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Funk Brothers Apollo Theater Program

We sold our soul.. for 10 dollars
Sunday July 20, 2003
The Observer -,6903,1001681,00.html
They made more hits than the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and Elvis but then they were forgotten. Sean O'Hagan went to Detroit to meet the unsung heroes behind the Motown sound

Joe Messina gave up music over 30 years ago, and opened a car wash in suburban Detroit. Often, customers would pull up with the radio blaring out the familiar sound of Tamla Motown, Detroit's very own hit factory from the late Sixties, and the forecourt would fill with the still effervescent rhythms of a more innocent pop era when Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye ruled supreme. The sound would barely register with Joe Messina, a middle-aged jazz fan, who had little time for the fripperies of pop, past or present. Yet, Joe had played on every one of the songs pumping out of the radio.

'They tell me I played on more Motown sessions than anyone else,' he says. 'I was there from the start to the finish, and I must have played on well over 100 songs, easy. I'd just go down there, do the session in a couple of hours. Same as the rest of the guys. Money jobs, we'd call 'em. They supplemented what I earned playing jazz in clubs like the Twenty Grand or The Chit-Chat.'

Those clubs are long gone now, and so to a certain extent is the jazz music that filled them, consigned, through the vagaries of time and fashion, to the margins. The soul songs that Joe Messina played on, though, live on, many of them elevated to the pantheon of the pop classic - songs such as 'Heatwave' by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, 'Tears of a Clown' by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, 'Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)' by Stevie Wonder, and 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine' by the late, great Marvin Gaye. All feature Messina on guitar, though if any of one of them were to erupt out of the jukebox in the hotel bar we are sitting in, he would not even recognise them. 'It's incredible, isn't it?' he says, as if the absurdity of the situation has, at 74, only just struck him, 'but that's just the way it turned out. We were working jazz musicians who weren't really interested in pop. It's only now, with hindsight, that I can see we were part of pop history.'

The musicians who helped create the Motown sound in a small studio dubbed the Snakepit were known collectively as the Funk Brothers, of whom the great soul producer, Norman Whitfield, once said: 'You could throw a chicken in there and let the Funk Brothers play background, and it would be a hit.' They notched up more chart singles than Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys combined. To the public, though, they were invisible and anonymous. Until now, that is. Their belated recognition comes courtesy of a documentary film called Standing in the Shadows of Motown, released here this week. In it the reunited Funk Brothers - the surviving eight of the original 12 Motown session men - once again lay down those familiar beats, this time behind an array of guest singers that include Chaka Khan, Bootsy Collins and Ben Harper. The performances are interwoven with personal reminiscences and some marvellous archive footage from the time when Berry Gordy's small Detroit-based Tamla Motown label was the most successful hit factory in late Sixties/early Seventies pop.

The film is a labour of love that took 10 years to finance and make, and would never have happened were it not for the tenacity of one man - Allan Slutsky. In the late Eighties, Slutsky, a fellow musician who trades under the moniker Dr Licks, wrote a well-received book about the greatest Funk Brother of all, James Jamerson, the phenomenally gifted, but deeply troubled, musical genius whose propulsive bass lines underpinned the fabled Motown sound. Jamerson, a heavy drinker, died poor and broken in 1987, his prodigious talents unsung save for the legions of soul fanatics who worshipped him as much as Marvin or Smokey.

In the bar of the Hotel Ponchartrain in downtown Detroit, we are joined by the dapper 75-year-old Joe Hunter, resplendent in a leopard-print shirt and large Panama hat, an ageing dandy in contrast to Messina's restrained Italian-American hipster. Hunter played piano with everyone from John Lee Hooker to Curtis Mayfield, arriving in Detroit via a stint at the equally legendary blues label, Chess Records, in Chicago. He, too, speaks of the long-lost bass player with something approaching awe. 'Jamerson could drink. Man, he could drink. He used to say he played better when he was loosened up. That's when he'd go right out there. One time Berry [Gordy] had to go and carry him back from a drinking club to a session. That bass line you hear on 'What's Goin' On' by Marvin [Gaye] - Jamerson played that lying flat on his back, right there on the studio floor.'

Both Hunter and Messina were surprised when Slutsky initially contacted them about the film idea. 'I thought it was just more pie in the sky,' laughs Hunter, 'So, right off, I asked him to show me the money. When I got that nice little retainer cheque, I went looking for a piano.' The vexed question of payments and royalties is one that has dogged Motown's reputation since day one. Berry Gordy, the label's founder, was an entrepreneur of the old school, who never paid his musicians more than union scale even when song after song was hitting the top of the charts.

'Berry had charisma and he talked soft and light like an angel,' laughs Joe Hunter, sipping on his second glass of merlot, despite being on doctor's orders not to drink. 'When he hired me, he said, "I ain't got no money but you'll grow as I grow." Well, I must have been the root that went the other way - deeper into the ground while he bloomed like a blossom. Ten dollars a song is what we earned for years. Scale they called it. Charity I call it.' He shakes his head, while Messina cracks up laughing beside him. 'But, you know, I liked the man. He made things happen. He was like that Midas feller; everything he touched done turned into gold.'

The singers and songwriters fared little better than the musicians, but at least they got a share of royalties, albeit often a relatively small share. Motown, whose studio-cum-office on Detroit's West Grand Boulevard bore the legend Hitsville USA above the door, was a business like any other, geared to the maximum profit from the minimum layout. The music for classic songs such as 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine' was often laid down in two takes on a makeshift three-track recording system bought cut-price from a local radio DJ. 'You'd turn up, get the chord sheet off the producer, and lock down the track in a couple of hours,' says Messina. 'You never knew what the melody was going to be, or how the words went, and usually you never got to hear the finished song.'

Motown, as history has attested, was manufactured pop at its most blatant, and its most magical. Underpinning most of the hits was the spring-loaded rhythm section of Jamerson and drummer, Benny Benjamin, who died from drug abuse in 1969. If the Motown sound has an identifying signature, it was created by this pair, and by Benjamin's successor, the aptly named Richard 'Pistol' Allen, of whom, John Lennon, a devoted soul fan, once said: 'He hit the snare with such force it sounded like he was hitting it with a bloody tree.' While the singers grew famous, though, and were lauded long after their heyday, the musicians languished in obscurity. Motown's move to Los Angeles in the early Seventies was the beginning of the end for them, and for the fabled Motown sound. 'When the dust cleared and it was all over,' Joe Hunter says, 'we realised we had been left out of the dream.'

These days, Berry Gordy lives in a Bel Air mansion. Finally, though, the surviving Funk Brothers are getting their dues. They have won two Grammys for the film soundtrack, both displayed prominently in Hitsville USA, now a museum to the golden years of Detroit soul. They are touring again, and have even played for 'that funny little guy in the White House', as Joe Hunter says, wryly. James Jamerson, the most gifted Funk Brother, did not fare so well. When NBC television recorded its glittering celebration of 25 years of Motown in 1983, he had to buy a ticket from a tout to watch the stars he once backed bask in the limelight. A few months later, he died. 'He had no money,' his daughter says in the film, 'and he was probably feeling less than a man.' His spirit infuses every frame of Standing in the Shadows of Motown just as its title could serve as his epitaph.