b/w Hot ‘n’ Tot
(Written by Richard Street, Thelma Coleman Gordy and Billy Gordon)
b/w Hot ‘n’ Tot
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Stateside Records)
Keyboardist and bandleader Earl Van Dyke, the immortal “Chunk of Funk”, is the name on the marquee – but this is really the first single by the Motown house band, the Funk Brothers, in nearly three years.
Under the Van Dyke brand, Motown slated no less than six singles for the band in the mid-Sixties, and finally began to make good on its promise to let the musicians blow off steam, paying them back for countless hours of studio toil cutting R&B-pop crossover material. Or at least, that’s the way it’s usually presented, even if it’s far from the real story.
“Keyboardist” seems too small a word for someone like Van Dyke, whose contribution to the Motown Sound couldn’t have been much more significant if he’d physically built the studio; he was the glue in the Funk Brothers’ team, the unspoken leader of the group, the essential conduit between songwriters, producers and musicians that personally made magic happen.
At the same time, however deserving Van Dyke might have been of a place in the sun, I’ve never been comfortable with Motown singling Earl out for solo credit on what are obviously group performances, many of which don’t feature his signature organ and piano work as their main draw. (Van Dyke himself, no shrinking violet but somewhat embarrassed by the unwarranted and unwanted publicity, graciously never underplayed the fact these were group records.) I suppose by the time DJs had got around to reading out “Earl Van Dyke, Benny Benjamin, Pistol Allen, Uriel Jones, James Jamerson, Bob Babbitt, Robert White, Joe Messina, Eddie Willis, Jack Brokensha, Paul Riser, Hank Cosby, Jack Ashford, Joe Hunter, Bongo Brown, Johnny Griffith and Dennis Coffey”, the record would have nearly finished.
(No, all those people aren’t on this single – some of them had already left, and some of them wouldn’t join Motown for a few years yet – I just wanted to get their names up in lights. Carry on.)
NEEDLESS CONTROVERSY IN… THREE…
Here’s the thing about the Funk Brothers. (The great Funk Brothers, lest anyone think I’m trying to denigrate them.) Practically every great Motown hit between 1959 and 1970 owes at least some of its magic to at least some of those people named above. Thanks to Standing in the Shadows of Motown, a lot of them finally received their long-overdue moment in the sun (or spotlight) before they died, and most Motown fans know that it wasn’t just the artists, songwriters and producers named on the label making those records great. The Brothers may have spent their working lives toiling in obscurity, largely unknown, but the secret’s out now, and it’s difficult to overstate either their brilliance, or their importance in making Motown Motown.
Difficult, but not impossible. It’s a fallacy to airbrush the musicians out of history – but it’s equally wrong to say that the musicians were the only ingredient in that mix, or even the most important ingredient. They weren’t.
As important as any other ingredients, sure, I’ll readily have that. Shove a random selection of session guys in that studio with Marvin Gaye and Holland-Dozier-Holland and see how far you’d get. But there’s a kind of unspoken implication in a lot of the late adulation for the Funk Brothers that all of Motown’s success was down to them, that if they’d not had to waste time cutting Supremes and Temptations backing tracks, if they’d got themselves a singer, if they’d not been prevented from cutting the uncompromising stuff they really wanted to cut, they could have had 30 Number One hits under their own names.
Bollocks could they.
Years ago, I read an interview with Martin Carr of the Boo Radleys, who was taken to task by the journalist for incorporating avant-garde elements into pop songs, thereby producing a sanitised, edges-sanded-off experience tailored for the mainstream listener. Carr’s response was that he wasn’t making watered-down avant-garde music, he was making better and more adventurous pop music, which isn’t the same thing at all. So it goes with the Funk Brothers, serious musicians who wanted to play jazz, who disdained the teen-friendly R&B pop music they were “forced” to spend their days churning out as being beneath their dignity – but who owe their everlasting fame and glory to that stuff. Or, more accurately, to their greatness at playing that stuff.
The liner notes to the excellent recent The Motown Sound 2CD compilation (left) have an archive quote from Van Dyke himself which sums it up nicely: “A lot of the time, we thought the stuff we were playing was crap. None of us ever thought that Motown would get that big. All we wanted to do was play jazz, but we all had families, and playing rhythm and blues was the best way to pay the rent.”
All well and good, but the key, true part of that quote isn’t that the Brothers weren’t totally into what they were doing, that they thought they were dumbing down their jazz chops for daytime radio consumers. No, it’s the comment about paying the rent. Why? Because if they’d stuck to jazz, they wouldn’t have been able to pay the rent. Jazz doesn’t pay the bills because jazz doesn’t sell. Berry Gordy had learned that lesson the hard way, twice, first watching his beloved 3-D Record Mart & House of Jazz store fold due to lack of interest, then seeing Motown’s short-lived Workshop Jazz Records subsidiary die unprofitable and ignored.
