As the titles of hit after hit by the Four Tops, the Temptations and Marvin Gaye flood across the screen during the credits of Standing in the Shadows of Motown, you can‘t help wondering what primal source birthed a sound strong enough to hog the charts for a decade. From the ’60s on, three generations of Americans and quite a few non-Americans have squirmed out of the womb already knowing the rhythms of the Supremes‘ “Baby Love,” and they don’t even know why.
So Motown is in our DNA. But again, why? Clearly, it has everything to do with pasha Berry Gordy‘s genius for recognizing and developing the talent of performers and songwriters. But some of the other, less obvious reasons relate to jazz.
1959, the year Gordy went into business, was a nervous time for club musicians. Bebop had virtually expired, along with its most prominent exponent, Charlie Parker, by 1955. The avant-garde was just a spark in the hearths of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. Jazz hadn’t been popular music since radios and phonographs killed the big bands, and many starving improvisers either had learned to honk along with Little Richard and Elvis, or, like Art Blakey, had injected basic strains of R&B into their bop. This was also the year Miles Davis made his simplest and biggest-selling record, Kind of Blue.
In Detroit, home of Coltrane drummer Elvin Jones and torch-bearing post-bop pianist Barry Harris, Gordy found legions of skilled jazzmen looking to supplement the chicken feed they were scratching up in local clubs. A few of these became the shifting but consistent Hitsville recording-studio cadre later known locally as the Funk Brothers. And they had it.
Allan Slutsky, a session guitarist himself, knows what it means to make enormous contributions anonymously, so he wrote the book Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson, published in 1989. He then spent 11 years raising $3 million for the broader film version. Director Paul Justman, who had made rafts of early MTV videos by the likes of The Cars and the J. Geils Band, and had been an editor on film documentaries such as the Rolling Stones‘ Cocksucker Blues and Chuck Berry’s Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, came onboard 10 years ago.
I talked to Slutsky, Justman and seven of the Funk Brothers at the Knitting Factory in September.
L.A. WEEKLY: This was a labor of love, wasn‘t it?
ALLAN SLUTSKY: If I got paid in McDonald’s money for the hours I put into this, I‘d be rich.
PAUL JUSTMAN: The line producer said she was gonna send me to make sneakers in Thailand so I could make some money.
The sound is great.
SLUTSKY: It was important for us that we got Couster McAlister, who was the Record Plant guy who recorded John Lennon’s stuff. This is the first time that the Funk Brothers and the Motown sound were actually heard live. When Berry Gordy sent the Motown acts out, it wasn‘t the Motown sound, because it wasn’t the Funk Brothers. I was obsessed with trying to re-create all the little nuances. I was kind of arrogant, because I would write down every note off the record, and I‘m going up to these guys who played it, and trying to teach ’em what they did 40 years ago — because they don‘t remember!
These are jazz musicians, but the music doesn’t sound jazzy.
SLUTSKY: But there‘s such a time, because jazz is more demanding in the sense of time. There are really simple parts, but there are all these syncopations. Eddie Willis would lock it in with backbeats on the guitar. On the drums, Benny Benjamin would come in and just propel the whole thing. It took jazz guys to make it feel so good. How many times have you been at a bar mitzvah or a wedding, and you hear the obligatory Motown medley, “Heat Wave,” “Dancin’ in the Streets” and “My Girl”? Did it sound anything like the records? If it was that easy, everybody could do it.
Most Motown stuff is simple harmonically, but the chords Stevie Wonder uses, for instance, are amazing.
SLUTSKY: You can hear his evolution, because if you take “Uptight,” which is one of his early tunes, it‘s two chords, it’s nothing. But then you get “My Cherie Amour,” more complex, then you get “For Once in My Life” — it‘s got A7, sharp 9, drop 13. And that was from interacting with the Funk Brothers and picking up on their jazz.
JUSTMAN: A real good example of the kind of thing they contributed is “Heat Wave.” [The producers] came to the Funk Brothers and said, “What should we do?” And Joe Hunter said, “Make it a Charleston. Dahnt-dahn, dahnt-dahn . . .” And that’s the kind of core idea that would make something work.
JOE HUNTER, piano: [Easygoing, country-casual] If you want to do an arrangement and you‘ve got experienced musicians, you don’t have to write but one note, and that note will tell you the secret.
The bass on the film really pumps.
SLUTSKY: That‘s ’cause [bassist Bob] Babbitt told me he would sit on me if I didn‘t make it kick ass. He was a professional wrestler around the time he was in Motown, so I don’t want to mess with him. He was supposed to wrestle Killer Kowalski, and y‘know, Killer Kowalski ripped off Yukon Eric’s ear, and Babbitt thought, “I think I‘ll pick up the bass guitar.”
[Babbitt, Jamerson’s understudy and eventual successor, is a big guy with a hoarse gangster voice; his greaser hair and flashy shirt are straight out of Eddie Cochran.]
BOB BABBITT, bass: You might hear a Jamerson bass line on a song that without that bass line, it wouldn‘t have been nothin’ — zero. The main thing was to find that pocket, find that feel.
Some jazz players look down on pop music, don‘t they?
JACK ASHFORD, vibes, “jazz tambourine”: [A large, grinning gentleman] I saw [keyboardist Richard] “Groove” Holmes sittin’ in the lobby of Motown one day. I said, “What are you doing here?” I‘d never miss him with Billy Eckstine’s band, and Sammy Davis‘! I said to myself, “This is a Mecca.”
How do you put yourself in the right frame of mind to play pop?
JOHNNY GRIFFITH, piano: I think it’s just like an actor who plays different parts.
Eddie, you were an R&B player. Was the transition more natural for you than for the jazz guys?
EDDIE WILLIS, guitar: Definitely so.
You must‘ve known the pop records of the time.
WILLIS: Had to learn every one of ’em.
Tell me something about [deceased pianist] Earl Van Dyke.
ASHFORD: A chunk o‘ funk.
GRIFFITH: Great musician. He looked mean, he was big, but he was so kind.
JOE MESSINA, guitar: He had nice voicings. He knew the value of simplicity. Stay out of the way, that’s most important.
Stay out of the way of what? You didn‘t even have a singer there, did you?
MESSINA: We never thought about the singers. We were the stars then.
GRIFFITH: We never knew who was going to sing the song. Didn’t care, actually.
That must have made the range tough for some of the vocalists.
ASHFORD: Look at Levi [Stubbs of the Four Tops]. Most of the time, he was standing on a stool so he could reach the notes!
GRIFFITH: That‘s right. “Bernadette” . . .
ASHFORD: He might have been too comfortable if he had any range!
Bob, you’re white. Was that ever a problem?
BABBITT: None of these guys would have left me stranded.
HUNTER: When we had the riot out there [in 1967], we made sure nobody would touch him. The riot had just broke out, fires and everything all around us. We made sure nothin‘ gonna happen to our brothers.
Were the jazz clubs segregated in those days?
HUNTER: Some were black-and-tans.
BABBITT: When I was in a band playing around town that was all white guys, we had some club owners tell us, “Whatever you do, don’t hire no black musicians.” End of story.
It must make you feel pretty good to have been involved in all this.
BABBITT: I watched the film in my living room, with black people and white people. And when it came on, you could feel it in the room. And when it was over with, they were talkin‘ and huggin’ each other.