According to Motown percussionist Jack Ashford, there was no place like Detroit during its heyday. “You had The Supremes living on one side of town,” he says, “and The Temptations on the other. The Four Tops were over here and Marvin Gaye over here— words can’t describe what it was like. And they had the finest women in the world there.” It’s true, says keyboardist Joe Hunter, “if Jack hadn’t left Detroit when he did, he would have become a bigamist.” Last week, Ashford, Hunter and the other remaining members of the Funk Brothers—the studio band who created the Motown sound—reunited in the Motor City for the theatrical release of Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
The documentary introduces the world
to this group of jazz musicians who provided the grooves for the likes of Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder, who in turn got all the fame. The Funk Brothers were literally left in the cold when Motown moved to Los Angeles in 1972. And when the record label celebrated its 25th anniversary with a concert in 1983, none of the Funks were invited. “They didn’t think we could play anymore,” says bassist Bob Babbitt.
But they can. In the film, the Funk Brothers hold an exhilarating concert, running through classics like What’s Going On and Heat Wave, with contemporary R & B singers, including Ben Harper and Chaka Khan. For the past year, the Funks have been the toast of the film festival circuit. But nowhere did they get as much love as at their Detroit homecoming. After a packed screening,
they performed for a captivated audience.
But it was a bittersweet occasion—just that morning Funk Brother keyboardist Johnny Griffith died. Author Allan Slutsky, whose book the film is based on, said he’s been “running against time” in order to get this story out and get the Funks recognition while they’re still alive. Now, only six of 13 are left—Hunter, Babbitt, Ashford, drummer Uriel Jones and guitarists Joe Messina and Eddie Willis. “But,” Ashford said at the post-screening concert, “as long as one Funk Brother is alive we’ll continue to play.” Then he picked up the tambourine and the band broke into Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.
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