January 9, 2009 at 1:00 am

Nov. 25, 2000

From the archive: Keepin' the FUNK alive!

For more than 15 years, the Funk Brothers laid down the groove on Motown's greatest hits -- and now they're back recreating those licks for a new film

LIVONIA -- In the pine-paneled rumpus room of a nondescript brick house in a sleepy suburb, the world's greatest basement band is kicking some serious butt. You know these musicians, even if you never knew their names: the Funk Brothers, as they called themselves, were the uncredited studio band that laid down the intricate, funky grooves for Diana, Smokey, Marvin, Tammi, Martha and the rest of Berry Gordy's stable.

We've heard it for years -- Pistol Allen's infectious shuffle on "Baby Love," Ivy Hunter's funky keyboard intro on "Pride and Joy," drummer Uriel Jones' urgent beat on "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."

For 15 years, a slightly changing cast of Funk Brothers plied their trade in tiny Studio A in the back of 2648 W. Grand Blvd., coming up with the goods over and over for producers like Smokey Robinson, Norman Whitfield, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Ashford and Simpson, and the boss, Gordy. Their reign ended abruptly in 1972.

Now, thanks to the persistence and heart of a 48-year-old, self-described "bar mitzvah" musician from New Jersey, the Funk Brothers will swing again, in a documentary being filmed in locations around Detroit next month.

Twenty-eight years ago it all ended with a note on Studio A's door: "Session canceled. Will reschedule."

"I'm still waiting for them to reschedule," says percussionist Jack Ashford with a laugh. "No severance, no nothing."

No makeup session either; Gordy had moved the company to Los Angeles. Bassist James Jamerson made the move to L.A., but the rest of the Funks were left behind, and most music historians agree that without the Funk Brothers, Motown lost its distinctive sound, and its soul.

Alan Slutsky called the eight surviving Funk Brothers back to Detroit from all over the country to play their old songs. After 11 years, he finally got the financial backing to start filming.

The Funks range in age from 61 to 73 and are in various states of health. Bassist James Jamerson died in 1983, at 45. He had to scalp a ticket to the Motown 25 show. Since Slutsky started researching his biography of Jamerson in 1986, several other Funks have died, so he's relieved to finally get going on the project.

"I can't believe we're really here," says Slutsky. "But I won't exhale until the film's in the can and we have a backup tape. Then when it's over; the world will know what these guys did."

The film will be directed by Paul Justman and taped during the month of December at several small Funks hangouts like Chappie's nightclub, at the Royal Oak Music Theatre and at the Music Hall. Already signed to sing in front of the Funk Brothers are Jewel (on "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,") Chaka Khan (songs to be determined), D'Angelo (on "Ain't No Mountain High Enough,") Ben Harper ("Cloud Nine") and Me'Shell NdegeOcello (songs to be determined).

Slutsky is still negotiating with several other names, including a top Detroit-based star.

The film will either go to theaters, like the music documentary Buena Vista Social Club, or to cable.

On a recent weekday, the harried producer was sitting in the Livonia basement, guitar strapped on, running the Funks through a smoking "Heat Wave," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "I Was Made to Love Her."

Several of the guys still live in Metro Detroit; keyboard player Joe Hunter, guitarist Joe Messina and drummers Uriel Jones and Richard "Pistol" Allen. Bass player Bob Babbitt is up from Nashville; guitarist Eddie Willis traveled from his hometown of Grenada, Miss.; keyboard player Johnny Griffin flew in from his Las Vegas home; and percussionist/vibe player Ashford came up from Memphis.

On the first day of rehearsal there were some tears as the surviving Funks all stood in the same room for the first time in three decades. There were also thoughts of the guys who weren't there, like legendary bass player James Jamerson (the first Funk Brother to make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame); keyboard player Earl Van Dyke; drummer Benny Benjamin and guitarist Robert White.

"Robert should have been here," says Slutsky. "A bad HMO plan out in L.A. killed him. He had single bypass heart surgery, something that should be routine."

"If he was here in Detroit and had that surgery, he'd still be alive," adds an angry Jones.

After playing Jamerson's incredible bass line on Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made to Love Her," bassist Babbitt said he felt a little guilty. "But maybe that's why this was meant to be," he says. The virtuoso bass player will get his due posthumously.

Secret language

But soon the Funks revert to form and the good-natured teasing begins. Nobody in the room is spared.

"These guys have a secret language," says Slutsky. "It's sort of a cross between Bill Cosby's Fat Albert and mushmouth. That's how they'd communicated with each other so that the producers didn't know they were calling them jerks."

Sure enough, on this day, drummer Jones starts mumbling something and the other guys are soon shrieking with laughter.

They also take part in what can only be described as a senior version of the dozens, the urban male bragging game. Although now they brag about how many pills they supposedly take, instead of women.

Like this: "My doctor told me by the time he'd figured out what's wrong with me, he'd be dead," says Ashford.

Even while chopping away on a song, guitarist Messina never quite stops laughing at his friends' shenanigans. Messina was one of the first studio musicians hired by Gordy to play in the dirt-floor garage behind the Motown house, before there even was a studio.

"Even I don't always understand," he admits of the Funks' secret language. But he doesn't feel left out. "I really had a great time with these guys, they're so nice. And playing music like this isn't work."

The Funk Brothers were and are racially integrated and Messina and Babbitt, who are both white, say they were always accepted.

It appears that the Funks have also accepted Slutsky as not only their producer, but as one of the guys. On the second day of rehearsal, he strapped on a guitar and took a seat next to guitarists Messina and Willis. "It looks like I'm going to be Robert White," he says, of the vacant third guitar chair.

