Standing in the Shadows of Motown

Do you like music? Have you heard of Motown? Most everyone has, I think. And more than likely you can name a Motown artist. If not, then I bet that you’ll at least recognize a name or two from this list: Marvin Gaye, The Contours, The Four Tops, Gladys Knight and The Pips, Martha and The Vandellas, Stevie Wonder. Ring any bells?

If that didn’t do it, how about a Motown hit? See if any of these sound familiar:

I Heard It Through The Grapevine
“My Girl”
“What’s Going On?”
“Shot Gun”
“Dancing In The Street”
“Going To A Go-Go”
“Cloud Nine”
“Ain’t Too Proud To Beg”
“Please Mr. Postman”

Recognize any of those? You’ve gotta know at least one of those songs; they defined not just one, but many generations. One song in particular, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” could easily be resurrected as a poignant anthem perfect for our current global political challenges.

These songs are timeless. Not only were they great dance tunes – fast or slow – (they still are), some of them were (are) complete game changers.  They’ve gone on to sell products on the radio and television, they punctuated movie scenes, and they were studied and then covered by bands like the Rolling Stones and The Beatles and brought round for another go (as in “Going To A Go-Go” covered by the Stones and “Please Mr. Postman” covered by The Beatles, to only name a few.)

Back to the Motown Artists. I only listed a handful of them, but I’m sure you recognized at least a few. Do you know who the musicians were that played for those artists? Today, the whole band gets billing; we know who plays lead guitar, who’s on bass, who’s on drums, who’s on keyboards, etc. Can you think of a single Motown musician? Aside from the singers? If you can, kudos to you: You are in the vast minority.

Here is an interesting trivia question: What one band has played on more #1 records than The Beatles, The Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, and Elvis Presley combined?

Give up?

The Funk Brothers!

Never heard of them? Sadly, you’re not alone.  Don’t let that stop you; you have now and you owe it to yourself to learn more about them and to spread the word.

Way back in the early days of Motown, even before Berry Gordy bought the house on West Grand Boulevard that became Hitsville USA in Detroit, he prowled the Jazz clubs looking for the top musicians of the day. He hired these men to be the studio band (Studio A) or session artists for Hitsville, a.k.a. Motown.

The Funk Brothers, Jack “Black Jack” Ashford, Bob Babbitt, Joe Hunter, Uriel Jones, Joe Messina, Eddie “Chank” Willis, Richard “Pistol” Allen, William “Papa Zita” Benjamin, Eddie “Bongo” Brown, Johnny Griffith, James “Igor” Jamerson, Earl “Chunk of Funk” Van Dyke, and Robert White, played hip Jazz together in the top clubs in Detroit by night, and used the splits they perfected the night before in the songs they recorded for Motown the next day.

Their talent and creativity, and above all their friendship and support, woven into the warp and weft of the sheer number of hours that they played together, combined to create a band like no other. With no disrespect to the recording artists whose hits we happily sing along to, The Funk Brothers laid down tracks that were so perfect and so alive in and of themselves that any singer with talent could have stood at the microphone and recorded a hit. Without The Funk brothers, the song wouldn’t have been the same. But when it came down to it, only the folks in the industry knew their names.

The Funk Brothers started playing together for Motown in 1959 and they thought it would last forever.  But when Jimi Hendrix arrived on the scene and people were taken up with effects like the wah wah pedal, Berry Gordy moved Motown Records to Los Angeles. The Funk Brothers showed up at Studio A and found a note on the door that said there would be no work that day.  It was the end of an era.

A few of the Brothers moved to L.A. to make a go of it with the new sounds, but they found that without the support of the rest of the group, it just wasn’t the same, and they soon came back to Detroit. They returned to playing clubs mostly, raising families, and living with the pain of being forgotten. They essentially disbanded in 1972.

If you’re thinking, “But they must have made plenty of money…they had a lot of hit records,” think again. Remember the era in which they played. With a few minor exceptions, they weren’t even credited as musicians on the hit tracks they recorded. They got paid, but not like musicians get paid today.

So, if you’re wondering why I’m telling you about The Funk Brothers, it’s because I write about marketing and motivation and working from home. One of my mantras is “If not you, then who?” And I do my level best to put my money where my mouth is. When I tell you that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, it’s because I believe it; it’s not just to make you feel better. So, if not ME, then who?

I want folks to hear about The Funk Brothers. I believe that their story deserves to be heard just as their music does and I encourage you to learn more about them. If you’re interested, there’s a great movie available on DVD called Standing in the Shadows of Motown

If you’re a book lover, then I encourage you to pick up a copy of the book that inspired the movie: Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson

Also, I’d bet you dollars to donuts that not a single one of those musicians would trade a minute of their experience for anything – regardless of the money or fame or anything else. They were doing what they loved with the people that they loved and that was what mattered to them. They were making magic and they brought that magic into our lives. That magic still lives every time you hear their songs.  That they’re getting some long overdue and much deserved recognition is gratifying to be sure, but I’d wager that to a man, if they had to do over, they wouldn’t change a thing.

So for me, aside from the obvious message in their music, the music in their message is this: Follow your passion. If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.  That, my friend, is priceless.


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