Brothers in Arms
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.
"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 Pistolyet!"
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 Motown for 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.
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 1959-1971 boxed 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 afterMotown, 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."
"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."
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 Musician magazine 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 know we 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 that song?' 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 usto believe."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.