Socialist Worker

Standing in the Shadows of Motown: tribute to a supreme music

The genius musicians behind the world's most popular music finally come out of the shadows

Issue No. 1863

Heard of James Jameson? No? How about Joe Messina, heard of him? He's one of the white guys. Still nothing? Never mind. How about Joe White? No? Well, don't worry, I didn't know who they were either. Though I suspect a number of aficionados are already smiling and ready to name the dozen or so most significant musicians in popular music for the last 50 years.

They'll already know these musicians as The Funk Brothers and know that they have, and this is absolutely true, had more number ones than Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys. You think I'm kidding? Go see Standing in the Shadows of Motown.

You'll find out how a group of jazz and blues musicians, many of them still working shifts at Ford and General Motors, created in the cellar of a house in Detroit the greatest dance music of all time – Motown. Paul Justman's documentary is an outstanding contribution to the history of popular music and should not be missed. It is worth seeing for Joe Montell's startling interpretation of Jimmy Ruffin's 'What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?' alone.

But what makes this so fresh is how it pulls away the lies of marketing that created the first black commercial giant to reveal the pulsing originality of a group of musicians. They worked together for 12 years and managed to produce the magic of Motown, which was so shamelessly exploited by record label boss Berry Gordy. The documentary highlights the originality and talent of these musicians-talent like James Jameson, who was considered the father of the electric bass.

He was a key element in the work of Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, and in 1985 had to sit and watch as Berry Gordy took all the accolades for the music that he and his fellow Funk Brothers had made.

It's very difficult in a short review to do justice to this amazing work. The real story is told by the musicians themselves. It is funny, poignant and sometimes tragic.

It sets the music in its era of 1950s and 1960s industrial expansion, and the struggle for civil rights.

One story tells of how the black musicians protected their brother white musicians as they made their way through the Detroit riots. Joe Messina, a brilliant white guitarist, is overwhelmed with emotion when he tries to explain the impact of the murder of Martin Luther King.

This is a generous look at the work of these artists, but it is also angry. Berry Gordy moved the Tamla Motown label to Los Angeles in 1971 after What's Going On, arguably the single greatest achievement in popular music.

Apparently the name was everything – the music and the musicians disposable. But if none of that grabs you, just go, because when you come out you'll be dancing in the streets.


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Sat 9 Aug 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1863
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