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.

The Emperor

A few years ago I was teaching about the origins of World War Two and I came across a remarkable book by Ryszard Kapuscinski called The Emperor.  It is a book about Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia).  After Selassie was deposed Kapuscinski travelled around Addis Ababa secretly interviewing the former court officials of the Imperial Palace.  It is incredible reading and reminds me of the famous quote by Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Each of the court officials interviewed is identified only by an initial.

F.: It was a small dog, a Japanese breed.  His name was Lulu.  He was allowed to sleep in the Emperor’s great bed.  During various ceremonies, he would run away from the Emperor’s lap and pee on the dignitaries’ shoes.  The august gentlemen were not allowed to flinch or make the slightest gesture when they felt their feet getting wet.  I had to walk among the dignitaries and wipe the urine from their shoes with a satin cloth.  This was my job for ten years.

Hard to say if this job was better or worse than this one:

G. S.-D.: I was His Most Virtuous Highness’s pillow bearer for twenty-six years.  I accompanied His Majesty on travels all around the world, and to tell the truth – I say it with pride – His Majesty could not go anywhere without me.  I had mastered the special protocol of this specialty, and even possessed an extremely useful, expert knowledge: the height of various thrones.  This allowed me to quickly choose a pillow of just the right size, so that a shocking ill fit, allowing a gap to appear between pillow and the Emperor’s shoes, would not occur.  In my storeroom I had fifty-two pillows of various sizes, thicknesses, materials, and colours.

Twenty-six years!  It really must have been tough for this guy trying to get a job after the Emperor was deposed.  I can’t imagine his CV would have read well to prospective employers.


At the coronation of Haile Sellasie in 1930 the Europeans in attendance gave Sellasie honours while the Americans gave the new Emperor a curious selection of gifts that included:

  • One electric refrigerator
  • One red typewriter emblazoned with the Ethiopian Royal Arms
  • One radio set with phonograph attachment
  • One hundred records of “distinctly American music”
  • Five hundred rose bushes, including several dozen of President Hoovers
  • Three moving picture films: Ben Hur, The King of Kings, With Byrd at the South Pole

Time Magazine, 3 November, 1930

Extraordinarily, for such a colossally pompous ass, Haile Sellaise was named Time’s Man of the Year in 1936. 

In 1935 Italy invaded and occupied Abyssinia on the most spurious of grounds and the diminuitive Emperor (after fleeing) had been pleading his country’s case ever since in whatever forum would have him.  It was a situation that engendered a lot of sympathy and his petition was well received, although none of the great powers did anything of significance to help him.  When you read the article celebrating his Man of the Year achievement perhaps the most remarkable thing is the number of racial backhanders the writer pays Sellasie.  Here are a few examples:

  • Haile Selassie has created a general, warm and blind sympathy for uncivilized Ethiopia throughout civilized Christendom
  • …the Machine Age seemed about to intrude upon Africa’s last free, unscathed and simple people
  • In the last week of 1935, Haile Selassie reached Broadway as a character in the new George White’s Scandals. Cries he: “Boys, our country am menaced! What is we gwine do?” From then until the curtain falls amid applause which almost stops the show, His Majesty and guardsmen execute a hilarious tap dance.

A hilarious tap dance?  What is we gwine do, indeed.

In the same article all the faults that Kapuscinski would lay bare 40 years later are revealed by the Emperor’s doctor:

Every conversation the physician has had with his Imperial patient, writes Dr. Sassard, “gave me further reason to admire and respect this Sovereign, who is so different from those who surround him and from his own people, and who is so superior to them. … In his motionless face only his eyes seem alive—brilliant, elongated, extremely expressive eyes. They bespeak boredom as well as polite indifference, cold irony, or even anger. The courtiers know these different expressions well and retire suddenly when the monarch’s glance becomes indifferent, then hard. “

Time Magazine, 1936

Mind you, not all Western commentators were sympathetic to the Emperor’s cause in 1936.  Evelyn Waugh wrote a book called Waugh in Abyssinia that closes with an ode to the conquering Italians:

Along the roads [of Abyssinia] will pass the eagles of ancient Rome, as they came to our savage ancestors in France, Britain and Germany, bringing some rubbish and some mischief; a good deal of  vulgar talk and some sharp misfortunes for individual opponents; but above and beyond and entirely predominating, the inestimable gifts of fine workmanship and clear judgement.

Evelyn Waugh, Waugh in Abyssinia (1936)

By mischief I presume Waugh is referring to the mustard gas the Italians used on the Abyssinians, or was that an example of fine workmanship and clear judgement?

Waugh is essentially in the same camp as the person who wrote Haile Sellasie’s Man of the Year article; the simple people of Abysinnia live in an uncivilised country.  The American believes that these darkies can probably be best helped/colonised by selling them stuff, while the Europeans think you need to physically take over.  The later half of the twentieth century would prove the American view correct.