Didn’t I do the best I could, now didn’t I?

How strange it is, and unfortunate, when the people who put in the hours and do the bulk of the work aren’t given the credit or the glory for what they’ve contributed.

In pop music, this has happened fairly often.  The superstar singer basks in the spotlight while the session musicians or touring band work their wonders largely in the background.

In the 1960s, there was a loose confederation of hip studio musicians in Los Angeles who came to be known as The Wrecking Crew because they were “wrecking the industry” for the button-down guys who came before them.  I’ve already written about The Wrecking Crew in Hack’s Back Pages, most recently when drummer Hal Blaine passed away last year.  He and players like Larry Knechtel, Tommy Tedesco, Carol Kane and others worked in anonymity while laying down the amazing bass, drums, keyboards and guitars on hundreds of hit singles by dozens of famous artists from The Fifth Dimension 6628fe59f4b3c3726ed3d13631b78733and Frank Sinatra to The Beach Boys and Neil Diamond.

Over in Detroit, where Berry Gordy established his Motown Records “Hitsville U.S.A.” juggernaut, the same thing happened, only more so.

The hundreds of hit records that millions of us danced to — back then and still today — were sung by widely known stars like The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations.  But who played the bass, drums, keyboards and guitars that were the crucial foundation bubbling along under the singers?

Most people, even most fans of Motown music, have no idea.

These 13 men (give or take) liked to call themselves The Funk Brothers.  Why, you ask?  Legend goes, at the end of one enthusiastic all-night recording session, drummer Benny Benjamin paused as he was heading out, turned and said to his colleagues, “You all are The Funk Brothers!”  The moniker stuck, even if it was unknown to the public at large.

Whereas some of The Wrecking Crew went on to fame (Glen Campbell, Leon Russell), none of The Funk Brothers achieved any kind of celebrity status, either during or after Motown’s glory years (1961-1972), at least until recently.

“It was bigger than we thought it was gonna be,” recalls keyboardist Joe Hunter, one of the early stalwarts of The Funk Brothers.  “We didn’t know it was gonna be that big.  At first, we didn’t notice what was going on because we were too busy creating the music and the magic.  Finally, you know you’ve played on all those hit records, on jukeboxes and radios everywhere, and everyone says, ‘Oh, that’s Motown.’  But they never knew us.  Nobody ever mentioned too much about us.  After a long time goes by, finally it gets to you.  When the dust cleared, we realized we were being left out of the legacy.  We wondered, will anyone ever know who we are and what we did?”

61pAjXGCGzL._SX373_BO1,204,203,200_The Funk Brothers can thank Allan Slutsky, a musician/arranger and music historian, for his efforts to increase awareness about The Funk Brothers and their monumental contributions to popular music.  In 1989, he wrote “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” an award-winning best seller that told the fascinating yet tragic story of the late James Jamerson, The Funk Brothers’ influential giant on bass guitar.  The book doubled as a bass instruction book, detailing Jamerson’s game-changing bass lines on iconic tracks like “I Was Made to Love Her,” “My Girl,” “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “Nowhere to Run” and “What’s Going On.”

Then, in 2002, Slutsky produced the Grammy-winning documentary of the same name, which broadened its scope to tell the story of all The Funk Brothers, offering first-person accounts of their backgrounds and their recollections of the many sessions where their 220px-Sitsomlegendary music was created.  Slutsky’s narrative put it this way:  “The Funk Brothers were an overpowering lineup of veteran groove masters and trailblazing virtuosos… An irresistible tapestry of instrumental hooks and counterrhythms that defined the Motown sound.  The dance floors of the world didn’t stand a chance.”

It’s a compelling narrative, and I urge you to check it out on DVD or various streaming sources.

In 1959, when Gordy was just getting started, he knew he needed really great musicians to work in his recording studio, and he knew where to find them.  He went to the various night clubs around Detroit and scouted the jazz musicians performing there.

“Berry came in to the club — I think it was Chappy’s, or Baker’s Keyboard Lounge — and said he wanted to set up a record company and needed good musicians,” said Hunter.  “He knew (drummer) Benny, and he got a bunch of us to come over for a rehearsal at Smokey Robinson’s house.”

