Brothers in Arms

You can't hurry love, which was too bad for Motown's musicians

Jack Ashford, a hulking and dapper man whose smooth face, enormous grin and cheerfully deep voice make him appear much younger than 68, warms to his surroundings. "I feel the nostalgia in here," says the percussionist, gazing around the room of exposed bricks that once housed a radio station's production studio. "When you're a musician, you like to get the feel of your environment, and I look around and say, 'Yeah, this is it. I can dig this.' I feel very comfortable in here."

He should. The room Ashford and Joe Hunter--two of the men who, in total anonymity, built Motown Records on a chunky foundation of funk and soul and jazz and classical--sit in the conference room of the Dallas Observer, which was once home to KLIF-AM, among the first and most influential Top 40 radio stations in the country. When Ashford and pianist Hunter were providing the Sound of Young America in the late '50s and '60s, playing on such tracks as "(Love is Like a) Heat Wave" and "My Girl" and "Pride and Joy" and "What's Going On," kids from all over Dallas were congregating at the corner of Commerce Street and Central Expressway and shouting requests at disc jockeys sitting in a booth with wide-open windows. Exactly 28 years before this interview, "Baby Love" by the Supremes topped the list of KLIF's most-played tracks, and for years afterward, Motown releases would clog up the KLIF charts.

Ashford and Hunter are so comfortable here, in a building that once echoed with notes they made on songs they played, they will spill stories they have never shared even with each other. Hunter, who quit his gig banging the piano for Hank Ballard and the Midnighters in 1958 to assemble the crack band known as the Funk Brothers, admits for the first time he was in love with Anna Gordy, the sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy and Marvin Gaye's wife.

Joe Hunter, left, and Jack Ashford disappeared into the Shadows of Motown till filmmaker Paul Justman put the spotlight on them.
Mark Graham
Joe Hunter, left, and Jack Ashford disappeared into the Shadows of Motown till filmmaker Paul Justman put the spotlight on them.
A just man: the fearless director of the Motown documentary
Mark Graham
A just man: the fearless director of the Motown documentary

"We missed that," Ashford says, his wide eyes unable to conceal his astonishment at the revelation.

"Well, I can say it now because Marvin is dead," says the 74-year-old Hunter, who wears a black jacket and a T-shirt reading Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the name of director Paul Justman's just-released film about the unknown soldiers who would rack up more hits than the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley combined without the world ever knowing one of their names, till now. "Marvin is gone. Here's to ya, Marvin." Hunter looks at the ceiling--through it, to the heavens. "There ya go, Marvin."

"Yeah," Ashford says, "you finally told the truth." They all laugh.

Yet beneath the good humor runs a small current of sadness. Two days after this interview, Hunter and Ashford will travel to Detroit for the funeral of Johnny Griffith, who played keyboards on such tunes as Marvin Gaye's rendition of "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" and "Stop in the Name of Love," among so many other immortals. Griffith, who was 66, suffered a heart attack on November 9, just as the Funk Brothers were gathering in Griffith and Motown's hometown of Detroit for the premiere of Standing in the Shadows. Griffith joined a roster of remarkable men whose contributions to popular music--and popular culture--went ignored for decades, among them guitarist Robert White, keyboardist Earl Van Dyke, drummer Benny "Papa Zita" Benjamin, conga player Eddie "Bongo" Brown and bassist James Jamerson, whose single-finger style of playing would influence the way generations of musicians slapped and popped their instrument. Just a few months ago, drummer Richard "Pistol" Allen also rejoined the band, after a long battle with cancer.

"The past is a funny thing," Ashford says, his voice softening. "We got to the film right after Johnny died, and as soon as his picture came on the screen, I had to leave the room. I just couldn't stand to look at it, because a few hours ago we were eatin' dinner! And now he's gone. I can't even relate. And we're not even over Pistol yet!"

Paul Justman, a photographer whose first job in film was to edit Robert Frank's mythical, unreleased Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues in 1972, had been trying to make Standing in the Shadows of Motownfor a decade, ever since he read Alan Slutsky's book of the same name about Jamerson and the Funk Brothers. But there were copious roadblocks, chief among them issues of financing and the reluctance of some Funk Brothers to set foot again in the Motown studios, which they long ago dubbed "The Snakepit" with only a small bit of affection. Some of the Brothers wanted it--the movie, the recognition that had long eluded them and seemed to be just around the bend. Earl Van Dyke, pianist on "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" and "My Guy" and countless others, wanted it. So, too, did Allen, drummer on, among so many, "Baby Love" and "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)." Jamerson also wanted to be recognized for his contributions, but he was dead long before Justman and Slutsky came along; he died in 1983, having fallen prey to years of hard drinking and bad living.

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