Standing in the Shadows of Motown

Standing in the Shadows of Motown is a documentary about the studio band of Motown Records from 1959 to1972. These musicians played together as The Funk Brothers and are the sound of Motown. They played on more hits than The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and Elvis Presley… combined. When you realise that many of the songs that were given to The Funk Brothers were really just a vocal line and some piano chords and the rest was left up to them then you begin to realise the extent of their influence.

These guys were doing a job. They were paid a flat rate to be in the studio and produce the music for whoever was booked into Studio A. It could be Martha and the Vandellas doing Dancing in the Street, or The Supremes doing You Keep Me Hanging On, or Smokey with Tracks of My Tears. Whatever. They got the charts, figured out all the parts, the “talent” showed up, and then they recorded. The early singles were all done in single takes on a three track recorder in a converted basement garage with a dirt floor.

They could do this because they were excellent musicians and they played together all the time. Most of the members of The Funk Brothers started out in jazz and right through the Motown period they were still playing in jazz clubs in the evening when they had the chance. The pianists were classically trained. One of them talked about how he loved classical composers when he was young and would play with his right hand in his pocket to try and get his left hand good enough to perform Rachmaninoff. It is no surprise that these musicians when asked about what they thought of modern musicians weren’t impressed.

Throughout Standing in the Shadows there are segments recorded at a Funk Brothers reunion concert. When I watched these segments of the band in action I felt that there was something missing. It took me awhile to realise that what they were missing was stage presence. This makes sense when you consider that The Funk Brothers spent most of their professional career in a recording studio. Nobody in the recording studio cares how many twirls you can do with your drumstick, or if you can play the piano upside down, or the guitar with your teeth. The Funk Brothers live performances are about as unflashy as they come.


As usual, it seems, I have been reading essays by E.M. Forster. One of his essays is called Anonymity: An Enquiry, and begins this way:

Do we gain more or less pleasure from [a poem] when we know the name of the poet?

If I am honest I have to say that I always want to know who did something, but most of the time I think that this is because I want to know how to find more work by that person if I like their work, and I don’t think this is what Forster is really talking about. Forster is talking more about not knowing biographical details about the author.

We had better move on to Forster’s argument.

When we are reading The Ancient Mariner… common knowledge disappears and uncommon knowledge takes its place. We have entered a universe that only answers to its own laws, supports itself, internally coheres, and has a new standard of truth. Information is true if it is accurate. A poem is true if it hangs together.

For poem I think you could read song, or painting, or book or whatever. E.M. Forster suggests that although we believe that the street sign should not be signed and the work of art should be it is in fact the other way around. Information needs to be verifiable. Forster believes that in art the reader “forgets for ten minutes his name and our own, and I contend that this temporary forgetfulness, this momentary and mutual anonymity, is sure evidence of good stuff.”

Forster is talking about the power of art to tap into what is essentially human and speaks to us all. Thinking that art does this sort of thing might still be unfashionable. It was when I was at university. I don’t happen to disagree with it. I suppose that atheists in the 21st century being moved by Gregorian chant suggests that there is some truth in the idea of a shared, timeless humanity, at least within one cultural framework. Forster is saying that when we encounter art that taps into this human centre then we are lost within the song, or book or poem and care not a jot who wrote it.

There are things that I am not sure about in Forster’s essay about anonymity, but I think he is essentially right. A piece of art of whatever kind is created by someone, but then it seems to disown that creator, and is successful only if it internally coheres, and the audience responds to it. Afterwards the audience might want to find out about the author but Forster thinks this kind of study “is only a serious form of gossip.”


One of the most recognisable guitar riffs in pop music opens My Girl. If you stop reading this for a moment you will be able to hum it. Robert White of The Funk Brothers came up with it. He thought it “worked well” at the time; that it did its job of getting us to the first vocal… “I’ve got sunshine….” He’s also the guy playing the famous stuttering telegraph signal guitar line at the beginning of You Keep Me Hanging On.

Marvin Gaye went and found James Jamerson the by-that-time former Funk Brothers bass player and asked him to come up with the bass line for What’s Going On. It’s a lovely, loose bass line, with plenty of rests and spaces that lopes its way around the percussion effortlessly. I’ve spent my weekend listening to Jamerson’s bass lines. They are like returning to an old mine and finding gold. How did I miss this? There they are, propelling along classic single after classic single, played with feel and groove and fitting so seamlessly into the whole piece that you hardly seem to notice them. Go and listen to You Keep Me Hanging On. Isn’t that a funky bass line? Did you ever really notice it before?

I feel for these guys. I hear they wanted more. I read that Jamerson died in his forties an alcoholic who couldn’t get work. There is nothing that can be done to heal this. But here’s the rub: Jamerson, White and all the other musicians in The Funk Brothers were supposed to be nobodies. Talented, flexible, hardworking nobodies. That’s what the bosses wanted. Superficially this was so the singer/star could be made to shine for the market, but it turns out over the long haul that it really had the effect of letting the song sing. Each member of the band in any given song is almost like the individual words in the service of a sentence letting the reader’s eye glide across the parts to savour the whole. We don’t really want to notice the words, but we want the sentence to be good stuff, we want it to transport us.

Their anonymity is probably an important part in the success of The Funk Brothers, and I wonder how much they really longed for fame. Fame seemed to break down the stars who sang on the songs and did the tours and ran their lives into the ground generally ending up penniless and bitter. And the only people who ever make any real money in an artistic business are the businessmen. What the Funk Brothers deserved was more recognition.

Fame? Who needs it.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

3 thoughts on “Standing in the Shadows of Motown”

  1. Maybe I should leave a comment and then you should write about it?

    ps. I’m about to push the ‘say it!’ button…

  2. Yeah. What I really want is a list of recent posts down the sidebar and the Eleanor picture at the top which this theme gives me, but comments at the top does seem odd.

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