Brothers in Arms

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

Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which opened in Dallas November 22 after a nearly year-long trip through the film festival circuit, has served to make heroes out of men who managed to be profoundly influential while still completely unknown. For decades, the Funk Brothers could never even speak of their Motown work to outsiders because no one would ever believe them. How could they? Not until the 1970s did their names begin appearing in album credits, and by then Berry Gordy was moving the operation to Los Angeles and disbanding the Brothers. Even the 1992 Hitsville USA: The Motown Singles Collection 1959-1971boxed set marginalizes their contributions; there's a Slutsky-penned essay on the Funk Brothers, a list of who played when, but no individual credits for individual songs.

They were members of a secret society hiding in plain sight, happy to have been part of history but forever hoping they wouldn't end up getting shut out of the history books altogether. Slutsky and Justman set out to fill in those blanks; now, the Funk Brothers are stars in their own right, blinking brightly after so many years of worrying they'd fade and vanish forever.

"Before Paul came by, we couldn't share our feelings with our associates after Motown, because they didn't know what the heck we were talking about," says Ashford, who played tambourine the way Monk played piano or Hendrix the guitar. "The thing is, when Joe and I left Motown, we still did work together, and we bounce off each other about events that happened. They were fun. It was a very emotional time. When you're making history you don't know it because you're living it. It's a great feeling to reflect on when you're talking to Joe or a lot of guys who came along through the pipeline. Joe was the first Funk Brother, so I bond with him especially, because I know he had a wealth of talent and knowledge. And with Joe, what you see and hear him talking him about, ain't a damn thing to do with the way he is. He'll sit there on the piano and take you through a whole kaleidoscope of history."

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

"With the money I made off of Jack, I bought my first Cadillac," Hunter says, through a sly smile. "After Motown, he had his own company..."

"After he bought that car," Ashford says, interrupting, "I fired his ass." He laughs. "That's because I didn't have one! Nah, I'm just kidding. But, ya know, it's just a wonderful thing. When Joe gets finished playing piano, he'll make ya cry, because he plays all the songs you heard when you were in the cradle and all the songs you heard when you were makin' love. This man's a plethora of talent as far as songs: Fats Waller, all the way back." He turns to Hunter. "How'd you learn all that stuff? You never told me."

"I like music." Hunter laughs. "That's the long answer. I even listened to Lawrence Welk, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra."

Ashford turns to me. "I never heard him mention someone he didn't like."

Hunter continues. "Sons of the Pioneers. I'd play 'Cool Water,' and people'd look at me like I was crazy. Gene Autry, Roy Rogers. Gimme a home on the range, man."

"He's able to incorporate and take what's best in everyone," Ashford says of his old boss and friend. "He brings to his work..."

Hunter cuts Ashford off, pretending his praise is less than genuine. He turns to Ashford and tells him, "Hey, now. You ain't gonna get none o' my money." They roar with laughter.

"See what I'm talking about?" Ashford says to me. "You're in the studio now."

But for the longest time, Ashford did not want to go back into the studio, where Justman filmed a great deal of Standing in the Shadows. Where most of us, in fits of nostalgia, would rush back to the site of our fondest memories and greatest triumphs, Ashford wasn't so sure. He tried to stall Justman, insisting he was in no hurry to go back to the Snakepit. After all, he says, to the Funk Brothers--as well as the artists who recorded for Motown, as well as the producers and composers and arrangers who toiled in the Snakepit all day and all night--the Motown studios were just a place where they went to work. It was a dingy basement, its ceilings coated with thick layers of stale cigarette smoke, its floors drenched in dried sweat. One man's shrine, perhaps, is another man's jail cell.

"When I got ready to go down there that day, I could actually hear Earl's voice in my head," Ashford says. "I'm sure you've lost somebody dear to you. You know what they sounded like, don't you? Does it ever leave you? There ya go. Well, here's six times that. Open that door, and you can hear the voices the way it used to be. When we would get there, we all wouldn't arrive at the same time. If I'd get there 10 minutes after the other guys would get there, Bongo would be over there at the bongos talking about James' mother or something. This was going on back and forth. Earl's sittin' on the piano with his briefcase open counting the money, getting ready to pay the guys for the gig they did last night. Pistol's sittin' over on the drum kit readin' the Racing Form. All this was going on at the same time. It was chaos, but it wasn't loud. The din wasn't loud, but there was some din. It was just an atmosphere of getting ready to do something."

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