Standing in the Shadows of Motown
When you think of the following great '60s and '70s tunes: "Stubborn Kind of Fellow," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Mercy Mercy Me," the name Marvin Gaye easily comes to mind. It's his voice dominating the tunes, and he was also a nimble pianist and capable songwriter to boot. But, as the new documentary Standing in the Shadows by director Paul Justman of Motown reveals, he and the other vocalists who churned out hits on an astonishing basis were part of a larger equation. The fist song would sound hollow without pianist Joe Hunter, the second rocks with Uriel Jones' subtle but driving drumbeat and the last song features a delicate bassline from Bob Babbit.
These fellows were all part of Motown's gifted house band, the Funk Brothers, who played on an astronomical number of memorable hit songs until the label moved from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972. Standing in the Shadows of Motown centers around a scorching reunion concert given in Detroit in 2000 featuring all seven of the then surviving members of the group teaming with a diverse vocalists like Bootsy Collins, Joan Osbourne, Gerald Levert and Chaka Kahn. It also allows the band to recall how the sessions were recorded in Motown's legendary Studio A (a.k.a. The Snake Pit) and includes the only known video footage of seminal bassist James Jamerson.
The documentary is partially inspired by the book of the same name written by Allan "Dr. Licks" Slutsky. Slutsky served as a producer on the documentary and the soundtrack albums, helped organize to concert and even played guitar with the band at the event. Slutsky's effort have a chilling sense of urgency because drummer Richard "Pistol" Allan and keyboardist Johnny Griffith has since passed on.
Fortunately, Slutsky, Babbit, Jones, and Hunter were all able to make it to FilmFest Kansas City last month to talk about a their tunes, their lives and the film in a roundtable interview. Listening to the four of them, it was obvious that age had not diminished their almost radar-like way of communicating. When one question arose, they would finish each other's answers. To get the guys started, I handed them my Marvin Gaye CD.
Dan Lybarger: I just wanted to hand to see if this might jog your memories.
Bob Babbit: This does right away [pointing to a photo of a bespectacled Gaye wearing sweats]. I remember several times coming into work and seeing him in his jogging clothes.
Uriel Jones: I can picture him like this a lot of times we'd be staying in hotels. You'd look out the hotel windows, and you'd see Marvin outside any time of the morning walking by himself, looking like he was in deep thought. I remember that very well.
DL [to Allan "Dr. Licks" Slutsky]: It must have been tricky to get all of these people back together.
Allan "Dr. Licks" Slutsky: Not only had they not played together in decades, but some of them hadn't played their instruments for decades.
Joe Messina, for instance, when Motown moved in '72 stopped playing guitar and took up chromatic harmonica. A month before the movie started (shooting), he picked up his guitar from under his bed and got his chops together again. Eddie Willis hadn't played in 10 years. He was the other guitar player. He was on the road with the Four Tops for twenty years after Motown had left Detroit. When he stopped touring with the Tops, he stopped playing for ten years. The other guys were all playing around that time.
One of the reasons it was able to happen was that Motown was always a really easy place for these guys to play. Most R&B house bands, their musicians' background was R&B, a little bit of rock 'n' roll, blues.
These guys hand all that, and they were also extremely accomplished jazz musicians, which takes a much higher level of dexterity and harmonic knowledge. So when it came to playing Motown, it was like a weightlifter who can lift 500 pounds being called upon to lift 200 pounds. So, it was easy.
The reason Motown had the sound that it did was because it was so effortless and it swung so hard. Booker T and the MGs were one of the great house band of the '60s, but they didn't have a jazz background. Their music is funky, it rocks but it doesn't swing. To swing, you've got to be a jazz musician.
A lot of the Motown songs were shuffles like "How Sweet It Is" with James Jamerson [imitates Jamerson's bassline]. It's got a deep swing to it.
You've had this long layoff, and if they were called upon after a long layoff to play jazz, it wouldn't happen. They were called upon to play something that was extremely easy for them. It was tough this time around. They didn't have the chops that they did, and there were a lot of health issues, but that was the reason it was able to happen.
