Out from the Shadows of Motown
Note: With the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, I'm reposting my May 21, 2003 interview with Allan Slutsky, the musician-author who spearheaded the making of this 2002 film and conducted the Motown house band during some of the more intricate arrangements in the film.
This article originally ran at Blogcritics.org, where I was among the site’s earliest and most prolific contributors. I wrote nearly 200 essays, interviews and product reviews there until about 2009 or so. At some point in late 2017, the current management at Blogcritics chose to remove all of my articles without notifying me, and have yet to respond to my email requests for an explanation, or to let me know how to restore them there. (Accidents happen on the Internet; perhaps it was just a glitch?) In the interim, I will slowly be reposting my more interesting pieces here.
One of the (many) cliches about Motown is that Berry Gordy based his hit machine on the assembly lines of Detroit. Right idea, but wrong location: The assembly line that Gordy based Motown on wasn’t in Michigan, it was in California.
Gordy’s brilliance was in taking the assembly line method that the Hollywood studio system created in the 1920s and ’30s and adapting it to black music. The result was an independent record label with its own talent scouts, dance instructors, photographers, and as [Blogcritics founder] Eric Olsen once wrote:
To ease his (black) artist’s segue into the (white) world of television appearances and posh night clubs, Gordy established the Artist Development Department, which included a vocal coach, choreographer Cholly Atkins, live music director Maurice King, and an etiquette/style instructor. Some blossomed and some chafed under Gordy’s “I’ll take care of you” paternalistic eye. Mary Wells left after her first contract expired in 1964, while Smokey lasted until the ’90s.
But the most important part of Motown’s assembly line was Gordy’s songwriters and musicians:
As Motown came to dominate the charts in the mid-’60s, there came to be something called a “Motown sound.” This sound can be traced to the writers: Gordy, Robinson, Norman Whitfield, H-D-H; the artists; engineer Lawrence Horn; and to the band – the fabled Funk Brothers – who backed up most of the artists recorded at Hitsville. The prototypical lineup was Benny Benjamin on drums, James Jamerson on bass, Earl Van Dyke on keyboards, James Giddons on percussion, and Robert White or Joe Messina on guitar.
They eventually became informally known as the Funk Brothers. Like many of the men who toiled on the assembly lines of Hollywood during its golden years, they created magic, but were were hardly known at all, until Allan Slutsky entered the picture. Slutsky, a pit orchestra musician, graduate of the Berklee College of Music, and author of instructional books for guitarists and bassists, wrote Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson, a book designed to allow musicians to learn Jamerson’s classic basslines, and some background about the man who recorded them. Released in 1989, it won the prestigeous Ralph J. Gleason Award from Rolling Stone. Last year, (in what surely must be a first) his technique book was made into an astonshing documentary, finally allowing the Funk Brothers the credit they so richly deserved. Last month it was released on DVD, with 5.1 sound, an optional commentary track by Slutsky and Paul Justman, the film’s producer/director, and lots of other ancillary material designed to bring the viewer closer to the Funk Brothers. But it took 11 years of struggle before the film could be made.