net.wars: Let the Funk Brothers roll

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 20 December 2002

Wendy M Grossman

If you knew it was the Funk Brothers, either you're a very dedicated audiophile or you've seen the new movie Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which is currently in selected US theaters. Which means if you're lucky it's playing near you. On Tuesday night, I was lucky. Standing in the Shadows of Motown is my current pick for the best movie of 2002, and that seems unlikely to change at this stage, given how much I wanted The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring to end last year so I could go home and not have to watch it any more. Though to be fair, I see very few movies in theaters these days; I watch almost everything on DVD . So I'm sure there are many gems of 2002 that I won't appreciate until 2003. Nonetheless, I loved this movie.

The Funk Brothers were the house band behind Motown's greatest hits. Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson were only some of the singers who fronted the band's rhythm and counterpoint. "Heard it on the Grapevine", "My Girl", "Heat Wave", "What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted", "What's Going On", "Joy to the World" ... oh, there isn't space. The titles cascade down the screen at the end of the movie, at which point you're just too amazed to speak.

I've played either classical or folk most of my life, and for one reason (I tend to prefer talk radio) or another, I've managed to listen to pop radio - for any length of time - only twice. Once was the summer of 1988, when a particularly bad bout of insomnia kept me up until 8am for days on end, and listening to the radio was the best strategy I could come up with for dealing with it. The other was 1966-1967, the heyday of Motown, and many of the songs that are indelibly associated with the 1960s held my interest. I remember, when I bought a few singles to play on the portable record player I'd had since I was three, my father saying, "Why are you buying those? In another few months you'll never want to listen to them again."

I don't think he ever saw the 1983 movie The Big Chill , which got everyone listening to that music all over again. ("Don't you play any other music?" Jeff Goldblum's character asks Kevin Kline's character in that movie. "There's a lot of great music been played since the 60s." Kline's character: "There is no other music.")

<1/> Big Chill

Which is all my apology for not having noticed that the groups and names mentioned above were all singers who didn't play instruments. I plead that after all I never saw them live. I plead that until the Associated Federation of Musicians forced them to in 1973 (according to bassist Carol Kaye ) the studios and producers refused to credit session musicians at all. I plead that Rolling Stone wasn't founded yet (although of course what I read was Sing Out! anyway).

I realized my mistake about 38 seconds into the opening credits.

You may be wondering what this has to do with the border wars between cyberspace and real life. Well, one of the interesting aspects of this story is how the music industry actually behaves towards non-star artists when left to itself outside of public scrutiny.

What most artists want, even more than being paid enough money to live in to do the work they love, is to move people and to be recognised. Not necessarily in a "You'll never believe who I saw in the supermarket" sense, but acknowledged and given credit. These musicians did not get that from the industry; one result is an ongoing dispute over Carol Kaye's claim that she played many of the hit bass parts generally attributed to James Jamerson.

<1/> Kay: the sound of Jamerson?

(The author of the book on which the film is partially based, Alan Slutksy, says categorically that his research turned up no evidence her claims were valid despite her own legendary status.)

If the film is to be believed, the Funk Brothers didn't really even get the basic courtesy of advance warning that the industry was going to shift from Detroit to LA leaving them behind. It is a perfect example of how the current copyright system does not necessarily reward the artists without whom there would be no intellectual for the record companies to propertize.

To be fair, of course the Funk Brothers are not the whole story. Clearly they needed the weight of songwriters, producers, and arrangers behind them and the showcase singers in front of them - otherwise, when the record companies left town they'd have made their own stardom. Which further proves the point we keep trying to make about copyright maximalism: art is collective. People are inspired by each other's ideas, building and improving upon them, whether it's instantaneously in a collaborative effort or over a long period of time in a series of individual efforts.

See this movie! Or at least buy the soundtrack and let these guys have some royalties at last.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).