Standing in the Shadows of Motown
Plus one to miss
Playlist of all the YouTube clips
Put your dancing shoes on.
The Motown Sound was “the sound of young America” (read: “white America”) in the 60’s and 70’s. The Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight… we could go on and on. You might be sick to death of hearing them, if you listen to oldies radio stations or watch PBS pledge drives. Usually these godawful pledge drive shows feature the original stars, often overweight and well past their prime, singing with a backup band of younger musicians.
The movie opens with Joe Hunter, a keyboard player with The Funk Brothers saying, “As the years go by, will anyone ever know who we are, and what we did?” Watch this, and you will.
But what if we turned that formula around and had younger stars singing with the original musicians? Joan Osborne, Bootsy Collins, Ben Harper… these are people who are not past their prime. As it turns out, there was a Funk Brothers reunion concert, and they sang with the group.
Gerald Levert (I’ll confess to not knowing that name, so don’t feel bad if you don’t) does the first song, Reach Out (this particular version I linked to has subtitles in Portuguese, which I kinda like). Joan Osborne does Heat Wave. These are not the original singers on the hits, but it’s the original people who made the hits sound like they did. It teaches us that some music is timeless. Younger folks can get into it, too.
The Funk Brothers were the best jazz musicians in Detroit, and they played on almost all the big Motown hits. Many of them are still alive (or were when the movie was made), and they haven’t lost a step. “The Motown Sound” was those guys. Quite often, a producer would walk into the studio with no chart, no lead sheet, no nothing; just a tune he could hum, and the Funk Brothers would turn it into a hit. Their usual schedule was four songs in a three-hour session, always at least two.
Me'shell Ndegeocello does You Really Got a Hold On Me. Bootsy Collins does Do You Love Me, a song by the Contours that The Funk Brothers were sure would never be a hit. In the early 60’s, there wasn’t enough recording work for them, so they would go out on the road, with Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye, and others. There’s a lot of reminiscing about car trips with James Jamerson,, who’d sit in the back and eat pigs’ feet, which stunk to high heaven, and smoke a cigar.
Gerald Levert does Shotgun. Ben Harper does Ain’t Too Proud to Beg. Bootsy Collins does Cool Jerk. Ben Harper does I Heard It Through the Grapevine. Joan Osborne does What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? Me’shell Ndegeocello does Cloud Nine. Chaka Khan does What’s Going On?. Montell Jordan and Chaka Khan do Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. It’s heaven.
About a year after What’s Going On came out, Motown Records decamped for Los Angeles and didn’t even tell the Funk Brothers they were leaving. The guys showed up for work one day and found a sign on the door.
One of them, James Jamerson, moved to L.A. but it just wasn’t the same anymore. His daughter tells how lost he felt out there. The movie has a heartbreaking story about how he had to buy a ticket and sit in the audience for a “Motown revue” show in 1983; that’s how little the record company cared for his genius.
James is now playing bass in that great studio in the sky, but he’s in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and is widely considered one of the greatest bassists of all time.
And One to Miss: Lady You Shot Me – life and death of Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke was, arguably, the greatest soul singer who ever lived. He died a tragic death at the age of 33 in a shooting at a motel. I would love to watch a biopic about his life, with whatever video there is of him singing. I wouldn’t even care if it was mostly present day talking heads being interviewed about him, because that’s what a lot of biopics are.
Unfortunately, this isn’t that movie. I think I heard that the film maker did not have the cooperation of the family, and that’s why there isn’t much footage of Cooke singing. I think when they failed to get the family on board, they should have just aborted the project. The circumstances of his death were tawdry, ugly, and not very interesting, for me at least.
There seems to be another movie, Sam Cooke: Legend, which I haven’t seen, but that appears to be more what we’d want in a movie about him.