Yuriel, for instance, and the other drummer Richard "Pistol" Allan, who passed away, neither of these guys had any business playing this gig. They didn't tell me how sick they were. Yuriel needed a quintuple bypass, and he had it a few days after the shooting. "Pistol" was dying of lung cancer.
They were risking their lives doing it. It was so important to them. This was their lives. This was their chance to say to the world, "This is what I did." They'd never get that chance again, so they didn't want to miss it. Thank God for one, and unfortunately for the other one. I think "Pistol" if he had a choice would rather have himself go out that way with his legacy preserved than miss the opportunity.
Jones: It looked so hard for Allan Slutsky to be getting us together. That was the easy part. His job was convincing us that we could do this. [The room fills with laughter]. Because the first day of our rehearsals, you talk about some strange feelings. I was scared to death. I was imagining what this was going to sound like. It was scary with all us coming together at the same time because this guy hadn't played in so many years. And that guy hadn't played in so many years. After a few days, it just came in. Everything gelled and came back to us.
Slutsky: I went in on the first day not knowing if they could still play. I had fourteen years on the project at that point because I had three years writing the book and eleven years searching for funding. So did I just throw out fourteen years of my life? I didn't know. In five minutes, we were doing "Heatwave" [sung by Joan Osbourne]. This whole situation has been a situation of being able to exhale because we lost two guys along the way. Robert White [whose guitar licks opened The Temptations' "My Girl"] died before I could get funding. I was fighting a biological time clock. After we had finally wrapped it, their legacy is finally preserved now.
Jones: He's not saying that we're old!
Slutsky: What did you tell me what Earl's [Van Dyke] wife said?
Jones: Earl's wife said, "This guy Slutsky, there's only one thing I can say. He's got to be crazy white man or a rich white man [they all crack up].
Hunter: I knew he wasn't crazy.
Babbit: We knew he wasn't rich!
Hunter: He called me, and said "I got a retainer for you." It shocked me, and I looked and said let me get out and see him. I knew he wasn't crazy because he had a retainer in hand.
Babbit: Joe [Messina] made a thirty-minute trip in about ten minutes! You know how Mohammad Ali said, "I can turn off the light and be in bed before it gets dark." It was like before your voice faded on the phone. It was twenty miles away.
Hunter: And then I knew "Heat Wave" because I was steadily looking at that check.
DL: Because James Jamerson is such a focal point for the film and the history of Motown is there not that much video footage of him playing?
Slutsky: It's ALL in the movie.
DL: That's it?
Slutsky: There's quite a few clips. There's one with Marvin Gaye with "What's Going On?" There's one where he's playing behind The Temptations. We couldn't use the sound for licensing reasons, so we used another song, but he's actually playing "My Girl." You can see his one finger called "the hook" really well.
Babbit: There's not enough of it in there.
Slutsky: There's not a lot of footage of these guys. That's one of the reasons we had to use recreation scenes because there's not a lot of archival footage. Nobody cared about them that way or thought there'd be any value to it. Any time [The Funk Brothers] were in some Motown footage, it was incidental because they were shooting the [vocal] band, and [The Funk Brothers] were in the background.
DL [to Babbit, Jones, and Hunter]: Is it gratifying to finally be a headliner?
Hunter: Yes, it is.
Jones: The main thing is: put our names and faces on the record.
Babbit: When I moved out of Detroit moved to East Coast and went on to Nashville, I got in touch with a lot of musicians, and it's really hard when you're hearing stories about certain musicians that claimed to have played on those records because there wasn't any credits on the records for a long time. That's the hardest part. Joe Hunter's got the greatest story about Chicago and meeting "Joe Hunter." Go ahead, Joe.
Hunter: I knew a producer at Chess Records in Chicago, and he called me and said, "Come on over and do a few tunes with us." When I got there, he came and got me and smiled and everything and said, "I want to introduce you to somebody." I went up to this guy he introduced me to. [The producer] said, "This is Joe Hunter."
I said, "You're the Joe Hunter that worked at Motown?"
He said, "Yes. Yes. Yes."
"You did 'Pride and Joy' with Marvin."