Guitarist Robert White and keyboard great Earl “Chunk of Funk” Van Dyke were among the early recruits, as were percussionist Eddie Brown and guitarists Eddie Willis and Joe Messina.  This original gang of players added a few more names over the next couple of years:  Uriel Jones and Robert Allen on drums, Johnny Griffith on keyboards, Bob Babbitt on bass and Jack Ashford on percussion.

Gordy bought a small house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, and while he and his wife lived in second-floor quarters, the lower level was converted for use as Studio A, lovingly R-8199027-1456997255-5370.jpegknown as “The Snake Pit” because of all the cables running down from the ceiling.  It was in this relatively cramped yet mystical place the Funk Brothers called home where all those hundreds of Motown songs were created, sometimes in an hour or less.

Numerous tracks by various aspiring artists were recorded in the first year or two but without much success on the Billboard Top 40 chart, although several records like Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” did well on the lesser R&B charts.

The musicians who made up The Funk Brothers still did gigs in their old haunts around Detroit, and that camaraderie and time spent together jamming on various jazz tunes hatched new ideas, new riffs, new techniques that eventually made their way into The Snake Pit and onto pop records.

In 1960, Robinson and his vocal group, The Miracles, became Motown’s first crossover chart success with the #2 hit, “Shop Around.” They scored big again in 1962 with “You Really Got a Hold On Me,” as did The Contours with the timeless “Do You Love Me” and The Marvelettes with Motown’s first chart topper, “Please Mr. Postman.”  Playing the instrumental foundation on these records?  The Funk Brothers, of course.

From 1964 to 1969, Motown ruled the airwaves as The Supremes, The Temptations, The FunkBros-NiceFour Tops, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey and The Miracles, Mary Wells, Martha and The Vandellas, The Contours, Kim Weston, Junior Walker and The All-Stars, Gladys Knight and The Pips and Brenda Holloway took turns dominating the pop charts with records that are all still enormously popular 50 years later.  Accompanying them on every one of their records was one combination or another of The Funk Brothers.

By the late ’60s, the psychedelic soul of Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone made its mark, and Motown took notice.  Producers like Norman Whitfield lobbied to bring in additional guitarists like Dennis Coffey to perform the wah-wah on tracks like The Temptations’ “Cloud Nine.”

But no musician credits were ever listed on Motown releases, at least not until Gaye insisted on it on his trailblazing 1970 LP, “What’s Going On.”  From then on, The Funk Brothers’ individual names started appearing in the liner notes.

d28df399c3e294d2ca11bc5f7cb9b48aThe Funk Brothers often moonlighted on the sly for other labels, recording in Detroit and elsewhere, in bids to augment their Motown salaries.  It became a worst-kept secret that Jackie Wilson’s 1967 hit “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” did not have a Motown influence by accident; the Funk Brothers migrated to do the Wilson session. Various Funk Brothers also appeared on such non-Motown hits as “Cool Jerk” by the Capitols), “Agent Double-O Soul” by Edwin Starr, “(I Just Wanna) Testify” by the Parliaments, “Band Of Gold” by Freda Payne and “Give Me Just A Little More Time” by Chairmen of the Board.

“They were just really, really good jazz musicians,” noted Don Was, bass player and influential producer in the ’80s and ’90s.   “They could swing like crazy, and that’s not something that’s always present in pop music.  When there’s a groove like that, the subliminal effects, everybody just feels good.”

“No disrespect to any of the great artists who sang on them, but truthfully, anybody could’ve sung on them,” claimed producer/drummer Steve Jordan, “because the

FunkBros-Nice5

James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin

instrumental tracks underneath were just so incredible.  They were musical entities unto themselves.”

Many observers singled out Jamerson for his bass playing.  “He represented the height of creative freedom and experimentation on bass,” said multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter Ben Harper.  “West Coast, East Coast, any coast you name, the man absolutely changed the course of the bass, not just holding down a steady bottom, but adding countermelody and riffs.  No one else knew, but savvy musicians knew.  Paul McCartney kept asking Beatles producer George Martin, ‘I want my bass lines to sound like the ones we hear on the Motown tracks.'”

