In this installment of “Chris is late as Hell,” I happened upon a torrent of the Funk Brothers documentary “Standing In The Shadows Of Motown” and thankfully it was a quick download.
As I’m watching it this evening, it’s amazing how many hits these guys played on during the heyday of the Motown sound and got very little credit or money for their talents. Any Motown sound from the beginning you can think of until about the early 70s, those guys were the backbone for those hits.
Berry Gordy got the bright idea for studio musicians around the same time he wanted to start a record company in the late 1950s and those guys, James Jamerson on bass, Joe Hunter on piano/keyboards Eddie “Bongo” Brown on congos and Benny “Papa Zita” Benjamin on drums to name a few, legitimately were responsible for an entire sound that helped give black music national appeal in a time where black artists didn’t even get radio play or their own faces on their album covers.
It was fitting, a cruel irony that the Funk Brothers were pretty much anonymous as their hard work, much like the artists they backed up, helped make Berry Gordy a very rich man. However, their place in history is secure thanks to a super documentary with the surviving (at the time) Funk Brothers that included Gerald Levert, Joan Osborne, Me’Shell N’degeocello, Chaka Khan and Ben Harper singing original Motown hits with the Funk Brothers playing like they were cutting those tracks for the first time.
The documentary takes you through the great songs, the wild stories and the memories of an era when Motown was pretty much the only game in town when it come to rhythm and blues as performed by African Americans. You learn about Bongo Brown’s loose demeanor, James Jamerson’s eccentric behavior and how all those great songs were cut in a SMALL house on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, which came to be known of course as “Hitsville, U.S.A.”
There were superstar instrumentalists before and after the Funk Brothers, but their unknown history in the middle bridges a gap from when R&B went from Jazz to Funk in a 10-year time span. Even though they stood in the shadows of Motown, they certainly stood out as one of the greatest ensembles any genre has ever seen.