by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Last night on TCM I watched one of the most remarkable movies I’ve seen in a while: Standing in the Shadows of Motown, a 2002 documentary on the Funk Brothers. Never heard of them? You’ve certainly heard them if you’ve ever heard a record released by Motown or its subsidiaries in the first 14 years (1958-1972) of the company’s existence. “They played on more #1 records than the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley combined... This is their story,” ran the tag line for the film (though come to think of it, the Wrecking Crew, the white L.A.-based studio band that featured Tommy Tedesco on guitar and Hal Blaine on drums, probably also played on a lot of #1 records and maybe someone will do a documentary on them).
The Motown story is all too familiar but this was certainly a new way of telling it — the astonishing fact is that, though all the Motown artists had distinctive individual personalities (something that set them apart from Phil Spector’s almost anonymous singers and gave them much greater career longevity), the same set of musicians played on all their records and they, more than anyone else — more than the singers, producers, arrangers or Motown founder Berry Gordy himself — were the ones that created “That Motown Sound.” In fact, though he died in 1983, the film is largely a tribute to the incredible bassist James Jamerson — he’s represented on screen by archive footage, an actor playing him as a young man and his real-life son James Jr., who became a bass player himself and, like a lot of other bassists since, has been trying all his life in vain to copy his father’s licks. It was Jamerson who invented the hesitation beat — that “BOOM — ba-BOOM — ba-BOOM — ba-ba-BOOM” lick — that became the Motown beat, and Jamerson, Jr. demonstrates how his dad worked out that effect on an upright bass which has a bit of wear in its bridge where Jamerson Sr. kept his thumb while he plucked out that irresistibly infectious rhythm pattern with one finger. (Just about everyone who’s tried to play Jamerson’s licks since has used at least two fingers.)
Virtually all the Funk Brothers were recruited from the Detroit jazz scene, often from dive bars like the Flame (which was open in the early 1950’s; Danny Kessler of Okeh Records went there to scout the Black blues/jazz singer Little Miss Cornshucks, found she was already signed, then signed her intermission reliever: a young white guy named Johnny Ray) and Club 20, where the musicians and the owners frequently threatened each other with guns at the end of a night’s work to settle disputes over pay. The film’s depiction of Motown’s early days is of a pretty rough-and-tumble place in which in the famous Hitsville, U.S.A. studio — actually the basement of Berry Gordy’s home — they would work 12-hour days to get the records right, on limited (three-track) recording equipment, and since they didn’t have the facilities to do seamless tape edits they would try to get each record complete in one take. Since they couldn’t post-mix — what you heard in the studio was what came out on the tape — they had to make sure the recording balances were absolutely right, and at the same time they were conscious (as a lot of record makers today aren’t) of the danger that working on the same song too long and doing too many takes leaches the sense of spontaneity out of the process completely. (One of the Funk Brothers recalled moonlighting on a non-Motown session for a producer who was trying for such an impossible effect he got up to take 64 — and the musicians were thinking, “He’ll never get what he wants.”)
Also — and this is something I hadn’t known — the Motown records were recorded instrumentally first and the musicians didn’t even have a guide vocal track to coordinate them: they had to get their own groove right and then Smokey, Stevie, Marvin, Martha, the Temptations, the Supremes or whoever would add the vocals later. That threw one pianist who’d been hired after a career accompanying jazz and R&B greats like Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington and Aretha Franklin (in her early days in Detroit before she switched from Columbia Records to Atlantic and began recording at the Muscle Shoals studios in Memphis, Tennessee that would become Motown’s chief rivals in the soul business) and was totally unused to the idea that he was playing backup for singers who weren’t in the studio and whom he wouldn’t necessarily ever meet — unless they were instrumentalists themselves (like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, who on one Motown package tour played drums for the other acts in addition to appearing himself).
