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Saturday, September 5, 2009

50th Anniversary of a Musical Venture

The Founder On January 12, 1959, what 29-year-old boxer, assembly line worker and songwriter used an $800 family loan to start one of the world's most successful record companies? Answer -- Berry Gordy Jr. Gordy started Motown Records Corporation that day. His stable has become synonymous with the musical, social and cultural fabric of America. The company spawned household names, signature grooves and anthems for the boulevard and bedroom alike that transcended geography and race.

Gordy plucked talent from Detroit housing projects, high schools, and nightclubs. The winds, strings, and brass came from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and other classical outlets. And, what turned out to be one of the most prolific songwriting teams ever known as Holland-Dozier-Holland -- Lamont Dozier and the Holland brothers, Brian and Eddie -- were also local hires. What makes Berry Gordy Jr. so outstanding? There are many reasons: 1. Singer Anita Baker says Berry is "a songwriter at heart who recognizes amazing songs. 2. Bill Clinton says Berry was "ferociously determined" to build his own American dream. 3. Berry knew cooperation was important but also rivalries among singers and songwriting teams was the best way "to get a record out the door." 4. Abdul "Duke" Fakir, member of the Four Tops, which produced 20 Top Forty hits, says "nothing at Motown was done generically, but instead very professionally with great passion." 5. Gordy, himself, says, "We thought back about the neighborhoods we were in..." Along with Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross, the three came up with a six-word definition: "rats, roaches, struggle, talent, guts, love." Motown left nothing to chance: A "quality control" committee met weekly to review the latest sonic offerings. Gordy was the final arbiter, but posed this question: "Would you buy the record or a sandwich if you were down to your last dollar?" (Mike Householder and Jeff Karoub, MSNBC, September 5, 2009)

The Band By the end of their phenomenal run, this unheralded group of musicians had played on more number ones hits than the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Elvis and the Beatles combined - which makes them the greatest hit machine in the history of popular music. Who are they? Answer -- The Funk Brothers. There have been many articles written which identify the actual members of The Funk Brothers, some of which claim that virtually every musician who every played on a Motown tract as a "Funk Brother." In actuality, there are 13 actual Funk Brothers as identified in the film Standing In The Shadows of Motown, as well as 13 members identified by both NARAS for the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and recognized by the recent Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Early band members included Joe Hunter and Earl Van Dyke (piano); James Jamerson (bass guitar); Benny "Papa Zita" Benjamin and Richard "Pistol" Allen (drums); Robert White, Eddie Willis, and Joe Messina (guitar); Jack Ashford (tambourine, percussion, vibraphone, marimba); Jack Brokensha (vibraphone, marimba); and Eddie "Bongo" Brown (percussion). Hunter left in 1964, replaced on keyboards by Johnny Griffith and as bandleader by Van Dyke. Uriel Jones joined the band as a third drummer. Late era bassist Bob Babbitt joined the ensemble in 1967. (Wikipedia)
The Snake Pit The four wooden steps leading down to Berry Gordy's Hitsville's U.S.A. basement may seem like the path to musician's heaven, but to these studio musicians who shaped the Motown sound, the steps were the entry to a workplace -- a cramped, smoke stained, dimly lit room they dubbed "The Snakepit." This was Studio A at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan. For nearly fourteen years, The Funk Brothers transformed the basement studio into a hit factory, rolling Motown masterpieces off the production line sometimes in an hour or less and trading friendly insults as they toiled. Berry Gordy demanded efficiency. "Sessions started at 10:00 o'clock and were usually over in the afternoon. While working mostly three hour sessions, The Funk Brothers were always on call. According to Allen, (Dr. Licks) Slutsky, "They were paid $10.00 a song until everything was right." Two or three producers may be present in some of the three hour session depending on the number of songs. Union rules stated no more than four songs could be cut at a session; however, since The Funk Brothers were an in-house band, the Union was never around. Needless to say, they cut whatever needed to be done. The Funk Brothers put the fire and soul into the Motown hits. They were responsible for the continuing, recognizable sound. For a great experience, watch this DVD. This is required viewing for anyone interested in popular music. Based on the book of the same name by Allan Slutsky, Standing in the Shadows of Motown is a historical tribute to the unsung heroes responsible for some of the greatest hits of pop music. Part documentary and part concert performance, this film is an introduction to the intriguing personas of the Hitsville studio band originally assembled by Berry Gordy in 1959. Over 40 years later, the remaining members reunited in their home base of Detroit, MI, to tell their stories, remember their departed bandmates, and put on a concert.
Just to name a few Funk Brothers records: 'Ain't Too Proud To Beg', 'My Guy', 'For Once In My Life', 'Wonderful One', 'I Was Made To Love Her', 'The Way You Do The Things You Do', 'Dancing In The Street', 'Your Precious Love', 'I Can't Help Myself', 'My Cherie Amour', 'You Keep Me Hanging On', 'My Girl', 'Shop Around', 'Going To A Go-Go', 'Get Ready', 'Heatwave', 'How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You', 'Baby Love', 'Cloud Nine', 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough', 'Bernadette', 'Mercy, Mercy Me', 'Signed, Sealed Delivered, I'm Yours', 'Where Did Our Love Go', 'What's Going On', 'Ooh, Baby Baby'.....the list is endless.
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