The Originators of the "Motown Sound"
The Funk Brothers are a group of musicians originally brought together by Barry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, from 1958 through 1967. They recorded in Motown's Hitsville Detroit studio for fourteen years, playing with Stevie Wonder, Martha Reeves, Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson, as well as the Supremes, Four Tops, Temptations and others. Their songs include "My Girl," "Bernadette," "I Was Made to Love Her," "Shop Around," "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," "Dancing In The Street," "Reach Out I'll Be There," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Shotgun," "Stop In The Name Of Love," "My Cherie Amour," "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted," "What's Going On," and dozens more. They contributed to more Number One hits than Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones combined. Until 2002, they were virtually unknown.
The Best-Kept Secret in the History of Pop Music
The Funk Brothers, circa 1967 (when all played together), were Earl Van Dyke, Joe Hunter, and Johnny Griffith on keyboards, Eddie Willis, Joe Messina, and Robert White on guitar, Benny "Papa Zita" Benjamin, Richard "Pistol" Allen, and Uriel Jones on drums, James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt on bass, Jack Ashford on vibes and percussion, and Eddie "Bongo" Brown on congas. Prior to working for Motown, each of the Brothers was an accomplished blues or jazz musician, with the exception of Brown, who worked as Marvin Gaye's valet. James Jamerson in particular is now viewed by many as a brilliant musician; some call him the first electric bass virtuoso, and some the greatest electric bass player of all time. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's new sidemen category in 2000. Benny Benjamin, another musician central to the Motown Sound, also recieved a posthumous sideman induction in 2003.
The Most Popular Musicians of the 20th Century
In addition to recording for Motown, the Funk Brothers frequently played together in Detroit clubs, and, despite their contracts, recorded for other record labels. Since working for Motown, many of the Funk Brothers have passed away: Benjamin in 1969, Jamerson and Brown in 1983, Van Dyke in 1992, White in 1994, and Griffith and Allen in 2002. However, the surviving Funk Brothers (including the then-living Griffith and Allen) have recently regrouped, in some cases after not speaking to each other or even picking up instruments for twenty years. The story behind this regrouping is this: In 1989, Allan Slutsky wrote a book entitled Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson, and in the process of writing it realized that there were many untold stories about Jamerson and the other Funk Brothers. When the book won the 1989 Rolling Stone/BMl Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award, Slutsky realized that others agreed and decided to make a movie. He spent the next eleven years looking for funding for the movie, which ended up sharing the title of the book, Standing in the Shadows of Motown. In addition to documenting the Funk Brothers history, the movie includes concert footage for which the Funk Brothers had to relearn their songs. Slutsky, a professional musician and transcriber, actually had to teach the Funk Brothers' music to the Funk Brothers. Once they started playing, however, it turned out that the Funk Brothers were still the amazing group of musicians Gordy had brought together in Detroit in the 60s. They won two Grammy awards for the movie's soundtrack: one for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance with "What's Going On," recorded with Chaka Khan, and one for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album.
Ladies and Gentlemen: The Funk Brothers
The Funk Brothers have only performed a few times since their regrouping, and (as of this writing) only once since the release of their movie. This once was at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on February 28, 2003, and I had the good fortune to see them live. Their amazing performance included many of the Motown classics listed above, performed by the six surviving Funk Brothers with four backup singers, three horn players, a second keyboardist and second drummer, and Allan Slutsky serving as a director and third guitarist. On each song one of the backup singers sang lead, and all were excellent in this role. The Brothers plan on touring soon, possibly with well-known singers such as Joan Osborne, and I recommend going to see them if you get a chance.
Standing in the Shadows of Motown movie and soundtrack