(Written by James Jamerson, Earl Van Dyke and Robert White)
Regular readers will know by now that there are few things I like more than a narrative. Individually, the Motown singles catalogue is just a huge pile of great records (and a few not-so-great ones), but going through them in order like this reveals certain story strands running through that history, strands which are fun to pick up from where we left off last time.
What’s especially fun (for me, anyway!) is where I come across a narrative that’s already in place – but where the records themselves don’t seem to fit the pre-arranged story arc. Earl Van Dyke, Motown’s studio keyboardist, leader of the Hitsville house band, the legendary Funk Brothers, and (largely) unsung hero, is a prime example – and The Flick is a key record in telling the real story.
The clue’s in the name.
The Funk Brothers spent much of the Sixties and Seventies in relative obscurity, the faceless but vital cogs in the Motown hit-making machinery, nowadays famous (too late) for having featured on dozens and dozens of big hits, while nobody knew their names; the very title of the Standing In The Shadows Of Motown documentary plays to this. And certainly, there’s a lot of truth to that, all-time greats like drummer Benny Benjamin, bassist James Jamerson and even Van Dyke himself dying in obscurity before the band members belatedly got the recognition they were always due.
But it’s not the whole story, or rather it’s not the only thing in the story – as we discussed when talking about Tammi Terrell, there’s always the potential (especially in hindsight) for someone’s ultimate victimhood to overshadow their actual achievements, or obscure what actually went down before. And so it is with the story of the Funk Brothers.
The story as it’s usually told is pretty straightforward. Motown wanted to keep this tight unit of highly proficient jazz musicians toiling away, and so made a bad-faith promise that they’d be allowed to record their own material if they’d only toe the line. The musicians themselves thought the R&B pop stuff they were pumping out was, to use Van Dyke’s own words, “crap… just the best way to pay the rent”, sales in the millions notwithstanding, and so they waited eagerly for the day they could cut loose on that promised record of their own, to finally show off their chops to the nation with the training wheels off. When the time came to cut an actual Funk Brothers LP, so the story always goes, the company presented the unimpressed band with a load of their own pre-recorded backing tracks, Van Dyke overdubbing a new organ line over the top to substitute for the original vocals, with varying (but generally underwhelming) results.
That’s the story as it usually goes. But as I’ve said before, there’s a lot wrong with this view of events. First and foremost – for me – is the inherent disrespect to the wonderful music these guys did make. “Oh, if only they’d been allowed off the leash, they could have made something really special” falls apart as an argument when we’re talking about the greatest studio band of all time, whose reputation rests solely on the immortal classic pop and soul records they cut for Motown.
This isn’t some band who could have made it, had they only been given the breaks – they did make it, and spectacularly so, and by and large this blog is the story of that success. To wish away the history of Motown in the Sixties for the benefit of any single artist would be sacrilegious; to treat the musicians differently because, hey, these were musicians, and the implied disrespect to the army of teenage girls and boys who didn’t play instruments or even write their own material, smacks of exactly the kind of double standards I can’t accept.
Moreover, though, the narrative that paints Van Dyke and his fellow musicians as modern-day indentured servants, churning out hits in the darkness, kept under wraps as Motown’s best secret (and many accounts explicitly accuse Motown of having actively worked to stifle the possibility of Van Dyke and co. becoming successful “name” artists in their own right, as such a development might actually have hindered the factory-like day-to-day operations of the Hitsville hit production line)… that narrative is just not supported by the facts, even the ones we’ve seen so far here on Motown Junkies.
And the clue’s in the name. Much has been made of the label-enforced change from “Funk Brothers” to “Soul Brothers” – apparently both because the word funk wasn’t in widespread use (other than as a synonym for an unpleasant smell or a dark mood) and because Berry Gordy apparently worried it might be taken as a cognate of or euphemism for “fuck”. Lest such concerns seem excessively prissy and prudish to our modern ears, we mustn’t forget Motown was not operating in a vacuum; this was a time in America where even white boys couldn’t get away with saying “hell” on the radio, and where every inch of progress for any branch of black culture and black life, every modicum of respect grudgingly granted from the white establishment, had been hard-fought and hard-won, and the fear persisted that those inches could easily be swept back by a careless wrong step. So the Soul Brothers it was.