"Yes. Yes. Yes."
I named a few other tunes, and he said, "You didn't give me your name." And I said, "Well, I'm Joe Hunter, too."
He said, "You sure aren't working Motown. Come here let me talk with you. I had to get this job, but I had to use a name." But he could play. He could actually play good. Anyway, he said he had impressed the people in order to get the job. I said, "I'll forgive you for the fraud or whatever you had to do—whatever you call that using somebody else's name. But don't do it no more. You can go by your own name now. You've got the job, you're here, and they like you. He was another Joe Hunter. He was me. I met myself.
Jones: Tell him the end of it, Joe.
Jones: Tell him about, "Do you have the money from the sessions?"
Hunter: I've been through a lot of experiences like that.
Slutsky: These guys have been in the vocabulary for Modern R&B. James Jamerson, in particular, was the first virtuoso of the Fender bass. The Fender bass was only invented in 1954. For about the first decade, nobody knew what to do with it. You actually saw Fender bassists holding the instrument vertically like an upright bass because it really didn't have a personality yet. It was a newfangled contraption. They didn't even know if it would make it. It was like the Chapman Stick, a new instrument that never really made it.
So, [Jamerson] was the first guy to give it any personality because everybody was basically doing cocktail bass. Boom, boom, boom. And all of the sudden you get this doing (imitating Jamerson's more intricate sound), all these crazy lines. He invented the vocabulary as these guys did. Yuriel, Benny Benjamin, or "Pistol" Allen, Earl or Joe came up with.
I'll give you an example. In the '70s, on the show Barney Miller, you got [hums the basslines]. That bassline is note for note "You're All I Need to Get By" from the bridge. You go into the '80s, and you've got "Maneater" by Hall and Oates. That's "You Can't Hurry Love" by James Jamerson. You go into the '90s. You've got "Love Shack." That's "Nowhere to Run" by James Jamerson. They've been using these guys' ideas for decades. You can't escape it. It's like trying to speak the English language without the words "the" and "and."
Hunter: I played with three rap groups, just recording with them as long as they pay me. Just don't mention my name. I don't want no critics. I don't like today's music, the rap thing, you know.
DL: It's interesting that you chose singers like Ben Harper and Joan Osbourne who weren't necessarily associated with the Motown label.
Jones: The reason we did that was because is that the movie is about everybody you talk to and say "What's the Motown sound?" they say everything but the musicians. Even in the movie there's a part in there where I explain and say, "You hear some people may say it's the food. I'd like to see somebody take some pork chops or hamburgers, throw it down the floor on floor of the studio count to four and get a hit!" We wasn't going to use no Motown artists, but we still got the Motown sound. We used to say you could take a chicken off the street and wring its neck in the studio and with The Funk Brothers, you've got a hit!
The basic Motown sound was the musicians. In order to prove it, we used artists that wasn't associated with Motown. And they sung Motown songs, and it still had the Motown sound.
Slutsky: Take the Supremes. The Supremes only sang on Supremes songs. They didn't sing on The Four Tops; they didn't sing on the Vandellas' [songs]. Stevie [Wonder] didn't sing with the Tops. Probably the busiest musician at Motown was Smokey [Robinson] because he was a producer, songwriter and an artist. You take all of the tracks he was involved in, maybe forty percent. It's still not the other sixty percent.
These guys [The Funk Brothers] are on everything. The only continuity on the Motown sound was these guys. When most of the Motown acts went out on the road, Berry Gordy from the very beginning had a very different concept. He was looking for Vegas. He wanted this high energy.
You take a song like [The Temptations'] "Get Ready" [hums the laid-back but firm bassline]. When you see The Temptations play that live [he hums a sound that is quicker but has no swing], it had all these blaring horns because he wanted that high energy, but the Motown sound wasn't about energy. It was about good head bopping music, and that sound came from these guys. No other musicians could get it.
