Veteran Motown Musicians Emerge from Shadows
5 minutes ago
By Dean Goodman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Everyone can name a few artists who recorded for the legendary Motown Records label: Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Supremes, The Jackson 5,
The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight & the Pips, The Commodores and Smokey Robinson.
But who actually played on the songs? Whose bass line rumbled through "Bernadette" from the Four Tops? Who's playing that rattlesnake tambourine on "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," Gaye's best-known hit? Who kept the beat on "Cloud Nine," the Temptations' cautionary drugs tale?
The Funk Brothers, that's who. A core of 13 anonymous studio pros who helped invent the vocabulary of modern R&B and pop music. They played on more No. 1 hits than the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley (news) and the Beach Boys -- combined.
But when Funk Brother Joe Hunter hears a radio playing Marvin Gaye's "Pride and Joy" or Martha & the Vandellas' "Heat Wave," he knows better than to tell anyone that he's the pianist.
"If you do, they look at you like you need psychiatry," Hunter told Reuters in a recent interview. "I never like to embarrass myself."
His story, and those of his colleagues, is finally getting told in a documentary that opens on Friday in North American movie theaters, "Standing in the Shadows of Motown."
The film is the brainchild of Allan Slutsky, a professional musician who wrote an award-winning book about late Funk Brother James Jamerson in 1989 and worked full time for the next 11 years trying to raise the money for a film about Jamerson's colleagues.
"I wanted to see the guys get some glory while they're here," Slutsky said. "Instead of the usual black situation where black musicians die in the gutter and then posthumously they get an award."
"BROKE AND UNKNOWN"
Seven of the Funk Brothers are dead now, and others are in poor health. Jamerson, regarded as the first virtuoso of the electric bass, died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1986. But Slutsky said he really succumbed to a broken heart, "because he knew what he had done, and he knew nobody out of Detroit and the musicians' community knew what he had done."
Jamerson's bass lines were replicated note for note on such diverse tunes as "Cool Jerk," the theme from TV's "Barney Miller," Hall & Oates' "Maneater" and the B-52's "Love Shack." Yet he got no recognition, much less payment, for them.
"He was broke and unknown, and it just ate him up," said Slutsky, who noted that Jamerson was extremely well paid by Motown during the late 1960s.
The film is an attempt to let Jamerson's surviving colleagues go out in style. Indeed, the Funk Brothers -- or their estates -- will receive half of any profits. Slutsky also hopes the musicians will get work out of it, just as the Oscar-nominated documentary "Buena Vista Social Club" reinvigorated the careers of the featured Cuban performers.
It would be one of the greatest comebacks in music history. In 11 years, Slutsky made at least 1,000 pitches to prospective financiers around the globe. No one was interested.
In that time, a few more Funk Brothers died, including keyboardist and band leader Earl van Dyke, in 1992. When Robert White, the guitarist behind the riff on "My Girl," died in 1994 after routine heart surgery, Slutsky was devastated.
"The only good thing to come out of Robert dying is it pissed me off so much that there was no way I was gonna stop after that," he recalled.
The funding eventually came through in 2000 courtesy of a chance meeting with a high-tech mogul, and filming started with music documentary veteran Paul Justman at the helm.
Licensing fees for the 30 Motown songs used in the movie would have swallowed the $2.7 million budget, but Slutsky said Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. arranged a deal for $300,000.
The movie revolves around a concert filmed in Detroit over six days, when singers such as Joan Osborne (news), Chaka Khan, Bootsy Collins and Me'Shell NdegeOcello performed Motown gems backed by the reunited Funk Brothers, who had gone their separate ways after Gordy moved Motown to Los Angeles in 1972.
It also includes rare footage from the Motown archive, interviews and some re-creations of comical anecdotes relayed by the spry musicians.
Some people have questioned why Motown singers like Wonder and Diana Ross did not perform. Slutsky said he approached everyone, but was turned down.
Four Tops lead vocalist Levi Stubbs would have done it "in two seconds," Slutsky said, but he was battling cancer at the time, and his rough-hewn voice has since been ravaged by a stroke. Similarly, every major musician who has ever raved about Motown was asked to participate.
"And I thought that these people would be clawing at each other just to play with these legends. And you know what? Nobody gave a crap. And that blew me away."
Either way, the focus is still clearly on the Funk Brothers, eight of whom were alive during the film. Two have subsequently died -- drummer Richard "Pistol" Allen in July, and keyboardist Johnny Griffith on Nov. 10.
Unbeknownst to Slutsky, Allen was dying from cancer, and fellow drummer Uriel Jones needed quintuple bypass surgery. Days after completing a hectic shooting schedule that sometimes involved 18-hour days, both were hospitalized.
"They really risked their lives," Slutsky said. "The reason they did it was because they knew their entire lives were on the line. So they weren't going to give up until they had laid down their groove."