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Motown’s Lost Heroes Emerge

Documentary brings the Funk Brothers out of the shadows

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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