Out of the Shadows of Motown

Sep 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Paul D. Lehrman

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You know the hits, now read the book. You've read the book, now listen to the tapes. You've listened to the tapes, now watch the movie. You've seen the movie, now buy the DVD.

No, it's not Harry Potter and the Invisible Weapons of Mass Destruction or The Matrix Regurgitated. For us in the music biz, this year's superhot multimedia property is Standing in the Shadows of Motown, a 16-year-long project that just keeps getting better and better. The latest incarnation is so good, in fact, that it actually inspired me to go out and buy a DVD player.

It all began in the late '80s when Philadelphia-based musician/writer/arranger/guitarist/fanatic Allan Slutsky, who publishes under the name Dr. Licks, decided to write a book about James Jamerson, probably the most influential bassist in rock 'n' roll history. Jamerson was one of the legendary jazz-trained Motown session players who called themselves The Funk Brothers, and whose work supported hundreds of hit records; as the opening titles of the movie (based on the book) tell us, the Brothers have “more Number One records than The Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley combined.”

Jamerson never garnered much attention for himself, but as anyone (especially a bass player) who has ever listened closely to his tracks knows, he was nothing less than a genius. He drove the Motown rhythm section with lines that were melodic, inventive and constantly in motion, defining the beats and harmonic structures by filling the spaces between them rather than simply coming down straight on them. Slutsky's biographical/instructional book, Standing in the Shadows of Motown — The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson, which came out in 1989 (and was covered in Mix in October 1990), supports Jamerson's reputation with the strongest possible evidence. Besides detailing Jamerson's life, which ended tragically at the young age of 47 after years of alcohol abuse, Slutsky's book also faithfully transcribes some four dozen of Jamerson's most amazing bass parts, from “Ain't No Mountain High Enough” to “You Can't Hurry Love.”

And there's more: Recordings of the transcriptions, along with some great interviews of Jamerson's friends and fans, are featured on two CDs that are stuck into the back of the book. (In the first printings, these were cassettes.) The 24 players on the recordings include luminaries like John Entwistle, Will Lee, Jack Bruce, John Patitucci and Jamerson's son, James Jr., who also talk about their love of and respect for the Motown bassist's work. The recordings are in the old “music-minus-one” style: The bass part is on one channel and the rest of the instrumental tracks are on the other. Slutsky's book is still available, and for about the cost of a six-pack of rewritable DVDs, you can't ask for a more valuable educational tool.

But Slutsky, who knew he was onto a good thing, wasn't finished there. Paul McCartney's opening greeting on the CD remarks, “I hope this project goes on to greater heights.” He didn't know how right he would be. After the book came out (and won a few awards), the author, having made friends with many of the musicians who worked with Jamerson, began to think about a more comprehensive project — aimed at a wider audience — that would involve all of the Funk Brothers. He linked up with documentary producer and director Paul Justman and producer Sandy Passman, and got financing from a couple of musician/fans of Motown. The team organized a series of live shows at the Royal Oak Music Theater in Detroit, featuring seven of the surviving original Brothers and a supporting cast of a couple of dozen other first-class players and singers. The musicians, who hadn't played together in years, rehearsed for a week, using Slutsky's transcriptions to support their own memories, some of which were hazy. (“Did I really play that?” Slutsky heard more than once.) The concerts were shot with multiple 35mm cameras and recorded and mixed by the redoubtable Kooster McAllister.

Surrounding the concert footage, we get to see the Brothers rehearsing, reminiscing and articulately explaining the elements of their musical success. Because many of the original singers are retired or dead, the lead vocals at the concert were handled by some newer talents — Ben Harper, Méshell Ndegéocello and Chaka Kahn among them — but the point is well made that the vocalists in Motown were often not the most important factor in the label's musical success: It was the band. “You could take a chicken, bring him into the studio and have him squawk on two and four, and you would have a hit record,” one of the Brothers declares in the DVD's supplementary material, and you realize that he's probably right.

There were, for example, three guitarists on many of the sessions, and when a new arrangement came in, they would divvy up their parts, virtually in seconds: one playing a riff down low, another the backbeat high up the neck, and the third a syncopated pattern in the middle. They created textures that were, well, funky and unique to Motown, which acolytes — even those as brilliant as The Beatles and the Stones — could only hope to approximate, never duplicate.

The performances from a mad-hatted Bootsy Collins on “Cool Jerk” and “Do You Love Me,” and by an ecstatic Joan Osborne on “Heat Wave” and “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” are fabulous, as is Tom Scott's alto sax solo on “Shotgun.” But it's the Funk Brothers, cooking along on tracks that they defined 30 and 40 years ago, and the joy in their faces, who really catch your eye and put a lump in your throat. Drummer Uriel Jones says, “After so many years, we were all a little unsure about playing together. But we surprised ourselves…we had the Motown sound.” Correction: They were the Motown sound.

The filmmakers do a fine job of framing the music in the context of the tumultuous world that inspired the sound. As the film's narrator notes, “Motown played a pre-eminent role in the cultural soundtrack” that accompanied, and commented on, the events of the '60s. When the film then segues into Chaka Khan's rendition of “What's Going On,” arguably the pinnacle of the Motown era (and the first record on which the individual musicians were credited), it is at once joyous and chilling.

None of the Motown session players became rich, but they weren't ripped off as badly as many musicians of the time, and some were able to afford respectable middle-class existences on what they earned in Berry Gordy's studio and elsewhere. The movie, which was produced with Gordy's cooperation (he still controls a large share of the music, after all), treads lightly on this area, but in one interview, drummer Jones, who still does some music teaching, makes an apt allusion to the economic dichotomy: “The kids say, ‘If you played on all those hit records, what are you doing teaching us?’”

