Revisiting the foundations of funk in the days of Motown

New on DVD

Movies: on screen, DVD/Video

April 24, 2003|By Peter M. Nichols | Peter M. Nichols,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Acouple of days ago, the Funk Brothers were on a bus outside Pittsburgh, about to head to a gig in Toronto. "We're loading up some Diet Pepsi, but it should be Diet Coke," joked the percussionist Jack Ashford by cell phone. In Paul Justman's documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, now available in a DVD special edition from Artisan, the brothers travel by station wagon.

Justman's film dramatizes those early tours by the now recognized but then unknown (and unrelated) group of studio jazz and R&B artists who laid down the extraordinary rhythm for Motown stars like Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and the Supremes and the Temptations. It was the early 1960s, and roads out of Detroit, home of Motown and the Funk Brothers, were often snowbound. Scrunched between fellow musicians in the dead of night, the bassist James Jamerson would most likely be trying to elbow his way into his favorite pajamas.

The documentary reminisces with Ashford and other surviving Funk Brothers, now in their 60s and 70s, including keyboardists Joe Hunter and Johnny Griffith, guitarists Joe Messina and Eddie Willis and bassist Bob Babbitt. Young vocalists who perform with the brothers today help render hits like "Reach Out, I'll Be There," "You Really Got a Hold on Me" and "Heat Wave," but funk carries the proceedings, as it did 40 years ago.

Back then, the country knew Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, but it had never heard of James Jamerson or Jack Ashford. On the DVD cover, it says the brothers "played on more No. 1 records than the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley combined."

With the Funk Brothers behind him, Deputy Dawg could have achieved stardom, Steve Jordan, a young producer and drummer, says on the DVD. The film records club dates and a celebratory concert, but the brothers' music dominates any setting. An astonishing stew of rhythms, bass line and vocalizing, funk emanated from the basement at 2648 W. Grand Blvd. in Detroit, called Studio A or the Snake Pit. The brothers gathered from all over the country, drawn by jobs in the auto industry and the chance to ease their styles into the mix in the pit.

One day in 1971, a note on Motown's door announced that the company had moved to Los Angeles. Effectively abandoned, the brothers scattered to various parts until the producer and musician Allan Slutsky brought them back for the film, and they began to tour once more. "After a 30-year hiatus, it came together the same way," Ashford said last week from the bus.

Artisan. $23 for DVD special edition, $20 for VHS.

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