It’s almost criminal that it wasn’t until decades later that these guys received any kind of funk_brothers_45th_grammys_87256676industry recognition.  Jamerson was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 2000, and Benjamin in 2003.  The Funk Brothers received a collective Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2004 Grammys and were inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville in 2007. A star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was instilled in 2013.

Martha Reeves recalled a session that was hastily called together, and a few faces were missing.  “Where’s James?  He’s out of town?  Call the other guy.  Get ’em in here.  Ain’t no images-63one recording nothing without The Funk Brothers!”

Drummer Asher said, “For years and years, players and producers tried to find that magic Motown sound, as if it was some sort of a formula or something.  It wasn’t the artist, or the producers, or the way the building was constructed, the covering on the walls, the wood on the floor.  It was the musicians, plain and simple.  Without them, you’re nowhere.  As Marvin sang, ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.”

Claims Paul Riser, Motown arranger/producer, “Without The Funk Brothers, there really wouldn’t be a Motown.  They were the sound, the essence of Motown.”

Shall we recap?  Here it is, a comprehensive but incomplete list of classic songs on which The Funk Brothers played their anonymous (until now) role:

“Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Do You Love Me,” “The Tracks of My Tears,” “Ooh Baby Baby,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Can I Get a Witness,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “My World is Empty Without You,” “I Was Made to Love Her,” “My Girl,” “Shotgun,” “Mercy Mercy Me,” “Hitch Hike,” “Cloud Nine,” “Dancing in the Street,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Don’t Mess With Bill,” “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “My Guy,” “Get Ready,” “Baby Love,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “Nowhere to Run,” “Love Child,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Uptight (Everything’s All Right),” “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” “It Takes Two,” “I Hear a Symphony,” “Bernadette,” “Going to A Go-Go,” “I Wish It Would Rain,” “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave,” “Tears of a Clown,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” “Someday We’ll Be Together,” “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love),” “This Old Heart of Mine,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” “Where Did Our Love Go,” “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You),” “Roadrunner,” “Reflections,” “Just My Imagination,” “Pride and Joy,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “I Can’t Help Myself,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “I Second That Emotion,” “For Once In My Life.”

MV5BZDJhNWNiOWUtZWU1Yi00N2Q0LTg4NGEtMjcyN2VmZGVhMTFlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMDM0NzcxMQ@@._V1_

Good Lord, can I hear an “amen” for the wondrous talent of The Funk Brothers??!!

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Everything’s a mess since you’re gone

It was 1977, and the tide was turning in rock music.

You had your diehard rock fans who preferred the mainstream, power-chord rock of Springsteen, Seger, Heart and Aerosmith.  Emerging from the left end of the dial came the punk sounds of The Clash, Talking Heads, The Ramones and Elvis Costello.

And yet, there was at least one band that found a way to straddle that fence and please both audiences.  That band was The Cars.

Cars-1“We were walking a fine line, and it contributed a great deal to the success of the band,” said guitarist Elliot Easton in the liner notes of The Cars’ excellent 2-CD anthology “Just What I Needed” (1995).  “The Cars would have that one record in a punk rocker’s collection that was a just a little right of center.  And it might be that one record for mainstream fans who thought they were being really punky.  We managed to span those two audiences.  It’s not something you can calculate, just that we had the songs.  And we really had great songs.”

From 1978 to 1988, The Cars graduated from small clubs to arenas, released six LPs (four of which reached the Top Ten) and had a dozen or more Top 40 singles, all the time finding the musical formula that satisfied the palettes of punkers and rockers alike.

The key ingredient in that success was the uncanny songwriting talent of their frontman, Ric Ocasek, who wrote 75% of the group’s repertoire and served as lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist.  Influenced by Beat poets as well as the pioneers of rock ‘n roll, Ocasek cranked out smart, literate, accessible songs, and the band recorded and performed them  with more polish and style than most bands on the circuit at that time.

