It’s a booty thing

museumHometown pride is a funny thing…especially if you’re from Detroit.  Sure, i’ve had people that i couldn’t really speak with mime the act of driving a car to indicate that they know where i’m from.  I once hitched a ride with a Korean who knew my fair city well from his days as a sailor.  Russians have told me about the archtictural influence of Ford’s Rouge factory on Soviet design.  But none of those compare to being on a bus somewhere when a Motown song comes on the radio.  For me it’s music with the ability to lift me up and carry me home.  Soul music.  But everybody seems knows the words and feet start to tap.  Maybe we all have the same soul.  Or maybe we’re talking about the wrong portion of human anatomy.  There’s something about Motown that runs deeper than other music, there’s something that makes your booty shake…it is, fundamentally, a booty thing.

Motown turns 50 today.  From $800 and a dirt floored garage in Detroit came some of the most memorable music ever produced.  We can all hum along.  We all know the names of Smokey, Marvin, Stevie, Martha, Diana, Michael, The Temptations and all the rest.  But Marvin never made a booty shake.  What’s been engrained in the collective, cultural consciousness came from underneath, made by men you’ve never heard of.  It was the same group of men behind all those hits, cutting tunes in a single take and getting no recognition for it.  They called themselves The Funk Brothers, an apt moniker for the sheer volume of kinetic booty energy that they’ve released over the years.

The band cut more number one hits than the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and Elvis combined, but their names never appeared on any record.  They made $8-10 per song, which, in some cases, they basically wrote.  Artists would come into the studio with a few verses, maybe a few bars that they could hum, and the Funk Brothers would turn it into a song.  The band was on call almost around the clock, like doctors delivering Barry Gordy’s babies.  They worked in what the world knows as Hitsville USA and the insiders called Studio A; the Brothers called it “the snake pit”.  There are stories of the band being called in to cut a song with James Jamerson so drunk that he couldn’t stand up…so he laid on his back and played.

As a whole, they were a band that Donald “Duck” Dunn would describe as being able to turn goat piss into gasoline.  But Jamerson stood out.  He revolutionized bass playing by adding melody into the bass line.  It’s Jamerson who hooks you into a Motown tune and slides you along.  It’s that booty thing again, and there’s a story of Jamerson writing a bass line to mimic the posterior motion of a fat lady he saw walking down the street.  A guy most of us have never heard of might well be the best player ever.

This next clip is just Eddie Kendrics, David Ruffin and Jamerson…with a catch that the parts were cut months apart.  Jamerson’s melodic playing really shines.

With the rest of the band around Jamerson there was magic, “deadly grooves capable of setting the walls on fire”.  It wasn’t just Jamerson.  The Funk Brothers numbered up to 78 musicians that changed with circumstances.  They played the clubs of Detroit and members went on tour with acts, keeping them from the studio.  But they were brothers bound by the funk, which George Clinton reminds us is its own reward.  It had to be for the brothers.  And when Gordy took Motown to LA, he left the Funk Brothers behind.  No wonder the hits stopped running up the charts: the music had lost its soul.

I don’t own a single Motown record, but i’ll always leave the radio tuned to one when i find it.  I can sing along with most of them, but what moves me is that band.  That band is capable of moving the whole world.  I’ve seen them do it to people who don’t understand a single lyric.  So the next time you hear a Motown hit, stop singing for a minute or two and listen to the music underneath; that’s where the magic is.  And rent the documentary The Funk Brothers sometime, because it’s the only recognition that these men have ever gotten.

photo credit: The Detroit News


~ by Lex on January 12, 2009.

4 Responses to “It’s a booty thing”

  1. Fantastic… Joan Osborne shes owns a song and the room and everything with ears in hearing distance. And Don Was! I think they was late in the 80’s “Was (Not Was)” – what a fun album. I have it spun up right now on

  2. Lex,

    Absolutely great post. As much as I really liked Motown, I really like the various incarnations of George Clinton and his various ensembles and have his entire catalog. I saw him play recently in St.Pete at an outdoor affair, and he got the whole city block jumping up and down. I think exposing our citizens to a good dose of Motown and George Clinton, Parliment, P-Funk, Funkadelec would advance race relations 20 years. Good music has a way of making you think positively.
    A bit off topic here, I wrote a small blurb about negative thinking regarding trading success. The discussion got very vigorous, yet remained civil,unlike those over at that other blog you write at.

    The discussion started about a blurb that I wrote about “The Secret”

    It segued into another blurb about negative thinking;

    The comments were priceless, and civility remained supreme, as it always does on my blog. However the crux of the matter is that one could make similar arguments about music helping to elevate thinking from negative to positive. Someone would win a Nobel Prize if they could cure negative people into positive thinkers through some type of musical therapy.

    That being said, my two favorite songs of that genre from the late 60’s is “Black Pearl” from Sonny James, and this, from the Five Stairsteps.


  3. Dawn, i wish that they would have let the clip of Osborne and the remaining Funk Brothers play; that was pure music happening in the diner…the kind that sends chills up your spine. She features fairly prominently in the “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” concert.

    I’m pretty sure that they got Don Was to talk because he’s a Detroit musician himself

  4. Thanks, Jeff.

    Oh shit, i’m a huge Clinton/Parliament/Funkadelic/P-Funk fan. Clinton’s right, Funk is its own reward. I got tangled up writing this and wanted to talk about George coming up in the Motown scene and how Parliament was originally a very “Motown sound” vocal group. With the idea that it was those Funk Brothers who inspired what would become Motherships swinging down like a sweet chariot to bring us the Funk. I’m going to sit on this overnight and re approach it in the morning.

    If i can get happy with it i’ll post it over at that other blog that i write for. Honestly i burn out on the subject that’s causing so much debate right now because it always turns uncivil.

    But i agree, a whole hell of a lot of the world’s problems could be solved by Dr. Funkenstein droppin da bomb on everyone who just won’t dance. Hit ’em with the bop gun.

    I will check out the conversation at MotUB tomorrow in the am.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: