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Can I Get a Witness?

A New Film Brings the Men Behind the Motown Sound to Light

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 11/27/2002

At one point in the new documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown (see sidebar review), Jack Ashford sums up the secret of Motown Records' success. "We had the experience," he declares, "and they had the talent."

By "they," he means the singers, songwriters, and producers at Motown, young kids like Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, and Diana Ross, who came straight off the streets of Detroit, bursting with energy and ideas. By "we," he means the Funk Brothers, the Motown house band, the older jazz and blues musicians who laid down the muscular instrumental tracks that propelled the kids' ideas into musical legend.

The Funk Brothers were talented, of course; they were some of the best musicians in the Midwest. But they were more interested in the complications of marriage and the subtleties of Duke Ellington than they were in the infatuations of adolescence and the giddiness of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. They weren't going to come up with "The Sound of Young America" on their own.

Berry Gordy, Motown's founder, had the genius to realize that if he put young singers off the street together with veteran jazz musicians, he'd have the best of both worlds--the racing hormones and urgent energy of youth married to the crisp swing and sophisticated harmonies of experience.

So when Smokey Robinson came into Motown's "Hitsville U.S.A" at 2648 W. Grand Blvd. in Detroit with a ditty melody and a poem about "My Girl" and how she was like "sunshine on a cloudy day," that was only half the battle. It was the Funk Brothers who took that fledgling idea and transformed it into one of the great recordings of the 20th century.

It was James Jamerson who created that hypnotic three-note bass riff. It was Robert White who invented the stair-climbing guitar intro. It was Benny Benjamin who provided the compact drum roll that exploded into each verse and chorus. It was Eddie Willis who played the clipped rhythm guitar that propelled the song forward. It was Jack Ashford who added the tambourine smacks and slap-stick hits that made the one-beat in each measure sound like a shotgun blast.

The 68-year-old Ashford, a tall man in graying Afro and a Seattle Supersonics T-shirt, and the 66-year-old Willis, a smaller, bald man in a backward baseball cap, visited Baltimore recently on a promotional tour. Yes, it's true that they didn't get the credit or money they should have during their Motown years, but the pleasure of their memories was obvious in their broad grins.

"If we had thought about the money," Ashford maintains, "the music wouldn't have been as good. We were in love with the craft. What we cared about was coming up with a lick that no one had heard before. We may not have been well-known around the world, but in Detroit we could walk on water."

"We were happy with the money we got," Willis admits. "We could make a full-time living playing music and didn't have to travel. We had a new Cadillac every few years. Plus we enjoyed going to work, because it's very rare for a musician to join a band that works together so much and cares about each other so much."

"Berry knew what he had," Ashford adds. "He knew if he got experienced jazz cats in there who could read, he could work fast and get good results."

Says the film's producer Allan Slutsky, "Berry was a jazz wannabe and liked to hang out with jazz musicians in the clubs. . . . But he wasn't trying to sell jazz--he was trying to market young, dashing faces. He went after that image of a young couple kissing in a convertible while Smokey came out of the dashboard radio. But the reason Smokey sounded so good coming out of that radio was the Funk Brothers."

Motown wasn't the only R&B label of that era to team up young singers with older musicians. Stax did it in Memphis, Tenn., Atlantic did it in New York, and Imperial and Minit did it in New Orleans. But there was something different about the Funk Brothers, and that difference was jazz. The Funk Brothers played Detroit's jazz clubs most nights, and they would bring ideas from the night before into the studio the next morning.

"If you think about Booker T. and the MGs at Stax," Slutsky says, "it's a very sparse and elegant sound--just organ, bass, drums, and guitar. Motown, by contrast, had a very thick sound. There are three drummers on 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine,' for example, and three keyboards on 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough.' And by using different jazz voicings, those extra instruments didn't sound redundant. And while Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn of the MGs are great blues players, they weren't virtuosos. James Jamerson was a virtuoso."

"No one ever did a drum pick-up like Benny Benjamin," Ashford adds. "Earl Van Dyke's piano glissando on 'Pride and Joy' is brilliant. Our music wasn't blues--it came out of jazz. Blues cats can play a shuffle, but no one swung like the Funk Brothers did. You have to have jazz chops to swing like that."

As Standing in the Shadows of Motown points out, the Funk Brothers played on more No. 1 singles than any band in history. They never got much credit for that feat, but now they are getting some long overdue attention, thanks to the new film, the accompanying soundtrack album, and, hopefully, a tour this winter.

"If we were unsung," complains Ashford, "it was only because Motown never bothered to sing about us. Perhaps they should have had Marvin Gaye sing a cappella and see if that became a hit."

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