The film was “spined” around several sources, including a book by Alan Slutsky also called Standing in the Shadows of Motown and a tribute concert organized in Detroit in 2002 that featured the reunited Funk Brothers — who hadn’t played together since Berry Gordy abruptly, and with no notice to any of his employees, moved Motown from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972 — backing a number of singers both Black (Chaka Khan, Bootsy Collins, Meshell Ndegeocello) and white (Joan Osborne, Ben Harper), in fresh renditions of the Motown classics, blessedly presented complete — or nearly so — in the film. The sense in which the musicians were “family” was dramatized when, at the concert’s opening, they introduced not only the living Funk Brothers who were going to perform but the dead ones, each of whom came on stage via a large black-and-white photo and in some cases a relic as well, like the pair of drumsticks laid next to the picture of drummer Benny ‘Papa Zita’ Benjamin — the first of the Funk Brothers’ drummers and, arguably, the musician who next to bassist Jamerson had more than anyone else to do with creating the Motown sound.
The film dramatized some of the more outlandish and least-known Motown stories, including a grim station-wagon ride on one Motown tour when Jamerson brought out a pair of pajamas (which he insisted on putting on over his street clothes in a crowded car), a rancid jar of pig’s feet (which he opened and started to eat, filling the car with the stench) and then — when they finally persuaded him to close the jar — Jamerson lit a huge cigar and the other musicians, totally fed up by this time, stopped the car and threw him out. (They did not mention how Jamerson ever got back to the tour. Maybe Jamerson didn’t know himself.) It also mentioned that one of the hottest early Motown records, the Contours’ “Do You Love Me,” didn’t start out as a song at all — it was just a riff the musicians were playing in the studio to warm up, until one of the Contours heard it, said he wanted to record it, and added the lyric we all know (though Berry Gordy himself took credit for the song).
And one of the most bizarre anecdotes also stars Jamerson; when Marvin Gaye was working on the title track of his album What’s Goin’ On? he decided he needed Jamerson for the bass part — and so the people dispatched to find him and bring him to the studio came on him wasted from the alcohol and/or drugs he fell into in his later years. When Jamerson arrived he was so stoned there was no way he could stand up and play his part — so Gaye just let him lay on the floor of the studio, put his bass across his chest, plugged it in and Jamerson came through with an incredible bass line Motown’s other bassists admitted they couldn’t have played standing up and in full possession of their faculties. (What’s Goin’ On? was also the album on which the omertà surrounding the Funk Brothers’ identity was finally broken: Gaye insisted on putting their names on the album cover, and so for the first time U.S. record buyers knew who’d been playing those amazing grooves — though it’s possible they had been credited on the foreign issues; one Funk Brother recalled in the film that when Motown sent a package tour to England in 1965 they were greeted at the airport by a group of whites who introduced themselves as the “James Jamerson Appreciation Society” — and they had, rather embarrassedly, to explain that Jamerson wasn’t part of the band they had brought.)
The film rather skirts the whole issue just about any account of the music business raises, and that’s the old question of art vs. business and how the industry seems to be a meticulously constructed machine to strip away rewards from the people who actually create the music and hand it to the financiers and “suits” at the top. The Funk Brothers knocked themselves out night after night for basic union-scale studio fees — and they still had to take other gigs to make ends meet (some of them were under contract to Motown, which meant that they could play live gigs but couldn’t record for any other label, and one Brother recalled being given an extra $100 a week to rat on anyone who did, only to find that he couldn’t — and the film mentions a few non-Motown records, some of them mega-hits like Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher” and the Capitols’ “Cool Jerk,” for which the Funk Brothers provided the backing) — and the singers weren’t much better compensated: the memoirs of Motown artists like Martha Reeves and Mary Wilson describe Berry Gordy as creating the air of a family business in which everyone’s sacrifices would be acknowledged and rewarded in due time — which, of course, they never were.
