By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The Snakepit may well be a magical place to anyone who's ever heard a song sung by Marvin Gaye or Martha and the Vandellas or the Temptations or the Supremes or one written by the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland or Norman Whitfield or Smokey Robinson. But to the Brothers it was a place of business, a tiny room in which the magic felt awfully mundane. It's where they would congregate after late hours in jazz clubs or in studios with other musicians, among them The Capitols ("Cool Jerk") or Aretha Franklin. They'd show up drunk, tired, unable to stand for whatever reason. They'd cook up arrangements on the spot, bang out everlasting songs with little more to go on than a few chord changes scribbled on a sheet of paper. Take, for instance, this story told by Joe Hunter about one of Motown's earliest and best-known hits for Martha and the Vandellas:
"I was coming to the studio one morning, and Brian Holland had a little chord sheet up in his hand, and he was smiling," the bandleader says, brushing past 40 years' worth of history. "He come over and give it to me. He says, 'What kind of beat would you put with this?' Well, there wasn't nothin' up there but some chord changes! And I went over to the piano, he came with me, and we looked at it, I ran through it a couple of times, and I said, 'Well, I think a Charleston beat would fit this,' because I used to like 'The Charleston' that was around back from the '20s. So I went, 'Boom boom, da-boom boom,' F minor to G minor back to C minor. Anyway, it came out to be 'Heat Wave' when Martha got through singing it."
"'Heat Wave' is 'The Charleston'!" Ashford repeats, as though even he still can't believe it. "Do you believe that? That's what I mean--a musician able to reach back and draw on his skills and talents and knowledge of things that happened 30, 40 years back. Each one of these guys, we could reach back and grab jazz tunes and use 'em. Various tunes in the Motown catalog, if you listen to 'em, you'll hear 'Canadian Sunset' and all of that stuff on 'My Girl' and 'My Guy.' But they didn't know. Someone once said, 'Oh, just put it in there, they won't know what the hell it is anyway.' People ask us now, 'What kind of respect did you have for the Motown crew?' They didn't know what they were listenin' to! They just wanted to hear damned product, so we were reaching back on things that had already proven to be hits."
Over the years, there have been occasional attempts by music journalists to make amends for history's oversights. In 1983, Nelson George wrote a piece for Musicianmagazine meant to celebrate the Funk Brothers' contributions, but instead Ashford read only about how bitter James Jamerson and his colleagues were at being underpaid by Gordy and forced into further studio seclusion once the Motown bossman moved to the West Coast. They insist now that nothing's further from the truth: They harbor no ill will toward Gordy, who did pay them well, and they weren't unhappy with his decision to move to California. And especially now, these are happy men--happy with Justman's film about them, happy with the warm receptions they've been receiving at each screening they attend (an 8-minute standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival in September), happy with the chance to tour and talk with journalists who were but small children when the Funk Brothers were moving out of the house Berry built.
"Maybe it's human nature for everybody to feel bitter about something, but what have I got to be bitter about?" Hunter asks, expecting no reply. "I'm here with you now, ya know what I mean?"
"After 30 years, you can forget having your arm removed," Ashford says. "You can forget you ever had an arm. It's a long time. So a lot of the feelings of disappointment we all experienced, which is natural, are long gone. The thing is we knew in hindsight we had made history, and we thanked God for that. Berry set the bar for what we were to be, and I thank him for that. We made history. We didn't knowwe were making it, but we made history. Every time I see the movie, I hear people gasp: 'Oh, I remember that song. Oh, they did thatsong?' Still, after they see the movie, it's hard for them to relate all of that until they see the titles come before their eyes. Then they realize, 'Damn, they did that, too? And that? And that?' I know it's hard to believe, because at one time it was hard for us to believe."