Movie Review: “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” – posted 4/6/2014
I suppose it is not exactly news to review a movie that came out 12 years ago. Still, I wanted to write about “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” and the Funk Brothers who are featured. My friend Jim told me about the movie and passed it along.
I have always loved soul music so it was not too hard to get me to watch.
There is a scene early in the movie that pretty much says it all. The interviewer (this is a documentary) asks a number of young customers in a record store if they know about Motown music. To a person, everyone said “yes”. When asked about Motown artists, the names that came up were Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, the Four Tops and the Supremes.
The interviewer then asked the same customers if they knew who played the music for the Motown vocalists. Nobody knew. When asked if they had heard of the Funk Brothers, no one knew who they were.
I have to say I was another one of the ignorant. I had never heard of the Funk Brothers even though they figured in a long string of monster Motown hits. They played the music for almost all the major Motown acts. Martha Reeves said that without the Funk Brothers there would have been no Motown.
Berry Gordy, the founder of the Motown label, started assembling musicians in late 1958. They played in the basement Hitsville U.S.A studio known as the Snakepit. The musicians played around Detroit and mostly had background in jazz. Jack Ashford, one of the Funk Brothers, said they wanted to be like Miles Davis. They used to hang and jam at the Chit Chat club as well as other local venues. I will name some of the names. The movie does a good job of telling us interesting information about many of the musicians.
James Jamerson, the bass player, was prominently featured in the movie. He was a highly skilled artist and could play with one finger which was famously called the Hook. He was mostly uncredited (Motown did not list session musician credits on their releases until 1971) yet he is now recognized as one of the most influential bass players ever.
His story was tragic. When Motown moved its headquarters to Los Angeles in 1972, Jamerson and the other Funk Brothers were mostly left behind. They had been rooted in Detroit and its music scene. While some of the artists tried to relocate west, that apparently did not work out.
Jamerson struggled with alcoholism. His daughter poignantly described how he took pride in caring for those around him and providing for his family. His daughter said he felt like less than a man because he was not able to be a provider like he had been in the earlier part of his career.
At a live 1983 show commemorating the 25th anniversary of Motown, Jamerson had to scalp a ticket to sit in the balcony. It was never explained why Motown treated Jamerson so shabbily. It sounded like the music business as usual with the artist getting screwed while the label took all the cash. Jamerson died in August 1983, 2 months after that show where he was ignominiously relegated to a balcony seat. In 2000, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Jamerson.
Then there was Benny Benjamin, the drummer for the Funk Brothers. Berry Gordy insisted Benjamin and Jamerson both be included in recording sessions. Benjamin died very young in 1969 at age 43. He had drug issues and he disappeared and turned up dead.
On keyboards, there was Earl Van Dyke. His style was described as guerilla piano. Stevie Wonder described him as the musical foundation of the Funk Brothers. Stevie used to hang out and play with the band.
I feel like I should mention the other musicians like Joe Hunter, Jack Ashford, Eddie Willis, Uriel Jones, Joe Messina, Bob Babbitt and Eddie “Bongo” Brown, among others, because none got the recognition, reward, and fame they deserved.
Toward the end of the movie, the list of songs in which the Funk Brothers played is presented. It is nothing short of staggering and it did make me think more about how these guys could have done so much without any recognition. The movie politely sidestepped this question. I assume because it did not want to detract attention from the artists.
On the history of rock website, it says that for 14 years the Funk Brothers were on call 7 days a week, day and night. Usually sessions ran for 3 hours but things often went longer. The band had to do tunes in one take. Under union rules, they were not supposed to cut more than 4 songs but as the house band, the union was not around. The history of rock website says they would be paid $10 a song but not until everything was all right. When you think about the popularity of Motown hits, $10 a song is ridiculous. It did make me wonder how much money Motown records made and where the money went. That was not clarified.
Since the movie, things were a little bit rectified at least on the recognition front. In 2004, The Funk Brothers received a Grammy award for lifetime achievement and in 2013 they got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Unfortunately, after the movie, conflicts developed among the remaining band members. They split into two camps and performed separately.
One of the most enjoyable features of the movie are the live performances by artists playing with the Funk Brothers, circa 2002. Joan Osborne does a killer version of the old Jimmy Ruffin tune “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted”. I also liked her version of “Heat Wave”.
Ben Harper sings great versions of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” as well as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”.
I liked Bootsy Collins singing “Cool Jerk” too.
If you are a Motown fan, pick up the DVD or check it on netflix. I am sure it must be there. The music alone makes it worth it. If you want to know where the term “groovemaster” came from, it is probably these guys.