Standing in the Shadows of Motown treads lightly around the whole issue of Berry Gordy and the way he ran Motown — I can recall in the 1960’s loving much of the music but being put off by the air of old-fashioned plantation paternalism and not being particularly assuaged simply because the plantation owner was of the same race as his sharecroppers — and I suspect largely because they needed his cooperation (acknowledged in the credits) to get the song rights as well as the invaluable archival materials that give this film much of its richness. Certainly one can’t begrudge Gordy’s determination to become the first African-American to build a major and enduring record label (a lot of people, from W. C. Handy with Black Swan in the 1920’s to the owners of Vee-Jay, Duke and Fire in the 1950’s, had tried before and failed), or his knowledge of what he had to do to accomplish that — not only make great records but make them accessible to white audiences (which is probably why Gordy turned down Aretha Franklin for the same stated reason W. C. Handy had turned down Bessie Smith — “She’s too rough”) and run his company like a factory, carefully building his artists’ images and emphasizing their middle-class Black professional backgrounds (which was one of the sources for the oft-repeated myth that Diana Ross was hired by Berry Gordy as a secretary and he only discovered by accident that she could sing; in fact she’d already been signed and Gordy simply used her as an office temp on a few occasions after he found out she’d been to secretarial school: it was a way of amortizing her retainer and the advances on the early Supremes records that hadn’t sold) so they’d seem sufficiently “safe” for the white owners of radio and TV to let them on the air. (The campaign was so successful that the Supremes became the artists who played the Ed Sullivan Show more often than any others — and the clips of their Sullivan appearances are an ironic reflection of how great the Funk Brothers were: their vocal performances are fine but the efforts of Sullivan’s old white big-band era leftovers to reproduce the Funk Brothers’ grooves are embarrassing and pathetic.)
Certainly if there were economic as well as musical justice in the world Gordy wouldn’t have pulled the plug on it all as wretchedly and insensitively as it did — leaving a sign on the door of Hitsville when the musicians showed up for the next session that there wasn’t going to be another one, that night or ever, and palming off the men who’d done such a large part to build his fortune with nothing more than 14 years of memories and a forced return to the scuffling jazz gigs that had supported them before. Some of the musicians, including James Jamerson, tried following the company to L.A. — where they were small fish in a big pond; L.A. producers who wanted a Motown-style bass line were more likely to call their friends who could do a reasonable simulacrum rather than seek out the virtually unknown musician who had created those licks, and Jamerson’s habits did him in in 1983 (two weeks after he had scalped a ticket to the taping of the Motown 25th anniversary TV show and sat quietly at the back of the theatre — at an event at which by all rights he should have been on the stage with his fellow Funk Brothers, acknowledged and féted).
Standing in the Shadows of Motown also shows how the political stresses of the 1960’s affected the Funk Brothers and Motown in general — especially after the group started hiring white musicians (including the amazing guitarist Joe Messina, whom they got from the Soupy Sales Show — the film includes a clip of Messina playing a hot jazz guitar solo on a Charlie Parker song from the Sales show: who knew Soupy Sales was that hip?) and especially especially when the race riots broke out in Detroit in 1967 and the Funk Brothers walked out of the studio into the middle of a race war and their main concern was getting their two white members out of there and back to their homes in one piece) — and how African-American musicians in quite different grooves from Motown’s, like Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, challenged Motown’s dominance by becoming stars. I hear little audible influence of Hendrix in the later Motown records (most of the people Hendrix influenced were white heavy-metalers and jazz-fusion players) but a lot of Sly Stone — indeed even at the time records like “Cloud Nine” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” were released, Motown alumni were giving interviews saying things like, “I think Sly has freaked Norman (Whitfield) out, because everything he’s writing and producing now sounds like Sly!”
Standing in the Shadows of Motown — an evocative title with many meanings (it references one of the great records of the time and the company, the Four Tops’ “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” and describes the Funk Brothers “standing in the shadows” of a company they helped build and ultimately had to realize they were merely hired hands of, as well as a legacy of all those hit records they helped make hits but never got credit for — there’s one story about how the man who played the guitar lick on the Temptations’ “My Girl” heard it come on while he was at a restaurant, was about to tell the waiter, “That’s — ” and then interrupted himself and gave his order, and the other Funk Brothers he was with said, “Why didn’t you tell him that was you on that record?” “Because he’d see this old burned-out guy and he’d never believe it”) — is one of the great music documentaries, even though the new performances of the Motown classics are more dutiful than inspired (the Funk Brothers’ grooves are as febrile as ever but of the modern-day singers, only Chaka Khan really rises to the music instead of just delivering it) and the story ultimately resolves into one of the peculiar mixtures of joy and sadness — the sheer infectious joy of the music then and now and the sadness of the fates of so many of the people who made it — that mark virtually all accounts of the music business and how it works in the real world.