"You sounded good, man," Ashford says to Slutsky after a run-through on "Shotgun." "Robert won't be turning over in his grave on your account."

As a working musician, Slutsky figures that he's played Martha and the Vandellas' "Heatwave" thousands of times at weddings and bar mitzvahs.

"I know that song inside and out," says Slutsky. "But I'll tell you, the first time the guys played 'Heatwave' at rehearsal, I said, 'No, that's it. I've heard that song for the first time. That's Heatwave!' "

Bringing back the beat

Part of what makes you recognize the music as the real deal is that familiar, relentless, rock-solid beat put down by drummers Allen and Jones.

Each Motown drummer had his specialty; Allen was brought in when regular Motown drummer Benny Benjamin wasn't able to play on a session, and the former went on to specialize in the shuffle beats like "Baby Love" and "The Way You Do The Things You Do." During the height of Motown's popularity in 1964-65 there was so much work that the Funk Brothers were recording around the clock.

A third drummer, Uriel Jones, who'd been playing strictly on Marvin Gaye sessions, started playing on many more. Jones' forte was funk, straight R&B and the flat-out rockers like "Cloud Nine," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Can't Get Next To You."

A visitor to their rehearsal lair soon learns that there are eight million Funk Brothers stories in the naked city, and a tape recorder running 24 hours a day for a year couldn't begin to capture them all.

A favorite topic is the musical knowledge (or lack thereof) of various Motown producers.

"We're gossiping now," Joe Hunter says, as if we couldn't tell.

One of the funniest stories has to be how A&R director Mickey Stevenson used to pay two of the Funk Brothers to spy on the rest, and tell him if they were doing "illegal" sessions for other record companies. They were -- the Funk Brothers recorded "Cool Jerk" for the Capitols and "Higher and Higher" for Jackie Wilson, among other gigs. But the joke was on Stevenson; not only did the Funk "spies" refuse to spy, but they pocketed his money anyway and played on the illegal sessions along with the rest of the band.

Favorite singers

The Funks usually recorded their tracks before Motown's singers were even brought in to record, but they still had their favorites.

For Joe Hunter, it was Diana Ross, whom he describes in those pre-diva days as "rough," and "a tomboy," a girl who would actually climb trees around the Motown house.

"Diana used to sit on the front steps of Motown like Plato," says Hunter, demonstrating with his elbows on his knees. "I'd ask her what's wrong? She'd say, 'We were here before the rest of those girls, before the Marvelettes, but they've had hits and we haven't had any yet.'

"I said, 'Don't worry, you're gonna be a star, with those big hungry-looking eyes.' I didn't believe it," Hunter says with a hearty laugh. "But I'm glad I predicted it right!"

Uriel Jones and Johnny Griffith both favored the late Tammi Terrell. "Her interpretation, her phrasing -- everything she did with Marvin Gaye," says Jones.

The favorite topic has to be who was responsible for the Motown sound. There is of course 100-percent agreement -- it was the musicians.

"They'd stick the singers on top of what we did. They'd say to us, 'Give us your special thing,' snorts Johnny Griffith. "When I came in, Joe Hunter said, 'Don't pay any attention to what they say, just play what you want, off the chords. They don't know what they want, and they understand none of it.' I took his advice!"

"You could take a chicken and wring its neck in the Motown studio, put it directly in front of a mike and you'd get a hit," adds Ashford.

A thank you to Gordy

As with any Motown gathering; there isn't just dissing going on. All admit that Gordy's Motown gave them unbelievable opportunity.

"I hate to think what I would have done without Motown," says Ashford. The rest talk about money, houses and fancy cars they bought. Producer Slutsky is quick to credit Gordy for granting permission to use 30 Motown songs in the documentary.

"Berry did a cool thing," Slutsky says. "Nobody gets to use 30 Motown songs in a movie. ABC couldn't get rights to songs for a Supremes mini-series, and who am I? A guy who plays bar mitzvahs. He did right by the guys."

Babbitt says that they were young, they liked the money they were being paid, and if Motown wasn't running the sessions through the union -- and that means that today the musicians don't get the pension they otherwise would -- at the time, they didn't complain. Going from all-night jam sessions in nightclubs to all-day sessions at the Motown studio was fun. They never thought it would stop.

Most of their memories are funny: Going next door to the funeral home to have a nip. Having dinner at "Ptomaine Annie's," their name for the basement kitchen of the Gordy house next door where they were served hot dogs and beans.

The Funks laugh and tease about how many pill breaks they now need. But as soon as the talking stops and the old lions get down to business, the cluttered basement becomes the funkiest concrete cave in all of Metro Detroit.

Those unmistakable guitars, keyboards and drums slide back into their original grooves, and it's magic.

At one point, something wordless passes between drummers Uriel Jones and Pistol Allen -- a nod or a wink -- maybe it's a flash of Jones' mischievous eyes. At any rate, Jones and then Allen start slamming out an eerie, stop-and-start beat, doing two overlapping, complementary beats to form one big fat one, until finally it's clear what they're doing -- the Edwin Starr song, "War." Soon the rest of the band has joined in on the impromptu jam.

After they finish, breathless, Jones says to Slutsky, "Hey, you don't have to write out the music for that one."

"Guys," says Slutsky, "I am grateful for any work you can spare me."

For years, many of the Funk Brothers were too modest or weary to admit that they worked for Motown. Bob Babbitt says he found many Nashville session players had lied and said they worked for Motown, so few believed him when he came along. Joe Messina would tell people he was a car wash owner (which he was).

"Now, with this film, everybody will know who we are, and what we did," says Babbitt.