Ocasek died this past week “suddenly and unexpectedly” of heart failure in his Manhattan apartment while recuperating from surgery.  Supermodel Paulina Porizkova, 180503131658-02-ric-ocasek-paulina-porizkova-file-restricted-super-teaseOcasek’s wife of 28 years until their amicable split last year, said she found him dead upon bringing him his Sunday morning coffee.  The couple’s two sons, Jonathan and Oliver, were also present.  He was either 70 or 75 — there are conflicting reports of his age, although The New York Times and other reputable sources say he was born in 1944, and died at 75.  Not that it much matters.  Ocasek is gone, and his music lives on.

Three-chord rockabilly, New Wave synth-pop, echoes of The Beatles, avant-garde art rock, surf music, punk and glam rock — you can hear all of these genres in a single Cars tune, or certainly on any given Cars album.   In his induction speech on The Cars’ behalf at the 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies, Brandon Flowers of the Killers described the band this way:  “They were a slick machine with a 340 V8 under the hood that ran on synergy, experimentation and a redefined cool.  They had it all: the looks, the hooks, Beat romance lyrics, and killer choruses.”

Ocasek and his bandmate Benjamin Orr (born Orzechowski) met in high school in Cleveland in the late ’60s and formed a musical bond that took them to Columbus, Ohio, la-et-ms-the-cars-20151007and Ann Arbor, Michigan in various groups before relocating to Boston by 1972.  They tried their hand as an acoustic twosome, then formed a country-folk-rock band called Milkwood and released one album, selections of which you can hear on the Spotify playlist below.  It’s interesting to contemplate:  What if Milkwood’s CSN-inspired harmonies and arrangements had caught on?  Would Ocasek and Orr have stayed in that groove instead?   instead of evolving toward the quirkier Cars tunes we all know?  Knowing Ocasek’s penchant for experimentation, it seems likely he would’ve gravitated toward the quirkier hybrid music of The Cars anyway.

With Gregg Hawkes on keyboards, Easton on lead guitar, David Robinson on drums and Orr now playing bass, The Cars were born in 1977 and signed to Elektra Records.  Ocasek’s songs were usually curt but catchy, laced with Easton’s prominent guitar lines and Hawkes’s intriguing keyboard hooks.  Thanks to Roy Thomas Baker, the accomplished producer behind Queen’s finest albums, the tracks on The Cars’ debut The_Cars_-_The_Carsalbum took on a professional sheen that deftly mixed the group’s elements into an irresistible sound that captured many listeners from the get-go.

Truth be told, I was a traditional rocker who found the chaos of punk a bit too noisy and unmusical, so I was reluctant to accept The Cars’ punk-flavored tunes at first.  But I heard them perform in one of the “World Series of Rock” concerts in Cleveland in 1978 with Fleetwood Mac, Bob Welch, Todd Rundgren and Eddie Money (who, coincidentally, also died this past week), and that was enough to make me pay them at least grudging respect.

TV talk show host Stephen Colbert, a discerning rock music critic as well, was a huge fan of The Cars from the beginning, and he paid tribute to Ocasek on his late-night program the other night.  “That first Cars record is packed with hits like peanuts in a Snickers Bar,” he said.  “I think that album and ‘My Aim is True’ by Elvis Costello were two of the greatest debut pop albums of all time.  In 1978, Ocasek was already 34 years old when their first album came out.  He had put in the hours.  His music — he wrote everything for The Cars — his music was the soundtrack of my high school.”

It’s true, that first album was so chock full of radio hits — “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “Good Times Roll,” “Bye Bye Love,” “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” — that I couldn’t help but warm up to them — eventually.   And The Cars kept motoring along 45152-18355ec95b1b7b573c813a2a5c2f3617nicely with three more Top Ten albums:  1979’s “Candy-O,” 1980’s “Panorama” and 1981’s “Shake It Up.”

The Cars - Shake It Up (1981)-01But it really took me until their fifth and most successful album, 1984’s “Heartbeat City,” to fully appreciate The Cars’ real accomplishment:  connecting the cynical cool of new wave with a timeless AM-radio spirit, putting an ironic spin on well-worn rock ‘n roll catch phrases like “let’s go,” “got a hold on you,” “shake it up,” “let the good times roll,” “all I want is you.”

