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Out from the Shadows of Motown

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One of the (many) cliches about Motown is that Berry Gordy based his hit machine on the assembly lines of Detroit. Right idea, but wrong location: The assembly line that Gordy based Motown on wasn’t in Michigan, it was in California.

Gordy’s brilliance was in taking the assembly line method that the Hollywood studio system created in the 1920s and ’30s and adapting it to black music. The result was an independent record label with its own talent scouts, dance instructors, photographers, and as Eric Olsen once wrote:

To ease his (black) artist’s segue into the (white) world of television appearances and posh night clubs, Gordy established the Artist Development Department, which included a vocal coach, choreographer Cholly Atkins, live music director Maurice King, and an etiquette/style instructor. Some blossomed and some chafed under Gordy’s “I’ll take care of you” paternalistic eye. Mary Wells left after her first contract expired in 1964, while Smokey lasted until the ’90s.

But the most important part of Motown’s assembly line was Gordy’s songwriters and musicians:

As Motown came to dominate the charts in the mid-’60s, there came to be something called a “Motown sound.” This sound can be traced to the writers: Gordy, Robinson, Norman Whitfield, H-D-H; the artists; engineer Lawrence Horn; and to the band – the fabled Funk Brothers – who backed up most of the artists recorded at Hitsville. The prototypical lineup was Benny Benjamin on drums, James Jamerson on bass, Earl Van Dyke on keyboards, James Giddons on percussion, and Robert White or Joe Messina on guitar.

They eventually became informally known as the Funk Brothers. Like many of the men who toiled on the assembly lines of Hollywood during its golden years, they created magic, but were were hardly known at all, until Allan Slutsky entered the picture. Slutsky, a pit orchestra musician, graduate of the Berklee College of Music, and author of instructional books for guitarists and bassists, wrote Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson, a book designed to allow musicians to learn Jamerson’s classic basslines, and some background about the man who recorded them. Released in 1989, it won the prestigeous Ralph J. Gleason Award from Rolling Stone. Last year, (in what surely must be a first) his technique book was made into an astonshing documentary, finally allowing the Funk Brothers the credit they so richly deserved. Last month it was released on DVD, with 5.1 sound, an optional commentary track by Slutsky and Paul Justman, the film’s producer/director, and lots of other ancillary material designed to bring the viewer closer to the Funk Brothers. But it took 11 years of struggle before the film could be made.

“Can We Come Back? It Would Mean a Lot”

Ed: Why was it so hard to convince people of the film’s viability?

Allan: Well for a lot of reasons. Motown’s been so overdone. What are you going to do new in Motown? But that was the whole point–we had something totally new about Motown. It’s like, you’re married to a woman for 30 years, and then all of a sudden at the breakfast one day, she says, by the way honey, I never told you, but before I got married, I was a neurosurgeon. You’d go, “Well, where the f*** did that come from?!”

Well that’s basically what we did. Because people think they know everything there is to know about Motown–it’s such a big part of our lives, and the framework of American pop culture. If you say to someone, “You think you know about Motown?”, they’ll reply, “Oh yeah–Marvin Gaye, Berry Gordy, The Supremes, The Temptations”. And all of a sudden, somebody lays on you that you don’t even know half the story!

So I think that’s why it’s had such an impact.

Ed: At any point did you think about doing this for TV, like a VH-1 kind of thing?

Allan: That was our worst-case scenario. Actually, I shouldn’t say that. In the beginning, we were thinking about a $600,000 budget, shot in video, kind of thing. But then our dreams expanded. But a lot of the deals collapsed that we got real close on. In hindsight, there’s a real sense of destiny in this film. I think those deals collapsed because they weren’t the deal that would allow the film to be what it was: we needed a lot of money. Every time when a deal fell through, the budget got expanded for some reason, instead of contracted. And finally, when the budget was right to make the film what it is, the deal finally happened. But a lot of these earlier deals were for smaller, less ambitious films.

Allan: We literally worked fulltime for 11 years, trying to find money. We made over a thousand pitches, and we finally got funded in 2000, and made the movie.