But observe: Motown didn’t change their name to something like “The Motown Band”, or use pseudonyms – or credit these instrumental cuts to a named (vocal) artist for use on B-sides and to bulk out albums, as some of their contemporaries might have done.
Observe the decision to list Van Dyke’s name on the marquee, singled out ahead of his bandmates (something which, to his credit, he said made him distinctly uncomfortable) – an honour at this stage only granted to Smokey Robinson (on albums) and Martha Reeves (without her surname). It’s difficult not to read that as a move simply reflecting the billing status of Booker T. and the MG’s over at Stax, who were still notching hit singles (another motivation for Motown to release The Flick, but we’ll come to that later), but it’s significant nonetheless.
Observe Van Dyke being sent out to tour Europe as part of the inaugural Tamla-Motown Revue, he and his touring group billed as The Earl Van Dyke Sextet, both for the live shows and the resulting Paris live album – okay, so they were usually bottom of the bill, but even that was above and beyond the bare minimum requirements.
Observe the picture sleeve (right) issued in Europe for Soul Stomp, with Van Dyke’s name in fifty point type and his too-cool face filling the frame.
No. If anything, Earl Van Dyke had cause to be grateful to Motown for publicising his name as much as they did; it’s the other key players (and it’s Jamerson and Benajmin who come to mind, again) who had more right to feel aggrieved. But then, one might argue, nobody was exactly making sure the public knew the names of all the members of the Miracles or Vandellas either (not to mention the likes of the Velvelettes, Elgins or Monitors).
The shabbiness of Motown’s later treatment of the core of the Sixties line-up of Brothers – especially of James Jamerson, who nowadays would be lionised, flaws and all, but whose time came too soon for an industry which even now has a grubby track record when it comes to looking after its pioneers – can’t be airbrushed out of the story. We can’t, and shouldn’t, pretend Motown come out of this smelling of roses. But to sweepingly declare the Funk Brothers got no support or public recognition at all from Motown is just as incorrect.
Because, well, then there’s the music itself. Yes, Motown’s offer of an album for the band was a damp squib – That Motown Sound, pictured below, is a ragtag bunch of slightly rum cover versions and I’m no great fan of it, as you’ll have gathered judging by the 45s from those sessions we’ve seen here on Motown Junkies (Too Many Fish In The Sea, I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch), How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), average score 4 out of 10). But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
For starters, there’s another double standard at work here. Lots of Motown acts never got an album at all. Pretty much everyone who recorded for the company was presented with a bunch of pre-written material and selected covers and told to get on with it, to do as they were told. The Supremes, both the label’s biggest cash cow and arguably the biggest group in America as 1965 drew to a close, were busy ploughing through endless albums of material in the hope of snagging some sales. And Motown, right now, was not really an albums label – even though several superb LPs had appeared for a number of artists, this feels on reflection more like a happy accident, or something which happened despite the company’s attitudes at the time, rather than a concerted effort. The company was still geared around the concept of the album as a glorified EP.
In that spirit, the musicians getting their album (largely credited to, and dominated by, Van Dyke) has to be seen in the light of how the label treated anyone whose albums weren’t guaranteed to fly off the shelves. Alright, Marvin Gaye was heavily indulged with some MOR vanity projects, but he was very much an exception, and anyway he paid his way with hits; heck, even the Marvelettes, the label’s first hit-scoring artist and still a consistent singles draw, weren’t given an LP release between 1964 and 1967. The Funk Brothers didn’t get a great deal, but as artists they got a better crack at the big time than a lot of their labelmates, and – arguably – better than their individual popularity and commercial viability really merited.
But most importantly of all, the records themselves just don’t support the theory that the Funk Brothers weren’t themselves indulged in some way. Okay, Motown may not have thrown their entire commercial weight behind pushing these sides to radio, but nor did they just let the Brothers’ non-cover records rot on the vine. Even if they had, it’s remarkable enough that such sides existed in the first place: even leaving aside the sort-of-exclusive All For You, still a pop overdub at heart, witness the one-two punch of Soul Stomp and Hot ‘n’ Tot, released (twice!) in Britain at a time when big-ticket hitmakers weren’t seeing regular European action.
