Monthly Archives: January 2011

Celebrating Motown History

From the introduction:
“In 1959, Barry Gordy gathered the best musicians from Detroit’s thriving jazz and blues scene to cut songs for his new record company. Over a fourteen year period they were the heartbeat on ‘My Girl’, ‘Bernadette’, ‘I Was Made To Love Her’, and every other hit from Motown’s Detroit era. By the end of their phenomenal run, this unheralded group of musicians had played on more number one hits than the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Elvis, and The Beatles combined…Which makes them the greatest hits machine in the history of pop music. They called themselves THE FUNK BROTHERS.”

As we continue to celebrate Black Music Month, I thought this documentary would be a worthy introduction to the back story of Motown, which is, in my opinion, a genre all by itself. Who has not listened to, married to, vacationed to, or grown up with at least one song from the multitude of celebrated artists–past and present? I am almost ashamed of the fact that even though I knew the artists and grew up with the music, I had no idea who The Funk Brothers were until I viewed STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN for the first time. If you will humor me, allow me to introduce them here. Recognize any of these names?

Richard ‘Pistol’ Allen
Jack ‘Black Jack’ Ashford
Bob Babbitt
Johnny Griffith
Joe Hunter
Uriel Jones
Joe Messina
Eddie ‘Chank’ Willis
Benny ‘Papa Zita’ Benjamin
Eddie ‘Bongo’ Brown
James ‘Igor’ Jamerson
Earl ‘Chunk Of Funk’ Van Dyke
Robert White

Now let’s talk about the artists who will sing along to the Funk Brothers as they play the original music to some of our Motown Favorites–live:

Joan Osborne
Gerald Levert
Meshell Ndegecello
Bootsy Collins
Ben Harper
Chaka Khan
Montell Jordan
Tom Scott

Narrator, Andre Braugher, (TV’s Law & Order, House) does an excellent job of setting the tone and transporting the viewer back in time. The documentary has an abundance of original clips and stories, many told by the original musicians who were only too happy to relive their glory days. We even follow them into ‘the pit’ where it all happened inside the tiny Motown studio. Many of the musicians were alive to reminisce and play along with the live representations of the songs as sung by ‘today’s’ artists, proving that the music in many cases made the song a hit in spite of the singer behind the mic.

My favorite performance was Joan Osborne’s “What Becomes of The Broken Hearted”. Wow! Did she deliver! I didn’t feel as though anything was missing from her vocals. She was as good if not better than the original artist, Jimmy Ruffin, and the music could not have been better.

Throughout the film you get to hear anecdotes about the Funk Brothers’ experiences at Motown, including who they played for and how they did it. Of course when you are dealing with musicians you always get a mix of stories, some funny, some sad, and yet all triumphant. It’s interesting to note that the Funk Brothers relieved pressure placed on them by a young, ambitious Barry Gordy and supplemented their paltry income by moonlighting at the local nite spots. Their cohesive grooves and spontaneous jazz riffs often ended up in the recording studio. They take us behind the music and it enriches our own memories about the melodies. I have a deeper appreciation for the music now that I have had the opportunity to get to know the creativity that went into “The Motown Sound” and I think you will too.

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