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Motown's Lost Heroes Emerge

Documentary brings the Funk Brothers out of the shadows

December 19, 2002 12:00 AM ET

With the release of the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the Funk Brothers, a group of musicians who played on more Number One hits than the Beatles, Elvis and the Rolling Stones combined, have finally gotten a chance to step into the spotlight. The Funk Brothers -- leader/pianist Earl Van Dyke, bassist James Jamerson and drummer Benny Benjamin and guitarists Joe Messina, Robert White and Eddie Willis -- served as the Motown Records studio band of the Sixties and Seventies.

"They were the music," says the Supremes' Mary Wilson of the musicians who backed acts like the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops and Marvin Gaye and helped define an era of music. "I've been around forty some years and I've made my life on my music, and these guys created that music."

The spark for documentary came in the late Eighties when writer/producer Allan Slutsky began work on Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson, a biography of Motown bassist James Jamerson. As Slutsky conducted interviews for the book, he gradually began to see a larger story. The film Slutsky pieced together blends performances by the surviving Funk Brothers, interviews and re-enactments from Motown's past.

Rick James fronted the Funk Brothers at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood as part of the record release party for the film's soundtrack and vividly remembers his first Motown experience. "When I went to Motown, even as a teenager I always wondered what made the Motown sound," he says. "Was it the wood? Was it the food they ate in there? Was it the liquor they drank? Was it the women in their lives? What made the Motown sound was those Funk Brothers, those human beings. Like my man said, you could throw a frog in that studio and see it come out with a hit. Those guys were the sound."

The sudden spotlight on the Funk Brothers suits keyboardist Joe Hunter just fine: "I was very much excited. They had me walking a red carpet today. Hell, I was born in Tennessee, where they didn't even have a carpet in the house, and here I'm on a red carpet that kings and queens walk on. I thought it was a dream."

At the Knitting Factory show, Wilson, James, Gerald Levert and members of the Four Tops and Temptations bent over backwards to give the Funk Brothers acknowledgement, a due that Ashford doesn't mind coming a few decades late. "We were there to do a job," says Ashford. "We liked seeing our records on the charts. No matter how good somebody's singing, the track is kicking the butt. It was a thing where we didn't get the recognition, but you can't cry over spilled milk. It wasn't our time, evidently."

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