Sunday, January 13, 2019

Motown: The Funk Brothers (Tamla Motown) (1959 -1971)

What really stopped me in my tracks as a teenager was when I first heard Tamla Motown. This music was so different and heralded the beginning of Disco. It all started in 1959 when Berry Gordy Jr. assembled a studio band, recruited from Detroit's club scene. The players came from a jazz, blues or R&B backgrounds and so the sound was bound to be different. Gordy was determined to keep the Motown Sound a distinctive brand name and signed most of the musicians to exclusive, highly restrictive contracts during their tenure. Individual musicians were rarely credited on the records which downplayed their importance to the label but none the less won the respect of all and the band was nicknamed The Funk Brothers.

The Funk Bros were the backbone of early Motown (1959 to 1972). In entirety the Funk Bros recorded more hits than the Beatles. Elvis and the Rolling Stones combined. The original members of the Funk Bros included bandleader Joe Haunter and Earl Van Dyke, Uriel Jones (piano); James Jamerson (bass guitar); William "Benny" Benjamin and Richard "Pistol" Allen (drums); Robert White, Eddie Willis, and Joe Messina (guitar); Jack Ashford (tambourine, percussion, vibes, marimba); Jack Brokensha (vibes, marimba);and Eddie "Bongo" Brown (percussion). The band used a number of innovative techniques for performing the backing tracks for many Motown songs. Most Motown recordings featured two drummers, either playing together or one overdubbing each another. Except for some of the earliest recordings, songs were recorded using at least two-track recorders which gave Tamla Motown a most distinctive sound. The rhythm section of "Where Did Our Love Go" comprises primarily of foot stomps. The sound effect was created by someone stomping down on two wooden boards suspended by strings. This created the audio illusion of a group of foot-stompers. Later when technology allowed over dubbing, the same song had hand-clapping added. The main song writers were Holland-Dozier-Holland, and they wrote the Supremes hit "Where Did Our Love Go," which went to the number one position on the Billboard Hot 100. It was also the first of five Supremes songs in a row to reach number one (the others were "Baby Love", "Come See About Me", "Stop! In the Name of Love", and "Back in My Arms Again").

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Gordy cleverly made his singles for the mono market, and Motown albums were recorded in stereo. Intriguingly this meant two versions of many of the earlier hits were available which encouraged enthusiasts to have both in their collection. The Isley Bros had previous been successful before they joined Motown and recorded Shout (later covered by Lulu and Johnnie O’Keefe in Australia) and Twist and Shout (The Beatles) but they were unsatisfied with their career progress and switched record labels in 1965. A year later, they would score their biggest hit to date when the Holland-Dozier-Holland-produced "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)."

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Motown had a policy, the producer who had the biggest hits with a particular artist was assigned as the main producer for that artist, By 1966, Smokey Robinson oversaw The Temptations, after a string of hits such as "The Way You Do the Things You Do", "My Girl", and "Since I Lost My Baby".

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Up and coming Norman Whitfield, songwriter and producer put together an instrumental track and convinced Edward Holland, Jr. (of Holland-Dozier-Holland fame) to write the lyrics to "Ain't Too Proud to Beg". David Ruffin was encouraged to sing lead on the song, and Whitfield submitted the mix to Motown's Quality Control department. "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" failed twice to make it, then third time lucky and after a grueling re-recording the song was earmarked for the group’s next release.

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Smokey Robinson had an incredible work rate and although he and the Miracles were not the most successful Tamla act, he was often involved behind the scenes in many of the labels successes, Bob Dylan, no less, dubbed him "America's greatest living poet" because he was impressed with the songwriter’s facility for imaginative wordplay. Things began to change at Motown 1967-1968 as the hit factory tried to reinvent its sound to fit changing trends. Norman Whitfield introduced psychedelic soul and introduced guitarists Dennis Coffey and Wah Wah Watson to The Funk Brothers. With a few more lineup changes the core group remained together until 1972, when Gordy moved the Motown offices to Los Angeles. The last all together effort came in 1971 with Marvin Gaye's masterpiece What's Going On, which made full use of the band's jazz training (and listed full musician credits).

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Some of the group went to LA but most stayed and worked in Detroit. Like the Bona Vista Club musicians, the history of the Funk Bros might have been lost had it not have been for Allan Slutsky's biography of the band, and then later Paul Justman's brilliant documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which was released in 2002.

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Worth a listen:
Bye, bye baby by Mary Wells (1960)
Where did our love go The Supremes (1964)
This old heart of mine by The Isley Bros (1966)
Ain't Too Proud to Beg by The Temptations (1966)
The tracks of my tears by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (1965)
Standing in the Shadows of Love by the Four Tops (1966)
What’s going on by Marvin Gaye (1971)

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