“Heartbeat City” contained four Top 20 hits, including “You Might Think,” “Hello Again,” “Magic,” and their highest charting single, “Drive.”  The shimmer of that song, written and sung by Orr, is somewhat atypical of The Cars, with lyrics that take a sober look at the-cars-heartbeat-citythe self-destructive behavior of the singer’s girl.  It was during filming for the music video of “Drive” when Ocasek met Porizkova, who played the part of the strung-out girl.

The Cars’ sixth LP, 1987’s “Door to Door,” managed to reach only #27 on the charts, and Ocasek concluded that he had grown tired of touring, and pulled the plug on the band he’d founded.  Many years later, in an NPR interview, he explained he’d never really intended to wind up in the spotlight.  “I’m not much into being the front guy,” he said.  “I was the songwriter, really — the person who put the songs together, and maybe a bit of a director.  But being an entertainer was never my main thing.”

ric-ocasekAs for the songwriting part of it, Ocasek said, ““I’m happy that I’ve been able to write pop songs that have a bit of a twist.  When I’m writing, I never know how it’s going to come out.  I don’t think, ‘Well, I’ve done a catchy one, now I can do a weird one.’  Our albums clearly had some of each, but it wasn’t really intended that way.”

If you’re looking for “weird” songs in The Cars’ repertoire, you might look at “Shoo Bee Doo” from 1979’s “Candy-O,” or “A Dream Away” from 1982’s “Shake It Up.”  Better yet, start with “Moving in Stereo” from the debut album, which was never released as a single but got plenty of FM-rock radio attention.  Interestingly, its instrumental section, carried by Hawkes’ keyboards, was used in scenes from the 1982 film “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and the current Netflix hit show “Stranger Things.”

Following The Cars’ breakup, Ocasek stayed active with several solo LPs (actually, his first two solo projects came during The Cars’ active period — 1982’s “Beatitude” and 1986’s “This Side of Paradise,” which both reached the Top 40 on the album charts), but his later efforts failed to chart.  Orr similarly tried a few solo albums, but then protracted pancreatic cancer and died in 2000.

Easton and Hawkes, with Ocasek’s blessing but not his participation, recruited Todd Rundgren and Utopia cohort Kasim Sulton to tour under the banner The New Cars in 2005, performing classic Cars tunes as well as a handful of Rundgren’s material.

In 2011, Ocasek capitulated and reunited with Easton and Hawkes to release “Move Like carsThis,” which captured some of the vibe of earlier Cars music and even reached #7 on the album charts, even sparking a brief US tour.  But the magic didn’t last.  “On about half the new songs, I felt Ben (Orr) would’ve sung them better than I did.  In the liner notes, we said so:  ‘Ben, your spirit was with us one this one.'”

When The Cars were inducted in the R&R Hall of Fame in 2018, Ocasek cooperated, performing with Easton and Hawkes, and they brought in Scott Shriner of Weezer to play bass.  Said Ocasek at the podium that night, “I was never big on trophies and all that, but all things considered, I’d rather be in the Hall of Fame than not.”

Whether or not the adulation was important to Ocasek, there are many bands eagerly willing to reference The Cars as key influencers.  Here are just a few:

“The Cars are a big part of my musical love affair,” said Carnie Wilson of Wilson Phillips.  “Ric was amazing and will be missed. The music of The Cars will inspire people and move people forever.”

The-Cars-resize-1b“Aw man, can’t believe you’re gone, Ric,” said Richard Marx.  “Thank you for the songs on ‘Heartbeat City’ alone.  You were a true original.”

Michael Peter “Flea” Balzary of the Red Hot Chili Peppers wrote, “Ahh man, say it ain’t so. I loved Ric Ocasek. What an interesting, smart, kind, funny man who made incredible records. I loved those Cars albums when I was a teenager. Perfect pop songs with those wicked Elliot Easton guitar solos. Absolute candy.  As an adult, I met him several times and he was gracious, funny and engaging.  Ahh man.  Ahh damn…”

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The first three tracks, from Ocasek’s and Orr’s earlier band Milkwood, are a revelation for any fan of The Cars.  What follows is my list of the band’s best tracks.