"Standing in the Shadows of Motown"

Taken this morning with flurries falling. The Snake Pit is in the basement.
Barry Gordy, Jr.’s apartment was upstairs. There are three bottles of
Coca Cola in the apartment. Mr. Gordy and I share similar taste in pop.
The summer of 1964, I found the music that I would love for the rest of my life: Four Seasons, Beach Boys, and Motown. Loved the Four Tops, Temptations, Mary Wells, and all of the other great Motown groups. Tuneful, upbeat, infectious music. That made me just about like every other teenager in the 1960′s.
Fast forward to the 1990′s: I had to go to Las Vegas at least twice yearly for trade shows. They opened the “Motown Cafe” in the New York, New York Hotel (should have been Detroit, Detroit). Every time I visited Vegas I would go to the cafe at least once because not only did they have memorabilia, they had live Motown music at least once each hour. Unfortunately, it closed in 2000 and was replaced with the vastly inferior ESPNZone. 
In 2002, an absolutely amazing movie came out: Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Shadows asked a question I (and probably 99% of Motown’s other fans) had never considered: Who played the music for all of these vocal groups? The Supremes didn’t play instruments. Neither did the Tops, the Temps., etc, etc. Yet, there was this identifiable sound associated with Motown. Where did the music come from?

Screen capture from “Standing in the Shadows of Motown”
Joan Osborne singing “Heatwave” with (from left) Funk Brothers
Joe Hunter and Jack Ashford
The movie is absolutely wonderful, even if you are not especially a Motown fan.  Unfortunately, I cannot embed this clip of Joan Osborne singing “Heatwave.” So, click the link, listen and come back…I’ll wait. 
Even though it is not Martha & the Vandellas it is clearly the Motown sound – your ears would recognize it anywhere. Turns out it a small group of musicians — black and white — known as “The Funk Brothers” played on every one of those songs! Collectively, the Funk Brothers had more hits than the Beatles, Elvis, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys, combined! But, until the book and movie, they never received any recognition (more about that below). 

Once I heard and saw their story, I decided I had to get to Hitsville, U.S.A.

That is what Barry Gordy, Jr., the founder and entrepreneur, called his little complex of homes on West Grand that became the offices and studios of Tamla then Motown records. It is now officially called the Motown Museum. Gordy borrowed $800 from his Mom and Dad on condition he pay it back in a year. He did, and much more.

Standing in the Snake Pit

I met some absolutely wonderful people this morning and learned so much. The most thrilling part was getting to go into the Snake Pit, where every one of those songs was recorded. The original instruments and equipment are still there. They don’t allow photos but I found this video that I could embed. 
Seeing Funk Brother Jack Ashford’s vibes, for example, was a complete thrill (pictured in the video above). Or, the organ where they played the intro to Heard It Through the Grapevine. The Snake Pit piano was a loaner. When Paul McCartney visited recently, he wanted to play (sure…they’ll let him touch the instruments!). He was told the piano was in such bad shape, they would prefer he did not. So, Sir Paul sent the original off to Steinway for refurbishing.  They have a loaner in there now. 

Seeing the Snake Pit and all of the little techniques they used to polish the sound would have been enough. But, there is so much more.

The Reason Dianna Ross Could Always Perfectly Pose for Pictures

I was going to teach them how to act and how to walk.
I wanted them to be able to meet kings and queens.
They all thought I was crazy. They’d say, “I
just want a hit record.”
                       — Maxine Powell, artist development

When Little Stevie Wonder started with Motown he was 11. Diana Ross was 14. Kids.

So, Gordy realized that their vocal talent was not sufficient. He hired a number of people, like Maxine Powell (above), to coach them on their voice techniques, pose for pictures, move on stage (there is an area where they explain how the choreographer taught The Temptations to move) and how to conduct themselves. There is even a video of some of them being introduced to Queen Elizabeth.

There are displays of how the original album art was created. In the early days, the artists did not appear on the album covers. Gordy was afraid that showing the artists as being black would limit their appeal. That changed when Ed Sullivan embraced them. Gordy, and the artists, found white America loved their music.

At Last, Recognition

From left, Robert White (who played the guitar into to “My Girl”),
Dan Turner, Earl Van Dyke, Uriel Jones and James Jamerson

But, still, the Funk Brothers received no recognition. It wasn’t until Marvin Gaye’s (current featured artist in the museum) What’s Going On that any of the names of the instrumental artists even appeared on the album jacket.

Finally, in 2002, the Funk Brothers won two Grammies. One with Chaka Khan for her great performance of What’s Going On in Shadows and for the movie’s soundtrack. In 2004, they won for Lifetime Achievement.

Funk Brothers posting with the two producers (at right)
with their Grammies for “Shadows’” soundtrack.

Unfortunately, we’re continuing to lose the Funk Brothers to age. At least two (Uriel Jones and Joe Hunter) have passed away since the movie was made.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown, their story, came out 41 years after they first provided the instrumental music for all of those many, many, hits. I highly recommend the movie (it has been running on cable lately, also available on DVD). And, if you are ever in Detroit, go visit. You won’t be sorry.

Checking this item off my “bucket list” this morning was a tremendous thrill.

Tomorrow: I’ll have a couple of thoughts about Detroit itself.

ADDITION: Shadows is available on iTunes to rent for $3 or to purchase for $10. I’m right now purchasing a copy to watch on the plane back tomorrow, even though I have the DVD.

2 thoughts on “"Standing in the Shadows of Motown"

  1. Wow, Mike, I did 't even know this place existed . What a cool place. I share the love of that time and music. There was a time – long ago – that I could do a Frankie Valli falsetto. Then I turned 12 or 13. LOL
    TERRIFIC article
    Chuck B

  2. I still TRY to do Frankie's Falsetto, many days unsuccessfully.

    I just got an email from a friend from Colorado who — completely by coincidence — is in Detroit tonight. He wrote,

    "Second great report on Hitsville I've heard recently. Buddy of mine was flying his airplane home to California from Boston. Landed at Detroit City Airport and took a taxi to Hitsville. Was wildly enthusiastic."

    My friend is going to try to sneak away from his meeting Thursday to get over to Hitsville.