Standing in the Shadows

I saw “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” last week. For those who don’t know, it is a documentary about the Funk Brothers, the house band at Hitsville, U.S.A. They were a collection of mainly Jazz musicians recruited by Barry Gordy. They played on more number one hits than The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Elvis combined. If you think of a Motown song, any song, there they are creating that sound. They are unquestionably among the greatest musicians of pop music. Jack Ashford deserves a place in music history based on his tambourine playing alone.

I am not going to bother reviewing the movie, you can find numerous reviews if you would like. I will say that it should essential viewing for any musician. What I want to discuss is one of the movie’s theses is that anyone could have sang on top of the tracks that the Funk Brother’s laid down and had a hit. They attempt to prove this by having current musicians sing old Motown songs with the Funk Brothers. Michelle Ndegeocello sings “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” Joan Osborne sings “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” etc.

I must say that I agree with the thesis. The songwriters at Hitsville wrote fantastic, timeless music. The tracks that the Funk Brothers recorded pop and groove, you can’t help but tap your foot. The songs are dynamic and alive and the sound they created is infectious. Above all, a Funk Brothers’ song is unique. Numerous people have tried to copy the Motown sound, including an effort in my home town, but none have been successful. These songs are hits as long as you have someone who can hit notes standing in front of the microphone.

That being said, the great songs in Motown are more than hits. A number 1 song is a hit as far as I am concerned. Hits from the 90s include: “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You”, Bryan Adams, “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)”, Los Del Rio, “Believe”, Cher, and “Too Close”, Next. All of these songs sold large numbers of records. And while they are clearly hits, they are not “Ain’t to Proud to Beg” or “Tracks of My Tears” for example. The Funk Brothers recorded hits, but Smokey Robinson, The Four Tops, and Diana Ross created masterpieces.

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