You can debate all day long to what extent “popular” and “good” coincide when it comes to music, and maybe there are some people out there who bemoan what might have been if only Berry Gordy had let the Funk Brothers off the leash (although I’m fairly sure that left to their own devices, none of these guys end up making Bitches Brew); but those people – for me – are coming perilously close to denigrating what the Brothers actually left us, in their obscure but actually-extremely-well-paid-by-Motown-standards daily grind. If you’re saying “Golden Age Motown could have been better, if only they’d let the Funk Brothers do more of their own thing”, you’re wrong. Golden Age Motown was so good because the Funk Brothers were so good, so incredibly good, at doing Motown’s thing.
Motown couldn’t let them go off and become stars, not just because they were too valuable to the whole enterprise (which they were), but also because there is no universe in which they could have gone off and become stars. Every serious music fan knows who James Jamerson is. Name me your top five jazz bassists in history, right now, no Googling. Mingus, sure. Who else?
No, the alternate universe – the one where these guys, these once-in-a-lifetime, alignment-of-the-stars guys, didn’t find each other and get a regular paying gig as the tightest, best studio band in history – not only doesn’t have Golden Age Motown in it, it also has a bunch of guys scattered all over the country, locally renowned as the second- or third-best jazz player in their town. Which, if you watch Treme, isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. Perhaps some of them assemble their own groups, cut their own records; maybe the universe puts Jamerson, Benjamin, Willis and Van Dyke together anyway, and they become the next Earl Hines band. I’m betting at least two thirds of you had to go look up who that is.
They may not have liked it, but the Funk Brothers were the best corps of R&B/pop musicians ever assembled, and the “crap” they spent their days turning out was the best collection of R&B/pop records ever released, and that, to me, is worth a thousand critically-acclaimed, little-heard jazz LPs. Dying unknown after achieving so much greatness is a harsh and undeserved fate, but wishing away their magical life’s work isn’t the way to make it right.
ONCE AGAIN, SCROLLING DOWN BRINGS YOU TO THE ACTUAL REVIEW
So where do the various mid-Sixties records actually credited to the Brothers (or Earl Van Dyke) fit into this? They’re neither one thing nor the other. Hardly the stuff Van Dyke and his bandmates wanted to be cutting, and in many cases just rather perfunctory overdubs of existing Motown hits with a lead organ line in place of a vocal – but none of them classic R&B/pop records either.
I get the feeling all these EVD sides are a compromise, the serious jazz heads in the band graciously allowed to let off a bit of steam – but not too much – by doing something a bit closer to what they really wanted (but, again, not too much), without them slipping into eighteen-minute jam versions of Lush Life that went on to sell eleven copies.
Soul Stomp, the first of twelve such sides we’ll be meeting here on Motown Junkies, is a case in point. It’s not exactly R&B, and it’s not exactly jazz; if anything, as unhelpful as such labels are, it’s proto-funk, a good time instrumental jam, indelibly stamped all over with the Sixties. This was originally written and recorded as a backing track for the Contours (one of whom co-wrote the song), but for reasons unknown – perhpas a direct riposte from Motown to what was now coming out of Memphis, or perhaps the musicians were starting to grumble now that the Number Ones were stacking up and they still weren’t cutting their own stuff – Earl got the opportunity to dub his frenzied Hammond B3 fingerwork over the top a few days later, presaging events in a few months’ time when he’d do the same to a bunch of Motown hits to create a whole LP of these overdubs.
The result is not at all bad, but the record’s defining feature isn’t Earl, it’s the (uncredited) rowdy, gutbucket sax that comes in at the start and jolts the whole thing along. The organ’s there in the mix alright, as ominous and badass as ever (as it presumably was when Earl thought he was cutting some “crap” to sit behind a Billy Gordon vocal), but when the time comes for Van Dyke to take centre stage and cut a new lead solo of his own, the effect is a jaunty, casual series of pumping trills, glisses and arpeggios that’s actually got more of a novelty feel than the driving hard-edged cool of the rest of the track.
There is a great moment early on where he hits the very top of the instrument’s register, and it’s a thrill – like, yeah, THIS is what it’s about! – but it doesn’t last, and although the first reaction is that it wasn’t long enough, when he does it a second time (sustaining an almost-deafening high note for nearly a full ten seconds) it’s more tiresome.
The best thing about this is the looped seven-note rundown that finishes each “verse” (both lower and more menacing than the cheeky upper-scale Hammond parping that makes up much of the track), the sort of dyed-in funk groove that would be making big commercial waves a couple of years later. That atmosphere doesn’t really carry across the rest of the track, and so while it’s an energetic dancer (and has served that purpose admirably for dedicated soulies for years, especially in Britain where this was apparently much admired), it seems to lack a proper knockout punch, the killer blow that would elevate this one right up there.
Probably not what Van Dyke or the other Funk Brothers had in mind when Motown said they were greenlighting a house band instrumental single, and it’s not really anything all that special – but it’s plenty of fun, it’s energetic, it’s good to dance to, and it sounds considerably better when you’re drunk, so it does everything it’s meant to. Still, if there’s an argument that there should be more of these, and less of (say) the Marvelettes, it’s not an argument anyone should really be making.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
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“Hot ‘n’ Tot”
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