Feature: In the 'Shadows' of Motown

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Early in the new documentary "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," the filmmakers visit a record store and ask customers to identify the Funk Brothers. Their overwhelming response: Who?

That's not a surprise. The Funk Brothers, a collective of musicians who served as the Motown studio band, labored in nameless and faceless obscurity as they created the instrumental tracks for hits sung by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and all of the famed Detroit label's marquee stars.


The records didn't carry musician credits, and the company made no effort to promote the hotbed of virtuoso creativity that took place in Studio A -- aka the Snake Pit -- at its Hitsville U.S.A. headquarters.

But, as "Shadows" narrator Andre Braugher points out early in the film, the Funk Brothers played on more No. 1 singles than Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones. Combined. Clearly a story exists that's worth telling -- and "Shadows" exists to write the wrong that their story has never been told, in this depth, before.


"These guys have a tremendous story, tremendous talent and a monumental size of their contribution in comparison to any studio band," says Allan "Dr. Licks" Slutsky, who conceived of a Funk Brothers documentary after the 1987 publication of his book "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," a biography of the label's legendary bassist James Jamerson.

"Everyone thinks of Marvin (Gaye), Stevie (Wonder) and Diana (Ross), but you can't dance to a vocal track by itself; You dance to these guys. You have to step back and say 'How the hell did we let this (story) get away for so long?'"

Or, as Funk Brothers drummer Uriel Jones succinctly points out, "It's putting the faces and names to the Motown sound. We've got bragging rights, and we can prove it."

Through vintage footage, testimonials, priceless and sometimes heartbreaking anecdotes from 10 of the principals and a handful of dramatized scenes using actors, "Shadows" lauds the Funk Brothers as architects of the Motown sound equal -- if not superior -- to any of the singers, songwriters or producers who worked alongside them but received greater credit -- and payment.

Motown arranger Paul Riser acknowledges "What was the Motown sound? It was the musicians." And New York-based session drummer Steve Jordan notes that 'You could've had Deputy Dawg sing on this stuff and they would've still been hits" -- an observation that rankled Motown singer Martha Reeves at one of the early screenings of the film.


Recruited by Berry Gordy, Jr., from Detroit's jazz clubs -- with other members coming from out of town -- Funk Brothers such as Jamerson, drummer Benny "Papa Zita" Benjamin, keyboardists Joe Hunter and Earl "Chunk of Funk" Van Dyke, and others brought a collision of sensibilities that churned together to craft what was dubbed as the Sound of Young America.

"One of the keys to recording success is you have to be able to use good musical discretion, what to use and what not to use," explains percussionist Jack "Black Jack" Ashford, whose tambourine and vibraphones were signatures of many Motown hits. "We knew what to do 'cause we had such a strong base to draw on.

"Earl (Van Dyke) would say 'You know that thing we did on the Four Tops' such-and-such hit? Put it in there and see what it feels like.' The producers would say 'Man, that feels great,' and we knew it felt good 'cause it had sold two million records already!"

Ashford notes that after the sessions, Motown's assorted writers and producers would say to him and the other Funk Brothers "'I hope you guys don't ask for compensation for this' -- and, of course, we never did. On some of them we should have; the (producers) would come in with nothing, three or four chords, and after we got finished with the Funk Brothers process, it was a hit. We brought more to them than the producers."


The Four Tops' Abdul "Duke" Fakir says Motown's singers were "totally aware" of the contribution the musicians were making down in the Snake Pit -- and that they pushed him and his colleagues to greater heights in their own performances.

"We knew how hard they worked and the kind of emotion they were putting into it," Fakir says. "We knew had to put that same kind of emotion into what we did or the tracks would overshadow us."

Ashford, however, counters that "I don't think any of the Funk Brothers ever received a Christmas card from anybody (who) we helped make a million dollars."

But despite the myriad hits they were helping to create, the Funk Brothers claim blissful ignorance about the impact Motown's music was having during the '60s and early '70s. "We didn't know we were making history 'cause we were too busy making it," Ashford, 68, says with a laugh.

Jones, 68, explains that "the reason we didn't realize how big they were was 'cause we were all jazz-oriented musicians and jazz lovers. When we listened to the radio, we were listening to the jazz stations. So we didn't really know what was going on back then."


And they weren't listening to the radio very much; as "Shadows" documents, when not in the Snake Pit they were playing sessions for other labels or working in the Detroit clubs -- often stumbling onto new ideas that they'd use in subsequent Motown sessions.

But as keyboardist Hunter, 75, notes, there was eventually a growing feeling that "we were being left out of the dream" -- particularly after Motown closed its Detroit operations and moved to Los Angeles in 1972, with nothing more than a note on the Snake Pit door to inform the musicians of the change.

In making "Shadows," Slutsky and director Paul Justman worked to balance the stories of triumph and heartbreak, as well as evoke a sense of what being a Funk Brother meant. "It's a movie about friendship, not just music," Justman explains, and that's particularly evident in scenes in which the white Funk Brothers -- guitarist Joe Messina and bassist Bob Babbitt -- delve into the acceptance and love they received from their black associates.

For the Philadelphia-born Slutsky, getting "Shadows" on screen was a decade-and-a-half ordeal of finding financing and studio support for a story that didn't, on the surface seem as sexy as those of any of the individual Motown recording acts. His persistence, he says, was driven by "the specter of death."


Jamerson, Benjamin and Eddie "Bongo" Brown had already passed away when the project started; Van Dyke, guitarist Robert White and drummer Richard "Pistol" Allen died during the process, while keyboardist Johnny Griffith suffered a fatal heart attack on November 10, the day "Shadows" premiered in Detroit.

"I knew we had to make this happen while as many of them were still alive as possible," Slutsky says. "They deserved to see some glory for the great things they had done."

Gordy -- who had cooperated with Slutsky on the "Shadows" book -- helped again by giving Slutsky, Justman and their partners the rights to 30 Motown songs for the film, an unprecedented gesture for a project he wasn't directly involved with.

And while Motown-influenced singers such as Rod Stewart and Elton John backed off of their early interest in being part of the film, their places were admirably taken by contemporary artists such as Joan Osborne, Ben Harper, Chaka Khan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Gerald Levert, Bootsy Collins, Montell Jordan and saxophonist Tom Scott, who came to Detroit to perform with the Funk Brothers in sessions filmed in suburban Detroit.


"It was great, just playing with them and hearing the stories of how they put the records together," says Ndegeocello, who sings Smokey Robinson's "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" in the film. "It'll be great for people to see and know these cats who didn't get any credits."

Levert -- who performs Junior Walker's "Shotgun" and the Four Tops' "Reach Out I'll Be There" -- says he also "had a ball up there, singing and playing with them and asking questions -- like how they got that gun sound in the beginning of 'Shotgun.'

"It was amazing to me that these guys didn't know all the songs they played on; Berry Gordy would just put a sheet in front of them without a name on it, and they'd make up something to go with the sheet music and these became songs that have lasted forever."

Harper, meanwhile, reciprocated the experience by quietly slipping each of the Funk Brothers $100 to "go buy the guys some coffee."

Besides the overdue acknowledgement for their work, the Funk Brothers say "Shadows" has given them a future as well. After performing at a variety of premieres and film festivals around North America, the remaining musicians -- Ashford, Babbitt, Hunter, Jones, Messina and guitarist Eddie "Chank" Willis -- hope to tour and possibly record, using some of the singers who provided backing vocals in the film.


"We want to work to say that 'If you liked us before, you'll love us now,'" says Ashford. "These years haven't been wasted; these years have been sitting back, waiting for the possibility for something to happen.

"We're ready to run to the starting gate, ready to play. We know what our potential is; all we gotta do is step into the place and do the job."

Slutsky -- who's been playing guitar with the Funk Brothers -- is also planning a second CD to join the film's soundtrack, a collection that will feature unreleased live performances and instrumental versions of other Motown hits.

And there are enough outtakes from the filming, he says, to make an "incredible" DVD package next year.

But wherever the future takes the Funk Brothers, the "Shadows'" filmmakers feel like their project has accomplished their primary goal.

"We feel like we did the job for the guys," says director Justman. "The Funk Brothers will no longer be invisible."

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