Standing in the Shadows of Motown

Standing in the Shadows of Motown

Interchangeable People

Were the backup singers of Motown’s glory days just interchangeable parts or assembly line workers?

aaron belz

A case can be made that the modern era began in 1793, when Eli Whitney patented a machine to automatically remove seeds from cotton. The genius of the invention was not in its function per se, but in its use of standardized components, pieces that could be transferred from machine to machine with equal usefulness—interchangeable parts. Without this concept, the machines upon which modern civilization so profoundly depends would be impossible. Take, for example, the entire automobile industry: you can buy a Fram oil filter at AutoZone that perfectly fits your Dodge Stratus. Or imagine the computer industry without standardized plugs, adapters, and ports.

The concept of interchangeable parts has not only made machines possible—it has revolutionized our entire culture. Egg McMuffins are the same the world over. So are Levi's 505 jeans and mall atrium food courts. Most new houses are built from a small sheaf of carefully focus-grouped blueprints. If what made Rome so powerful was its consistent network of well-designed highways and aqueducts, America is Rome writ large. From mass production to brand identity, our entire economy rests, in one way or another, on standardization of machine part, image, or experience.

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the hits of Motown Records were mass-produced. From 1958 to 1972 such chart-toppers as “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” rolled out of Studio A the same way shiny Mustangs and Thunderbirds rolled out of the Ford factory a few miles down the road.

The new documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown tells us the names of the men on the Motown assembly line: Drummers Benny Benjamin, Pistol Allen, and Uriel Jones; bassists James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt; guitarists Joe Messina, Robert White, and Eddie Willis; keyboardists Johnny Griffith, Joe Hunter, and Earl Van Dyke; Jack Ashford on vibraphone and percussion, and conga player Eddie “Bongo” Brown.

The kicker is that this same group played on all the Motown recordings from the late fifties to the early seventies. If you consider them a band, they are the most successful pop band ever to put groove to vinyl. As the voice-over in the documentary tells us, they had “more number-one hits than the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Elvis, and the Beatles combined.” And there’s no doubt that sixties-era Motown records not only set the pop music agenda for the decades that followed, they defined an entire generation of American popular culture.

But who’s ever heard of these guys? Who reads all the names in the liner notes? What’s great about Motown music, after all, is not any one musician, but a whole sound—a particular groove, a certain sweet, hopping bass line, bubblegum lyrics, and backup vocals going “ooh ooh.” Motown is as American as a Mustang fastback, its trademark chrome horse atop a red white and blue banner. Sure, we might follow Smokey Robinson or the Temptations—we care about what name is in the marquee, to an extent—but what we really like is the well-designed top-forty hit. We want the product, not the producer.

On the other hand, the depersonalization that is integral to modern life sometimes scares us. Someone reminds us that Oreo cookies, Breyer’s ice cream, Toblerone chocolate, Cracker Barrel cheese, Kool-Aid, Maxwell House coffee, Oscar Mayer hot dogs, and Jell-O are all made by Kraft. And wait a minute—does Ford really manufacture Volvo and Land Rover—and Jaguar too? If the new, rounded X-type looks like a Contour, it’s no coincidence.

When we ponder these sorts of things, paranoia sometimes sets in. We begin to imagine that somebody behind the scenes is pulling all the strings, one puppet master behind the whole show. One big company with an infinity of brands. One world government. We begin to imagine life as Truman Show, with one director, one elaborate set of props.

We turn apocalyptic, envisioning a multiheaded beast arising from the sea, or the Hindu deity Ganesh—with five heads, each representing a different element of life, and dozens of arms—but only one body. Yes, perhaps we even begin to wax a bit religious in our conception of reality.

It’s hard to tell what Standing in the Shadows of Motown is trying to say. Should Uriel Jones, James Jamerson, and the crew have been better recognized for their obvious musical gifts? Is someone to blame that they weren’t? If so, was it the snotty stars—Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye—and their agents? Or perhaps the owners of Motown, who uprooted the business and moved to California in the early seventies, leaving the Funk Brothers without a permanent gig? Was it just a sad fact of fate that the limelight bypassed so many talented players?

The genius of the documentary is positioning the Motown studio musicians as a single band. If they were one, lurking behind the scenes, without “The Funk Brothers” ever appearing on an album cover or marquee, then shame on the population for never acknowledging them. Or shame, perhaps, on Motown Records for hiding them.

But were they one? What, after all, is a band but a name given to a group of musicians while they are recording albums together, an identity on an album cover, something for fans to latch onto? By this definition “The Funk Brothers” were less a real 1960s band than a loose affiliation of studio guys—like Ford designers down at the plant, putting the curves on next year’s sedan. They were the supporting cast for a phenomenon known as Motown, the back-up players for a short list of soulful crooners.

And now, obviously, they are an excellent subject for a documentary.

posted by editor ::: November 24, 2002 ::: philms :::