Drummer Richard “Pistol” Allen died in June this year.
Recognize the name? Probably not. He was a member of an extended family of about 15 Detroit session musicians called the Funk Brothers. This loosely rotating rhythm section has remained rather anonymous throughout the years but is the greatest hit machine in modern music. In varying aggregates, these pioneers of soul and the heartbeat of Berry Gordy’s Motown record factory played on more No. 1 Billboard hits than the Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, Elvis and the Beatles combined.
The musical tidal wave that washed over the late 1950s and early 1960s picked up some momentum from Elvis’ hips. But it was the solid bottom and backbeats of the Funk Brothers that helped kick-start the careers of such stars as Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and Diana Ross and the Supremes and that became the soundtrack to such diverse phenomena as the American dream and the bloodshed in Vietnam.
Alan Slutsky’s book Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Times of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson focused on one of Pistol’s most talented and troubled peers. Now, the first half of the book’s title has been appropriated for a documentary that puts names and faces on the Motown sound. The film is a jubilant, highly entertaining, sometimes bittersweet valentine to a neglected confluence of musicians, who reunite 41 years after laying their first Motown notes to tell their story.
Said keyboardist Joe Hunter, “No one ever talked too much about us. We were being left out of a dream.” Gordy built a lucrative empire. Marquee artists made fortunes and became household names. The Funk Brothers lived and loved to play and experiment but were confined to obscurity and buffeted by other frustrations of the business.
Director Paul Justman approaches their place and influence in “Hitsville USA” with an effective blend of live music, history and informative character sketches. He searches for the essence of Motown in archival and current interviews, comments from Funk Brothers associates and music luminaries, dramatizations and photographs. TV’s former Homicide detective Andre Braugher provides elegant narration as we are introduced to the individual Funk Brothers members and their relationships, inspiration and work ethics.
The centerpiece of the film is a live concert in which the Brothers recreate many of Motown’s famous tunes. “You could have Deputy Dawg singing on these songs; they would be hits,” said one Funk Brother. And the film unleashes such vocalists as Joan Osborne, Me’Shell Ndegéocello, Bootsy Collins (belting out a high-energy version of the Contours’ “Do You Love Me?"), Ben Harper and Chaka Khan onstage with the Brothers to prove just that.
Standing in the Shadow of Motown explores the jazz roots of the label’s core musicians. ("They could swing like crazy,” said producer Don Was.) It includes details such as Jamerson’s mantra ("If you don’t feel it, don’t play it") and his one-finger bass technique. The story also includes references to a road trip with Jackie Wilson on which the singer was recovering from a gunshot wound; Marvin Gaye’s call for sanity with What’s Going On, which elevated music from the dance floor to the world stage; and Motown’s 1983 move to Los Angeles.
Percussionist Jack Ashford (the man behind Motown’s trademark tambourine) talks about the prevailing attitudes of the day ("Everybody wanted to be like Miles Davis no matter what instrument they played"). We visit The Snake Pit, the tiny basement in Gordy’s suburban house, where deadly grooves threatened to set the walls on fire. We hear of nightlife in such venues as the Chit Chat, in which material from jams often was used for the day job and in which getting paid (guns speak louder than words in one anecdote) was harder than creating the music itself.
One highlight is Johnny Griffith relating a story of getting $100 a week to spy for Motown, which fired musicians that dared record for other labels. Sadly, Griffith died of a heart attack at the age of 66 on November 10, just hours before the film premiered in Detroit. That night, the six remaining members of the Funk Brothers went ahead with their performance at a local club. "We celebrate his living by playing," said Ashford in Griffith’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times. So does this film.