The Way They Do The Things They Do
Over a span of 14 years, the Motown house band played on more No. 1 hits than the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Elvis, and the Beatles combined. But unlike their counterparts at Stax or Studio One, the Funk Brothers worked anonymously, eclipsed by the singers they backed, and abandoned by the label-owner they served, Berry Gordy. As keyboardist Joe Hunter puts it in a rousing new documentary, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, "When the dust cleared, it was all over, and we realized we were being left out of the dream."
Spurred by Allan Slutsky's book of the same title, Shadows captures the Funk Brothers' December 2000 reunion in Detroit, where the band performed (with Joan Osborne, Gerald LeVert, and others) and shared stories for the camera. Five of the 13 members died before shooting began, and two have died since: drummer Richard "Pistol" Allen in June (of cancer), and keyboardist Johnny Griffith on November 10 (of a heart attack). Still reeling from these losses, Hunter and tambourine man Jack "Black Jack" Ashford graciously agreed to answer a few questions about Motown's shadow, and about stepping out of it with the movie and an upcoming tour.
City Pages: How did you feel when you first saw the movie?
Jack "Black Jack" Ashford: It was a shock for me. To see your life unfold before you like that--we never expected this to happen. So we had no way of preparing for it. It hasn't dawned on me yet, the gravity of what we did.
CP: Did you feel the absence of the late Funk Brothers?
Ashford: That's the most painful thing now, the fact that they're not here, because they wanted it as bad as we did. They'd be like kids in a candy store.
CP: Have all you guys stayed in touch over the years?
Ashford: I talked to Robert and Joe occasionally. But we all had our own lives to live; we had to move forward. Each guy had his personal hell, I guess, that he went through to adjust from the slide. But they're all strong men, all strong guys. That's demonstrated on the records, just how strong they were.
CP: Do you think the movie should have been more critical of Berry's departure from Detroit?
Joe Hunter: Well, I was always aware it would happen. The first day I talked to Berry about playing in Hitsville, he said he wanted to make some hit records, and after he made those records, he wanted to get in the movies. So I knew that it wasn't going to last forever.
CP: Are there stories the movie left out?
Ashford: If they had covered everything that happened, it would have been about two years long. You'd go, "Well, I'm going to the movies." "How long you going to be there?" "Two years."
I remembered something today about how one time I went to the house where Berry had some affair going on, and in the living room there was a big portrait of him in a Napoleon outfit. Had his hand thrust in his jacket like Napoleon did. A lot of people never saw that, but I saw it. That picture told me a thousand tales.
Hunter: We knew him as "the Führer." That's what Randy used to say: "Here comes the Führer."
Ashford: Only because he was the top of the heap, not because he treated us like underlings.
CP: How is playing together different now?
Ashford: Well, the desire is the same. We wanted to be the best at what we were doing. That's one thing you can say about the Funk Brothers: We were on a mission every time we started playing. And why not? We got the biggest track record. Even if they didn't know us, it didn't make any difference. Listen to the CD [on Hip-O Records], and you can hear that we sound the same now as we did then.
Hunter: And now we've got another Führer, Allan Slutsky. Only he's a little fatter than the other one.
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