What Was Going On

At long last, the spotlight replaces the Shadows that obscured the Funk Brothers.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown
Funk Brothers Joe Hunter (left), Eddie Willis, and Joe Messina rekindle their past magic.
Funk Brothers Joe Hunter (left), Eddie Willis, and Joe Messina rekindle their past magic.

The tragedy is that even those who should have known better didn't know at all; how could they? The names they sought weren't listed, their contributions weren't cited, their influences weren't credited, so even those who spent hours and days and forevers wearing out the grooves in search of holy-mother-of-God grails had no idea who they were listening to, who they were stealing from. Names like bassist James Jamerson, keyboardists Joe Hunter and Johnny Griffith and Earl Van Dyke, drummers Benny "Papa Zita" Benjamin and Uriel Jones, guitarists Robert White and Joe Messina (though that's but a partial roster) never vanished from the history books, only because they never landed there to begin with. They weren't merely Standing in the Shadows of Motown; they were swallowed whole by it.

Those guys, those Funk Brothers and bad muthas, played on songs you know by heart -- every Motown single and LP released in the 1960s and slightly beyond: "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," "(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave," "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted," "Reach Out I'll Be There," and too many others to name without running out of room and breath. Yet for too long, they've been unknown and unloved, strangers among those who consider their works as familiar as family. It's like John Entwistle, the man who gave funk to the Who's early fury, once admitted, none too proudly: "I didn't know that it was James Jamerson. I just called him the guy who played bass for Motown, but along with every other bassist in England, I was trying to learn what he was doing."

By the time writer Nelson George got to Jamerson for a Musician magazine article in 1983, the bassist whose single-finger playing style reshaped the pop and R&B landscape had been interviewed only twice. He was justifiably angry and understandably bitter after years of toiling in anonymity --not only in the studios of 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, the home of Motown, but in the shadows of Berry Gordy, who ransacked Detroit's bebop hangouts for its finest players and paid them just enough to force them to take outside gigs. (The Funk Brothers played not just on Motown hits, but also with the likes of Jackie Wilson, the Capitols, John Lee Hooker, and Aretha Franklin.) "We were doing more of the job than we thought we were doing, and we didn't get any songwriting credit," Jamerson told George. "It did make me sort of mad, but what could I do?" Nothing, it turned out: He died shortly after the story appeared -- his body gave way to, among other things, cirrhosis of the liver and heart failure -- and only a few months after the airing of the NBC-TV special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, which found room for Adam Ant but not a single Funk Brother.

Five more Brothers have joined Jamerson over the years, including keyboardist Griffith, who died November 10 at 66; the rest might as well have been dead to historians and fans alike. Were it not for Alan Slutsky, whose 1989 book and accompanying CDs provide the title for director Paul Justman's documentary about the Funk Brothers, they might have slipped through the cracks and into their graves. But, blessedly, these pioneers have been rescued from the dustbin of myth and history and given their own film, in which they play starring roles twice over -- once when recounting their tales for the camera, and again when the band gets back together to recapitulate history using new voices (among them, Joan Osborne, Me'Shell NdegéOcello, and Ben Harper) to show off old songs. And though it turns too often into an extended dance remix of MTV Unplugged -- NdegéOcello, especially, slows things down with a torpid rendition of "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," turning the sensual into the sluggish -- Standing in the Shadows of Motown is the best kind of documentary, one that makes a depleted yesterday feel very much like a brand-new tomorrow.

Justman wisely points the camera at the Brothers and a handful of acolytes, and lets them talk with each other, to us, for their departed comrades. They share stories about how they met Gordy and each other, how they shaped "The Sound of Young America," how they were brought to Hitsville, U.S.A., at all hours, by the likes of Norman Whitfield and Smokey Robinson and the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, to slather grease all over a smoky studio. If there's a flaw with the film, it's that Justman doesn't trust his narrators enough; too often he'll stage a reenactment while someone's talking, as if he's afraid the mere tales themselves won't hold our interest. But they will, as long as there's a kid slapping a bass, a sampler swiping a groove, or some middle-aged couple slow-dancing to Marvin Gaye or the Miracles.

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