One of the impetuses to do the film, was that I’m a huge baseball fanatic. Field of Dreams had just come out in 1989, and I don’t know if you remember the scene where Kevin Costner is asked by Ray Liotta, “Can we come back? It would mean a lot. There were eight of us.”

There were eight Funk Brothers left. That’s when the bell went off in my head, and I wanted to do something for the guys who had given me all of the information about Jamerson, so I thought, all right, well, let’s go.

11 Years of Hell

Allan: You can’t believe what we had to go through to get this film made. I saw Hearts of Darkness, the making of Apocalypse Now. Coppola didn’t struggle anywhere near what I went through! And I’m not being facetious: I lived like a lunatic for 11 years. I pawned my guitars, or sold them off and re-bought them, hundreds of times.

I remember the lowest I ever got: I had all seven of my guitars in the pawnshop. I had just taken my last one over, I was hoping to get some checks in, or something, before the weekend, when I had some gigs. As soon as I got home, I got a call from Sigma Sound, which is a big recording studio in Philadelphia. So I had to bum some money, get the guitar that I had just pawned, then I had to pay the service fee, because as soon you walk out the door, it’s an instant month of interest. Then I go play the gig, as soon as the gig’s over, I bring the guitar back, pawn it again to get the money so I can bring it back to my neighbor. And that’s the way I lived for 11 years.

We had lawsuits, we had deaths. There were actually executives (who shall remain nameless) who actually tried to torpedo it. And even when we were making the film, once we got funded, it was still insane.

“God was the Art Director”

Allan: After 11 years, the guys in the Funk Brothers thought I was nuts. But they were right with me for the first five or six years, because they figured, “Well, he did get the book done. And he did win an award.” But after six years, it started to wear thin. They were always polite, but I think they were treating me like the crazy aunt again. “Oh, there’s Slutsky, talking about the movie again.”

So finally it happened, and they didn’t believe it! I remember calling [pianist] Joe Hunter when I was up in Detroit, and saying, “Joe, come over here, I’ve got a check for you. We’re ready to go!”

He said, “Oh man, c’mon, I’m too old for this s***!”

I said, “No, I’m serious. I’ve got a check for you. Come over!”

Our worst fear was shooting in the winter in Detroit. And we wound up getting worse than our worst fear: we wound up shooting in the worst winter in Detroit in a quarter of a century. It snowed every day for a month and a half, and some days it was 14 inches, and some days it was half an inch. But the upside was that it looked beautiful all the time. Every morning, you started out with a clean white sheet, all over the city.

Ed: I think the producer said that “God was the art director” on the audio commentary of the DVD.

Allan: Yeah, exactly. But one night, from the weight of the snow, the roof collapsed, and wiped out half of the equipment on the stage. I remember when we were shooting Chaka Kahn’s version of “What’s Going On”, I had water dripping on my head. And I’m playing electric guitar! So I’m sitting there thinking, “Well, so should I take a chance dying, or should I call it off?” And I thought, “You waited 11 years, you might not get the chance again!”

Ed: Now, two of the Funk Brothers were in poor health during the filming, right?

Allan: Yeah–both of the drummers. A bunch of them were in poor health, and they still are, but they just play. But “Pistol” Allen had lung cancer, and unfortunately, died right after filming was complete. Uriel Jones needed a quintuple bypass. He had it right after we finished filming.

Ed: And yet, both of them played astonishing well onstage.

Allan: Oh yeah, because they knew they’d never get that chance again. They were willing to die, if need be, to get their stories out. They knew that this was it; they’d never get another chance.

Artists and Repertoire

Ed: How did you choose the songs and artists for the movie?

Allan: There were some differences of opinion between the director and I, but we had to have a certain amount of predictable big hits. Because, to the older generation, you take a song like “My Girl”, and it’s been overdone. But a lot of young kids haven’t heard “My Girl”, and have no idea what tunes like that are all about.

But by the same token, for the older crowd, I didn’t want to do what I refer to as the “bar mitzvah-wedding medley”, which is “Dancing In the Streets”, “Heat Wave”, “My Girl”. I didn’t want everything to be predictable; I wanted to get a couple of nuggets in there like, “My Baby Loves Me”, and some of the lesser-known songs.