While Motown was predominantly a black enterprise, not all of the players were African-American. Joe Messina was the “white boy” sitting between two black Brothers. “They called us ‘The Oreo Cookie Guitar Section,’” he says with a laugh. But then he and percussionist Jack Ashford recall a tense moment after a late-night session in July of 1967, when tensions between police and the black community reached a fever pitch and Detroit was rioting. “Everything was burning down,” says Ashford, “and you protect your family. These were my brothers here. I didn't think about color. I would have gone down for them, even at the hands of a black brother.” Méshell Ndegéocello interviews white bassist Bob Babbitt, who breaks down when he recalls how he was treated by the other players after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination the next year. “Had the role been reversed and we had been in a predominantly white area and something broke out, I would have took a bullet for Jack,” he says.

There are many other poignant scenes, such as when the players visit the long-unused basement of Gordy's old Detroit home. Now a museum, the old Studio A at Hitsville USA was otherwise known as “The Snakepit.” “It's still in there,” says Ashford, referring to the spirit and prayers of Gordy and all who worked there. There's great sadness and frustration associated with the place, too: Slutsky relates one tale when he was at a restaurant with normally articulate guitarist Robert White, who played the lead line on “My Girl.” When that song came on the sound system, White started to tell the waiter that it was he who was playing on the record, but got too embarrassed to finish his sentence and, instead, just ordered his barbecued chicken. Says Slutsky, “I knew at that point, Robert desperately needed some recognition in his lifetime.” That recognition is finally at hand, but, unfortunately, White didn't live long enough to receive it.

To see the movie in a theater, which I did last year, is wonderful. But even so, the DVD adds a lot to the experience. On disc, the film is divided into 35 intelligently chosen chapters, which makes it easy to jump around, and also makes it possible to just watch the music sequences. There are the usual extra audio tracks, which include 2-channel and 5.1 Dolby and 6.1 DTS surround, running commentary from Slutsky and Justman and a reasonably informative MST3K-style onscreen “trivia track.” Extra material (much of which comes on a second disc) includes a black-and-white video of interviews with some of the Brothers (including White) from 1993 that helped raise funding for the film; biographical interviews; tributes to the Brothers who've died; scenes that had to be cut from the film due to time constraints; a bunch of onstage, club and studio jam sessions, some of which are done “multi-angle”; and a delightful and touching segment entitled “Dinner With the Funks,” which I would have been happy to watch for an hour or more.

And the project keeps going. The Funk Brothers themselves have gone on tour around the U.S.; this fall and winter, they are scheduled to go to Europe and Australia. Slutsky is continuing to explore the old tracks, and is planning a release of some remixes of the original Motown multitrack masters, which will showcase instrumental parts and licks hidden in well-known songs that no one has heard before. “Pushing up faders and punching mute buttons, and hearing all of this amazing stuff,” he says, “it's a musician's dream.”

•••

From literally the other side of the planet comes news of another great loss to the music world: the death of Italian composer Luciano Berio on May 28 at age 77.

Berio was an extraordinarily prolific composer and wrote for all combinations of instruments and voices, including 14 Sequenzas: fiendishly intricate pieces for solo instruments. His monumental “Sinfonia” brought together the disparate forces of the New York Philharmonic and baroque-jazz group the Swingle Singers in the late 1960s. But in my opinion, his most amazing works were his early electronic pieces, dating back to the '50s: intense and evocative tone poems and collages that often featured the breathtakingly nimble soprano voice of his first wife, American-born Cathy Berberian. His works were as good a refute as you'll ever need to use against those who argue that electronic music was sterile and inhuman.

I was in high school when I stumbled across his 21-minute acid-flash audio horror movie Visage and Thema, his deconstruction of a part from James Joyce's Ulysses. Thema uses virtuoso tape-editing techniques that still elicit gasps of admiration from my students when I explain patiently to them that, no, Pro Tools wasn't available in 1958. (In fact, somebody once told me that when Berio was shown Pro Tools for the first time, he exclaimed, “So why did I work so hard?”)

Up there with Varése, Ussachevsky, Cage and Stockhausen, Berio was a god to those of us who listened to electronic music at the beginning of its evolution. I even got to work with him once in the early '80s. A local contemporary-music group putting on a concert of his music suddenly realized that they needed a small pipe organ for a piece and the hall didn't have one. For some reason, they knew I had a computer-based synthesis system that could do a reasonably good pipe organ imitation. (It was an alphaSyntauri system on an Apple II, which otherwise sounded awful.) Though the composer initially looked upon the contraption with an expression that alternated between horror and contempt, he smiled at me afterward and admitted that it didn't sound too bad. In fact, the whole concert was terrific.

As is true of Jamerson, there is much education to be gleaned from listening to the music of Berio. Visage and Thema are available on CD, although on the relatively hard-to-find Dutch BVHAAST label (www.xs4all.nl/~wbk/BVHAAST.html). Needless to say, it's worth hunting down.


Paul Lehrman's personal musical fanaticism can be viewed at antheil.org, while his past rantings are available at insider audio.com.

Bonus photographs from Standing In the Shadows of Motown:


Robert White (left) and Joe Messina in Studio A at Hitsville USA
Photo courtesy the Funk Brothers/Property of Artisan Entertainment


From left: Funk Brothers Jack Ashford, Pistol Allen, Joe Hunter and Eddie Willis with Joan Osborne
Photo: Karen Sas/Property of Artisan Entertainment


Bob Babbitt (left) and Eddie Willis with an impassioned Ben Harper (center) performing "Ain't Too Proud to Beg."
Photo: Karen Sas/Property of Artisan Entertainment


Director Paul Justman on the stage of the Royal Oak Music Theater giving instructions to the film crew.
Photo: Karen Sas/Property of Artisan Entertainment






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