There it was, right on the famous blue label slapped onto all of the Motown singles. Five words – “The Sound of Young America” – certified these smooth but soulful, finger-snapping hits as anthems of an emerging generation.
It’s hard to argue with that; no ’60s flashback would be complete without a taste of Temptations, the purr of Diana Ross, or certainly the Marvin Gaye classic “What’s Going On.” But in recent years a question has arisen over what exactly the Motown sound was, and who was responsible for it.
The artists, of course, were the stars. Stevie, the Four Tops, the Vandellas – it was their voices that spun off of 45rpm turntables and sang out from AM radios during those years of fading innocence. Savvy listeners also credited the wizards who wrote these gems: Smokey Robinson in the early days, the Holland-Dozier-Holland team later on, and then Norman Whitfield as Motown plugged into the psychedelic current. Yet as the years have passed, it has become clear that it was the backup musicians who, night after night, on countless tracks, created and developed this sound. No matter who the singers or the writers were, the Midas touch came from the hands of the band.
They called themselves the Funk Brothers, and for 14 years they were the single indispensable element at Motown. They hardly ever played live; label founder Berry Gordy Jr. hoarded them jealously, and paid each member a solid salary to keep him from straying away to any other label. Their world was the “Snake Pit,” the players’ name for Studio A at Hitsville, the cramped company facility in Detroit. There, seated in a circle, with the guitar section and the bass player huddled opposite the drums, they’d jam through new material night after night, on sessions that began late and could easily run until after sunrise. Sometimes charts were provided. Mostly, though, they were lead sheets, left bare so the Brothers could fill the space with their magic.
Everyone who passed through that band played an important role, but none more so than two giants whose names, like their rhythmic feel, seem perfectly matched: bassist James Jamerson and drummer Benny Benjamin. Their rhythm was the heart that beat throughout much of the most memorable Motown catalog.
Benjamin passed away in 1969, after a long descent through a blur of booze and drugs. Though his playing had been eroding for some time, his death was a stunning blow. Stevie Wonder, who learned to play drums at Benjamin’s feet, wept while singing at his funeral. For two weeks after that, Jamerson, stricken, could barely bring himself to eat or sleep. (The great bassist would also die prematurely, at age 37, in 1983, of assorted ailments including cirrhosis of the liver.)
Their names, like those of the other Funk Brothers, have at last been brought out into the light through the efforts of filmmaker and author Alan Slutsky. It took years of chasing after funding and dealing with other hurdles, including the deaths of several key protagonists – yet finally, last November, he pulled it off with the release of Standing in the Shadows of Motown. This documentary film makes the case through interviews, old snapshots and footage – and, ultimately, through music, as the remaining members of the Motown band get together after more than a quarter-century hiatus to show how it was done.
Even with Jamerson, Benjamin, and other key players gone, plenty of survivors have hung on. None bore a heavier load, back in the day, than drummer Uriel Jones, whose burden was to pick up where Benjamin left off and keep the hit-making feel intact into the ’70s.