Whereas the director really wanted to go after the big hits. So we mostly went on that thing, and most of the songs are pretty much blockbusters: “Grapevine”, “Heat Wave”, “Ain’t No Mountain”, and songs like that.

Ed: Joan Osborne’s rendition of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” was a real knockout.

Allan: Well, that’s the highpoint of the performances. And that comes to the second part of your question. The stars we got were the ones who were the takers. You can’t name a major star that we didn’t go after, but most of them wouldn’t give us the time of day. And it floored me, because I figured that people would be crawling all over each other to play with these guys, but it wasn’t that way–it was very difficult getting people to play with them. So the people who stepped forward for our film are heroes to me.

Ed: I think you had mentioned on the DVD that Osborne was one of the first stars who agreed to be in the film.

Allan: We had asked her seven years before, when we had a different deal on the table, and she said yes, and she was hot as hell then–she was right in the middle of her tour for “What If God Was One of Us”. So she had a lot of heart to agree to do the movie back then.

Writing The Book

Allan: I started a series of guitar books in the early ’80s called “Dr. Licks”. I would transcribe note for note what Eddie Van Halen, or whoever the guitarist was, played.

My ads were all over the place in “Guitar Player” magazine. And then I got picked up by Hal Leonard, who’s a big publisher, and they were issued by Hal Leonard for years.

And then I wrote a book called The Art of Playing Rhythm and Blues, and it was kind of a survey of different ’60s R&B styles. So I got to the Motown chapter, and as I was transcribing it, I thought, “Jesus Christ, listen to these bass lines!”

As a kid, I just took that stuff for granted. Everybody was so enamored of the Temps and Stevie and everything, and like everybody else, I never thought of the musicians. I thought of the guitar licks, but I never knew it was the same guys playing on every record. To me it could have been the Temps’ road band, or whoever.

So I was talking to a friend of mine, who’s a famous bassist named Gerald Veasley, and he said, “that’s James Jamerson!”

So I said, “Oh man, really?! Well, maybe I should do a book on James Jamerson bass lines”. So I went to Detroit to find his widow, who I found through the musicians’ union, and thought, “I’m just going to do a book on James Jamerson bass lines”.

I met her, and she took me to some of the Funk Brothers, and I was expecting to get some musical tips about the way he played bass, and instead, I was getting all these incredible stories. I instantly realized that I had stumbled upon something special, something very valuable, and it was really the last great untapped story of rock and roll.

So I said, “what am I going to do with this?!” You know, I’m not a writer–I flunked high school English! I didn’t have the money to hire a ghostwriter, so I just thought, well, I’ll give it a shot.

And three years and $64,000 later, I had this book, Standing in the Shadows of Motown. It came with two CDs, where we had everybody from Paul McCartney on down talking about Jamerson and playing his lines, and it gets nominated for the Ralph J. Gleason award from Rolling Stone.

I thought I didn’t have a chance in hell. It winds up I was the unanimous winner. So what happened was, at that point, I figured well, maybe there’s a movie in this.

What Made Jamerson So Unique?

Ed: I was listening to the two CDs that accompanies the book, and at one point, session bassist Anthony Jackson really waxes poetic about Jamerson, praising him effusively, and calling him one of the great musical geniuses of the 20th century…

Allan: That’s true, and I’ll tell you why. You’re gonna say, “what made him so special”. Well, I’ll tell you: the acoustic bass had been around for centuries. But the electric bass had only been invented in the early part of the 1950s. And pretty much for the first decade, nobody knew what to do with it; it didn’t have a voice.

You know how when you hold an electric bass, you hold it diagonally? In the first years of the electric bass, you would see converted upright players actually hold it vertically! They just thought it was just a different upright bass, and they played it that way, not just in posture, but also in the types of licks. Most of the bassists were playing this kind of cocktail lounge kind of bass, playing a steady [hums quarter-note bass thump] boom, boom, boom, boom.

