention his creative genius; but they also rarely fail to mention his eccentricity or problems with alcohol. Even so, if you wanted to pinpoint the origins of the Motown Sound to one progenitor, that progenitor would have to be James Jamerson.

Being a bass player, Jamerson was by definition a cornerstone of the Motown Sound, but it's also a fact that he was a genius who revolutionized both the way his instrument was played, and modern music through his contribution to the Motown Sound. Even though he never became a household name, many budding bassists were influenced and inspired by his playing in the early '60s; two worth mentioning are Jack Bruce and Paul McCartney.

Alan Slutsky's original idea was just to write a book on Motown bass lines, but as things tend to do, the project snowballed on him and, after he did indeed write a book about James Jamerson's life and music, he found himself trying to put together a film about all the Funk Brothers. Sixteen years later, on November 7 2002, the movie Standing In The Shadows Of Motown had it's world premiere in front of a packed house at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

For more free information about The Funk Brothers and this inspiring movie, click on the links.

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