What Was Going On

The spotlight finally replaces the Shadows that obscured the Funk Brothers

Nov 27, 2002 at 4:00 am
The tragedy is that even those who should have known better didn't know at all; how could they? The names they sought weren't listed, their contributions weren't cited, their influences weren't credited, so even those who spent hours and days and forevers wearing out the grooves in search of grails had no ideas whom they were listening to, whom they were stealing from. Names such as bassist James Jamerson, keyboardists Joe Hunter and Johnny Griffith and Earl Van Dyke, drummers Benny "Papa Zita" Benjamin and Uriel Jones, guitarists Robert White and Joe Messina, (though that's but a partial roster) never vanished from the history books, only because they never landed there to begin with. They weren't merely Standing in the Shadows of Motown; they were swallowed whole by it.

Those guys, those Funk Brothers and bad muthas, played on songs you know by heart, every Motown single and LP released in the 1960s and slightly beyond: "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," "I Heard it Through the Grapevine," "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" and too many others to name without running of out room and breath. Yet for too long they've been unknown and unloved, strangers among those who consider their works as familiar as family.

By the time writer Nelson George got to Jamerson for a Musician magazine article in 1983, the bassist whose single-finger playing style reshaped the pop and R&B landscape had been interviewed only twice. He was justifiably angry and understandably bitter after years of toiling in anonymity -- not only in the studios of 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, the home of Motown, but in the shadows of Berry Gordy, who ransacked Detroit's bebop hangouts for its finest players and paid them just enough to force them to take outside gigs. Jamerson died shortly after the story appeared; four other Brothers have joined him since.

Were it not for Alan Slutsky, whose 1989 book and accompanying CDs provide the title for director Paul Justman's documentary about the Funk Brothers, they might have slipped through the cracks and into their graves. But, blessedly, these pioneers have been rescued from the dustbin of myth and history and given their own film, in which they play starring roles twice over -- once when recounting their tales for the camera and again when the band gets back together to recapitulate history using new voices.