Then Jamerson comes out of nowhere, and then starts do [hums fast staccato pulsing Motown lick] do ba doopa doopa doopa do ba doopa da do do do. He completely invented the vocabulary of this new instrument, and made it a virtuoso position, instead of just a foundation position, with all those syncopations, and all this incredible feel that none of these other converted upright bassists had. He opened up the possibility of what the instrument could do to the rest of the world, and then all of a sudden, everybody’s copying his lines, making hits, and they have no idea who this guy is.

And it ate him up–that’s what killed him.

Aside from the Motown hits, he’d hear hits from other producers, other record companies, and they were using his bass lines, and his ideas. Not only did he not get anything for it, but nobody even knew it was him! And it just ate at him.

Ed: One thing I was really surprised at from reading your book, which I don’t know if the film makes clear, is that Jamerson did play on some big sessions when he got in L.A.

Allan: Oh yeah. He went out there, and he was his worst enemy. He could have done a lot more than he did, but his drinking was out of control by that time, and the contractors didn’t want to deal with him. He was very headstrong, and easily offended, and if you didn’t like what he was doing, it was trouble.

His demise was a combination of a lot of things, but he had his moment, but its rewards weren’t given to him in his lifetime.

Ed: Jamerson obviously changed the bass from its oompah background to a more melodic 8th and 16th note sound. How did he invent his style?

Allan: That’s kind of like asking how Coltrane or Hendrix…you can point to stylistic things like his blues and jazz background, but there are people in the world who are just touched. Different people influence music in lots of ways. And there’s a kind of a smooth curve where they take the music in a different direction. But every once in a while, you get a guy who’s a sharp right angle, like Hendrix and Coltrane, and Jamerson. They’re just touched by God, and with what they do, music completely makes a 90 degree turn.

What’s Next?

Ed: What’s next on your agenda?

Allan: Well, basically, just to tour with these guys for the next two years, let have some fun, let them make some money, and let them go out like winners. They were always winners in their heads, but it would be nice to let them be winners in their bank accounts.

And I’ve got a new movie I’m trying to get off the ground, which is the Philly International story: The Philadelphia sound, Gamble and Huff kind of thing. So we’re trying to work on that.

And then just get back to playing my own music. I’ve been living in the sixties for quite some time, so it would be nice if I could do a little bit of Allan Slutsky for a change.

But I think we have a very exciting two-year ride with this thing. It hasn’t even been released in Europe and Asia yet, and I think that’s where it will do way bigger there, than it will in the States.

Ed: I didn’t realize it hadn’t hit Europe yet.

Allan: Yeah, it’ll hit Europe in the summer, and we’re expecting big things there.

So that’s pretty much what we’ve got on the map for the moment. Right now, I’m still a jobbing musician. After I get off the phone with you, I’m running into Philly to play Momma Mia, the Abba show. I’m working with the national touring company while they’re in Philly. See, what they do is, they bring one guitar, and the second chair, they pick up in each city. So I’m going from “Second That Emotion” to “Dancin’ Queen”!

Ed: That’s got to be quite a contrast.

Allan: Oh yeah–now that’s making a total 90 degree turn!

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About Ed Driscoll

  • http://www.harrogate-sulphur-soap.com Philip Walker

    I read that Allan slutsky was writing a biography of Junior Walker – is this true.
    Please let me know
    Regards

  • http://macaronies.blogspot.com Mac Diva

    Barry Gordy did work on a car assembly line in Detroit briefly. It was sometime between his prize fighting career and when he penned his first hit for good friend Jackie Wilson.

    I think the Motown assembly line myth is somewhat cliched. There is too much variation in how Motown acts sound for it to be really true. Phil Spector’s wall of sound is more formulaic. As was Philadelphia International Records’ sound later. What Gordy did was organize. He made acts fit a fairly rigid schedule of recording and performing. Some of the best, such as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, rebelled. They were not suited to regimentation.

    The last word I had on the Funk Brothers was that they have fallen out with their ‘discoverers,’ i.e., the men who brought them out of obscurity. Litigation was in progress.

  • http://www.simplyreg.com/blog/ Reg

    Regardless of the location of the assembly line, there is no denying that Gordy created a sound that is still raved about today. How many of these fantastic artists would have remained undiscovered if it had not been for Gordy’s business genius?