A league of unknown superheroes landed at the McKimmon Center at North Carolina State University earlier this month. They shared their powers. We glowed from their energy.
You’ve seen it in comic books, TV, movies. Do you really know who Spiderman is? Or Batman? Or Superman? How about The Funk Brothers?
We only know of their great deeds. The Funk Brothers were retired in semi-obscurity. The documentary Standing In The Shadows Of Motown unmasked them. The film told their story and informed us of their unsung, or sung over, contributions–finally. They were the house band for so many hit records on Motown and other labels, it boggles the mind. More No. 1 hit records than The Beatles, Beach Boys, Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley combined. That’s not just media hype, it’s one hell of a boxed set.
Motown had many singers and songwriters, but only one band. When I hear an oldie like “Heatwave” for what seems like the 9,998th time, it’s with fresh ears. I’m listening for Jack Ashford’s tambourine and vibes. On stage, Ashford is a mellow emcee, apologizing for not “cussing” like kids do today.
Guest vocalist Freda Payne revealed her Funk Brothers connection with versions of songs like “Grapevine,” her hits “Band Of Gold” and this one: “I’m about to perform a song that came out to some controversy years ago. I believe much of what it said then still applies to what’s happening in the world today. It’s called ‘Bring the Boys Home.’” A racially diverse roomful of baby boomers, their offspring and cousins roared.
Ali Ollie Woodson, a Temptations lead singer in the ’80s and ’90s, was quite good, especially with “What’s Going On.”
The Funk Brothers were not a live band. Uriel Jones’ drums, Bob Babbitt’s bass, Joe Hunter’s keys and Eddie Willis’ guitar were meant for records. Their live show hints well at studio gold. If the vibes or bass is too low in the mix, you move on and take in this one beautiful, big sound.
Years ago I ran a sassy rant that went like this: “Baby boomers will be doomed to hearing The Beatles and Motown for the rest of their lives.” I was describing the cynical way radio stations program music for audiences, not the music itself.
Let’s toss aside The Man’s greed for big profits. After an encore of “Shotgun,” it would be a supreme pleasure to listen to the music of The Funk Brothers til the end of time. I’m ready.