The first thing that happened to me when I came up to Detroit for the first time, I had never heard any of them play live. I went with "Pistol" to club. "Pistol" was a very flamboyant. There was a singer named…What was his name? [gets a tip from the others] Norman Thrasher was singing. This guy's right in the middle of a sensitive ballad. "Pistol" walks into the place and goes, "Norman Thrasher! This Pistol's in the house!" [Thrasher] stopped what he was doing and brought "Pistol" on the stage. "Ladies and Gentlemen, the great Motown drummer." He started to play "Heatwave," because "Pistol" was the shuffle guy. My reaction as a musician was that I had played Motown songs for thirty years now. I can't tell you how many weddings and bar mitzvahs that I've played the obligatory Motown medley, "Dancing in the Streets," "My Girl" and "Heatwave" The second I heard "Pistol," I said "That's it!" I had played these songs a million times, and this was the first time because it wasn't a sound was the creation and the sole property of a very small group of musicians. It's proven by the fact that when they went out to LA and didn't use these musicians, they lost it.
Hunter: The artists was dubbed then [in the later Motown recordings]. They recorded the band tracks a lot of times first, and then they dubbed the other part.
Babbit: A lot of times you never saw the artist.
Slutsky: In the early days, they didn't have enough tracks. Everybody cut it live. Once they got into eight tracks, these guys cut first, and then the artist came in. Songwriters didn't know what artists they were working for.
Jones: With"Twenty-Five Miles," my drum solo in there, Edwin Starr is singing my drum solo, he's singing along with me. If I hadn't done that solo, he'd have probably done something else there.
Babbit: That was the genius of some of the producers. If we were cutting something and they had the idea for the song and they heard something that happened in the song. For example, on some of the Supremes tunes they'd hear something in Jamerson's basslines they gave to the horns to play. They would never have had the horn part as part of the arrangement prior to cutting that track. Once they cut that track and they felt that groove, if it wasn't the actual artist, the producer might say, "Yeah. Yeah."
Slutsky: In a lot of other places, guys would just read charts [or prewritten arrangements]. At Motown, they had very minimal, just bass chord charts. If you tried to write something for a James Jamerson, he'd laugh at you and say, "You want me to play this bullsh*t?"
Jones: He did that a lot of times. He took the [prewritten] music and throw it on the floor.
Hunter: He'd take the music, throw it on the floor and step on it.
Slutsky: The soundtrack is out in the stores. We worked it into a 2-CD deal. The second CD will be out in January [of 2003]. What we're doing is in the vaults at Universal, they have all the original multitracks. There's two tracks on [the current soundtrack], "You Just Keep Me Hanging On" and "Bernadette." We've got sixteen vault tracks like the Diana Ross version of "Ain't No Mountain," "I Was Made to Love Her," "My Guy." We're remixing them from a musician's standing, which means no vocals. Listen to the melody on the piano. Listen to the melody on the bass. We're pushing faders and mute buttons on each song. All of these incredible parts have been buried for decades under this sound. You might get this full orchestration. All of the sudden you hit the mute button, and it's just Uriel and Jamerson, and it's just incredible. These are songs that we all know so well, and it's just unbelievable.
DL: How big was the Snake Pit compared to the room we're in now? We've got room for about four or five tables here?
Babbit: It was a hair wider, and it had isolation booths. When Berry bought the house next door, they had an organ and maybe a guitar amp.
The interview is winding to a close.
Slutsky: Can I add one thing? Mostly we've been talking about the music, but the other half of the film is what makes it so significant. One half of the film is the music is when you have a monumental contribution of this size, it's significant because these guys have had the impact of The Beatles although they were faceless. But these are magnetic riveting characters, and this movie explores their life outside just music. The story of these guys as a social unit outside of just music—the story of James Jamerson, who was a tormented genius, it was very cinematic to put the story around Jamerson because it's the ultimate sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll story.
There's a basic bad guy here, which is not Berry Gordy. It's obscurity itself. The fact that these guys have had endure it with such grace and the fact that at the end of their lives, which will hopefully be another forty years, they'll get to go out like winners. Justice is done, and I think it's much sweeter because that they are getting their place in the sun now than if they had earlier.
Hunter: I don't know what I'd do with all that money.
Click here to read Cynthia Fuch's review.