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My Guys: The Funk Brothers provided the foundation for Motown's stretch of hit records.

Heat Wave

The Funk Brothers bring sunshine on a cloudy day

By Geoff Wong

IT'S BEEN said that, along with the Beatles, the soundtrack for the entire Big Chill generation is that of Berry Gordy's Motown label. Songs by everyone from Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5 and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles to the Supremes, the Four Tops and Gladys Knight and the Pips continue to be heard in films and commercials. The voices, songwriting and production have long been praised and revered some 4 1/2 decades after first entering into popular culture.

The common musical thread tying all the recordings together—from the early Detroit days of Motown in the very late '50s until the influential label moved to Hollywood in 1972—was a fraternity of studio players who dubbed themselves the Funk Brothers. Although it famously played on more No. 1 records than Elvis, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones combined, the collective went mostly unknown until guitarist Allan Slutsky wrote the book Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which was published in 1989 and told the story of the 13 musicians who provided the entire sonic foundation for Motown's "sound of young America."

A documentary of the same name was released theatrically in November 2002 and was named Best Nonfiction Film by both the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics. The accompanying recording won a pair of Grammys in 2003, and the Brothers themselves were awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the following year's Grammy ceremony.

Though they hadn't played together for 30 years prior to their reunion performances (with Chaka Khan, Ben Harper and Joan Osborne), the six surviving Funk Brothers—vibraphonist Jack Ashford, bassist Bob Babbitt, keyboardist Joe Hunter, guitarists Joe Messina and Eddie Willis and percussionist Uriel Jones—now tour regularly, performing a long list of Motown classics accompanied by a 16-piece band and guest vocalists.

"I think people appreciate it because it brings back a lot of memories," says Ashford, from his home in Memphis. "When's the last time you could go to a concert and sing every song that is played?"

While classic Motown songs often conjure up feelings of a happier, more innocent time where the "pop" in pop music inferred popularity and not simplicity, there's also the reflective side as heard on Gaye's "Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)," Edwin Starr's "War" and the Temptations' "Ball of Confusion." This was music that addressed the social revolution that happened stateside and overseas in Vietnam.

"We get Vietnam veterans that come up to us at our shows, and they're crying and everything, talking about 'Man, we really did play your music over there. You were with us in a time of crisis,'" Allen says. "And I feel what they're saying, because that's exactly what happened. We were in those foxholes with those guys."

What's so touching about the documentary, which was directed by Paul Justman, is the disparate backgrounds of each Funk Brother. They came from jazz and blues, and they continued to gig at Detroit clubs while doing studio work. Ashford was a jazzbo who was playing in Boston when Marvin Gaye heard him and invited him back to Detroit for some work in Motown's famed Studio A (a.k.a. "The Snakepit"). He did a local club show with heavyweight Funk Brother bassist James Jamerson (his bass line on "My Girl" is part of the collective unconscious) and was brought into the fraternity soon after.

"Naturally, certain songs bring out certain emotions," says Ashford, when asked about his feelings when he plays music that is such a part of his past. "When I do 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough,' I, myself, think of Marvin, because I miss him so much. Or 'What's Going On.' That's my favorite, because of my relationship with Marvin. We were like family. We fought and cried and enjoyed life together. And 'Bam!' That music was gone. So there's an empty spot there."

The Funk Brothers play Thursday (Sept. 9) at Montalvo's Garden Theatre in Saratoga. Tickets are $45-$75 and available by calling 408.961.5858 or through Ticketmaster.

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From the September 1-7, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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