I am politically oversaturated. I’ve written about it, read about it, thrown a sock at it when necessary (that would be TV after a minute or two of GOP debates), and I’m as sick of it as a regretful glutton following a hotdog eating contest (pull any pun out of there you’d like). It’s everywhere, in every conversation, the cover of every magazine, and so deeply embedded in the ether that we’re never gonna get it out of our clothes. So I’m just not talking about it today, at least not in this article (don’t ask about my Facebook page!). I want to talk about something that actually inspires me:
Don’t know who they are? Yeah… too many people don’t. Let’s see what we can do to remedy that.
I do a fairly vigorous power walk most days of the week and I typically have my iPod going as a much needed pacer. I’ve put together a playlist for this purpose that is quite impressive; mostly dance, funk, and R&B, all with a wide range of pulsating, bass heavy beats to keep me going when I’d rather sit down and sip Snapple. Much of what comprises this playlist is Motown, glorious Motown; older, newer and all of it expertly and artfully played by the amazing Funk Brothers. Every time I listen to this collection that motivates me no matter how I’m feeling or what dusty thoughts are roiling through my head, I get a rush of appreciation and think to myself: “I love these guys!”… which is immediately followed by, “I want to sing with the Funk Brothers!” As I pound my way up the next incline I ponder all the many ways in which I can make that happen.
I have no clue. Really, none. I can’t even seem to get a damn local band to behave properly on my behalf (It’s Only Rock & Roll But, Damn…) so what on Earth chance do I have with the vaunted Funk Bros?
But regardless, this meditation keeps me going during the more trying portions of my walk and always leads to the impulse that follows: to shine a little light on these musicians who’ve kept me company since childhood and are still doing their part to move me in all the ways I can be moved, particularly as I dance-walk to their beat in a quest to stave off encroaching decrepitude (talk about longtime companions!).
So shine a little light I will.
There was an incredible and very illuminating documentary that came out about ten years ago called Standing in the Shadows of Motown, a film that told the story of the Funk Brothers, that cadre of expert, journeymen musicians who created the iconic and electrifying sound that became known as “the Motown Sound.” This from their website:
With the tumultuous sixties as a backdrop, Motown’s unsung heroes take the viewer on a compelling journey in time as they trace the evolution of The Motown Sound from its origins in Detroit to its demise in Los Angeles during the ’70s. Through the eyes of the riveting characters who ruled Hitsville’s studio by day and the club scene of Detroit by night, we enter a world of unparalleled soul and emotion as the Funk Brothers revisit the sites of their musical roots, triumphs, and eventual heartbreak.
The first weekend the movie was out I sat in a huge Hollywood theater with my friend Tina, tapping my foot to the beat of a song that was already playing in my head, and as the lights came down and that pulsating riff from “Standing in the Shadows of Love” filled the room, the rush was overwhelming as we all danced in our seats in communal exhilaration. But beyond incomparable music, the film is a brilliant and touching story about these unsung musicians who made their unforgettable contribution for little money and less recognition, essentially kept in the background until…well, until this film came out. You know that inimitable tambourine heard in most Motown songs? The Funk Brothers. The particular drum beat, the signature bass lines and those guitar riffs you’d know in your sleep? Yep, the Funk Brothers. I want you to read this description of the film on Amazon.com (which I’ve linked here for your convenient ordering!):
Detroit, Michigan, 1959. Berry Gordy gathers the best musicians from the city’s thriving jazz and blues scene for his new record company: Motown. For the next 14 years these players are the heartbeat on “My Girl,” “Baby Love,” “Ooo Baby Baby,” “Bernadette,” “I Was Made To Love Her,” “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” “Dancing In The Street,” and every other hit from Motown’s Detroit era. By the end of their phenomenal run, the unheralded group of musicians plays on more Number One hits than the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, and The Beatles combined, making them the greatest hit machine in the history of popular music. They call themselves the Funk Brothers. But no one knows their names…this is their story.
And it’s a killer story. Truly. I’ve watched the film countless times, gifted the DVD to friends and family who share a passion for this seminal chapter in music; appreciated all the fine performances of the contemporary artists who appear in the film, but mostly I hold an enduring Standing Ovation for these talented, humble and underappreciated men.
And did I mention I want to sing with them?
The wonderful Joan Osborne performed in the film and did a stellar job as the blue-eyed (brown-eyed?) soul songstress doing proud justice to those kickass R&B classics. I have nothing but fandom for her as an artist and think her version of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” is definitive and chill inducing. But that was a while ago, Joan, and no begrudging your heartfelt and memorable contribution, this really is one of those Bucket Listy things I’ve kept afloat since then and we all know time’s a-flyin’ so forgive the nudge from a sister singer and please clear the stage!
Ack… I don’t mean that, Joan. In fact, let me know when you’re on any stage in my part of the world and I’ll be one of the fans out there mouthing the words to all your songs.
And maybe direct appeal is a better approach anyway.
Um, Funk Brothers… may I call you Funk Brothers? If you’re coming out to the West Coast anytime soon and you’d like to mix it up with a little local talent, my schedule’s pretty open these days so don’t hesitate to get in touch. I’m a quick study — hell, know most of your songs already — and just got my voice all in shape for a gig that fell through so I’m good to go. And say, I’ll even fly out to wherever you are; Virgin America just posted some cheap flights and I’ve got plenty of points to throw around. I’m not famous, I’m not that young (but you appreciate that, right?) and it’s unlikely most of my ’80’s mailing list would overcome their stated geezerdom to get out of the house for a gig. But I’ve still got a few fans who are mobile, I’ve developed some newer, younger ones (which is convenient when you need to fill seats past a 9:30 bedtime), I’m told I’ve still got some hip quotient left, and would social-media this baby right into the… well, I’ll just do what I can, promise.
Until then, know you’ve got a fan and booster out here who’s grateful for the music that has had me dancing my entire life, from childhood right up to the other day when that last mile felt insurmountable until “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” kicked in and you did just that — kept me hangin’ on.
So, thanks, Funk Brothers, seriously. And keep in mind that I’d be happy to bring mixed nuts or something sweet to rehearsal…