Review of 30th January 2004
Well I’d heard the CD, watched the DVD and now Standing in the Shadows of Motown was coming to me. I was ready.
As soon as I saw this was on its way I just knew it would sell out fast, so as soon as the details were posted I grabbed my place. That place was front row, five feet away from the great Motown band that no one has ever heard of. They were billed as being joined by two legends - Isaac Hayes and Stevie Winwood but as it turned out, Isaac Hayes was double booked and so cancelled two days beforehand. He was replaced by Billy Preston.
For those who are unaware, the Funk Brothers played on more number one records than The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones combined. They were Motown. It was once said that you could chuck a chicken in with the Funk Brothers and it would have a hit. They backed all of the Motown records from 1960 until 1972 when Berry Gordy suddenly upped sticks and moved the studios to Los Angeles without telling anyone.
Stunned and disillusioned, the Funks vanished back into the bars and clubs where they had been playing before Motown and were eventually run to ground by Allan “Dr Licks” Slutsky, who spent 16 years trying to make the movie of their story. Allan now plays with them and produces them. He said, “These guys haven’t played together in many years. When they did, they went into the studio, laid down the backing track and never played it again. They never toured with the likes of Smokey, Stevie or the Tops so it was a one time thing. I’ve had to teach them to play their own stuff”.
And what a great job he’s done. If you ever wondered what made the Motown sound then the answer is…… The Funk Brothers. I’ve seen a lot of Motown greats over the years and there was always something not quite right when they did their big hits. Without the Funks backing them they’re good but not right. The Funks without them though is another matter. They didn’t have a chicken singing with them, they had Johnny Ingram, Carla Benson, Stevie Winwood and Billy Preston and it was right. The chicken would have got a standing ovation too.
They were on stage for two and a half hours during which time they went through 20 songs. ‘Uptight’ started the show followed closely by ‘Baby I need your loving’, ‘Heatwave’, ‘My Pride and Joy’, ‘Ain’t too proud to beg’, Higher & Higher’, ‘What Becomes of the Brokenhearted’, ‘It’s a shame’ and ‘My Girl’. Billy Preston did a fine job and you could see he was really enjoying himself singing with these hugely professional musicians. Although I spent most of the first half dancing and singing along, at one point being handed the microphone to accompany James Ingram on ‘Reach Out’ – an honour I shall never forget, I was still able to appreciate the sheer musicianship.
The second half started with ‘For once in my life’ then Stevie Winwood came on. I’ve always thought he had a good voice for soul and he tackled ‘How sweet it is to be loved by you’ admirably but as soon as the crowd heard the opening bars of his last number, ‘Shotgun’, the house came down. By this time, if there had been an empty bit of floor, somebody was dancing in it. From my vantage point right in front of the stage I could look up and back at the rest of the house and I couldn’t see anyone not singing. It was fantastic. You could see the Funk Brothers were relishing their finally found fame. They piled on with ‘I heard it through the grapevine’, ‘Stop in the name of love’, ‘I was made to love her’, ‘What are you gonna do when I’m gone’, ‘Needle in a haystack’, ‘Ain’t no mountain high enough’ and closed with ‘I’m losing you’.
We screamed, we begged, we offered money but nothing would keep them on stage. Guitarist Eddie Willis told me: “We’re all in our seventies now, we need our sleep”.
It’s easy to forget how long these guys have been out in the wilderness. It’s also easy to forget that they’re not as young as they once were. They started out with 13 members and now there are just six left. Several have died since the making of the film, the most recent being keyboard player Johnny Griffith in 2002, immediately prior to their first show together in so many years. Percussionist Jack Ashford said: “He was over the moon that he’d finally got some recognition. He went upstairs to his hotel room to get ready for the show and never came down again”.
If you love Motown and you ever get the chance to see these guys don’t let it pass.
All the best,