Those are, presumably, at least rather closer to what the musicians wanted to do than the parping MOR-jazz of e.g. How Sweet It Is, and if they didn’t completely satisfy Van Dyke and his fellow jazz cats, well, these guys were signed to Motown – the home of perfect pop perfection, where everything went through Quality Control and ended up packaged and sanded and moulded and buffed and shaped. What did the Funk Brothers expect – to just record an impromptu twelve-minute live jam, sounding like it was cut in a rough and ready fug of spilled beer and smoke, and have Motown release it as a single, right in the middle of their most glorious run of R&B-pop masterpieces, right when they’d just cemented their place as the top-selling label in America?
Oh, right. Yes. That is, in fact, exactly what happened.
AND NOW, THE FLICK
The weird thing about The Flick – and yes, Part 2 is the A-side (there are another two parts out there besides the ones on this 45, of which more tomorrow) – is just how much fun it is anyway, how closely the “unleashed” Funks end up hewing to the feel (if not the musical style) of what was happening around them at Hitsville. Recorded live in the studio, apparently as a jam extemporised by three of the band (Van Dyke and Jamerson joined in the writing credits by the legendary guitarist Robert White, he of the immortal opening riff to the Temptations’ My Girl), it’s surely a reasonable inference to draw that we’re hearing the true, unadulterated sound of the Funk Brothers here, the music they themselves wanted to make. In common with the youthful writers, producers and singers whose visions they’d brought to life, it’s teeming with the confidence and enjoyment of the best Motown sides of 1965, despite sounding nothing like them. And it’s fun.
What do you reckon the teenyboppers made of this? I’m not sure, but I don’t think it would have terrified them; it’s a tremendous palette-cleanser and a breath of fresh air between Himalayan peaks of pop majesty. And it’s a kind of pop in itself – built around a five-note growling loop of Jamerson bass, with other ingredients gradually layering over the top and playfully pitting themselves against each other, it’s a jazz record first and foremost, but a very accessible one.
That bass loop is easy to latch onto (one suspects easier now, for our post-disco, post-electro sensibilities and our recalibrated sense of what pop records do, than in 1965), and when the foot-stomps are replaced and the clattering, echoing drumbeats instead start bouncing down the stairs, you can practically hear a thousand future hip hop stars prick up their ears.
Really once again the wild card is Van Dyke himself, his organ the most dated thing here – but unlike most of the records billed to his name, he’s not the weak link, he’s an electrifying presence, his keyboard squalls a kind of audience avatar, squeezing his way into the ring and then spurring the titans of drums and bass on, egging them into a duel, whipping up the frenzy of the crowd. Us, I mean, not the actual crowd that’s audible here (they were apparently dubbed on later in a bid to give this more fizz, and it worked).
I wouldn’t want to have a whole LP of this, but the label seemingly felt the same way, Motown wisely chopping it down to two manageable 7″ chunks, this one the more energetic and enthralling. It’s like a snowplough, or a slow-moving train; turn it up and then get the hell out of the way, because it will come right through. We are the Funk Brothers, and when Motown isn’t making us jump through hoops, this is what we do. It’s a fragment, a tiny clip of something glimpsed through a window that’s opened just a crack and will soon be safely shuttered back up again, but it’s enough to humanise the musicians more than any other record before or since; this one, we feel, is theirs.
So, yeah, it’s cool alright. Is it as cool as Don’t Mess With Bill? I don’t think it is; I know I’ve cited this quote before, but once again I’m put in mind of the Boo Radleys’ Martin Carr and his remark about incorporating avant-garde influences into pop records: it doesn’t mean watered-down avant-garde, it means more sophisticated pop. And, ultimately, that’s what Motown and the Funk Brothers gave us from their day jobs: cutting edge pop music. Brilliant pop music. That these guys were allowed to let off steam and show off their true chops once in a while, display the workings behind some of those incredible pop records, made perfect sense – and it shouldn’t be forgotten those opportunities did once come along – but it doesn’t invalidate the merit of the finished product.
Still, could it have been a hit? Bizarrely, yes, I think it theoretically could – or, at least (and probably more importantly), I can see how Motown might have thought it theoretically could. Remember, this is still a world where Fingertips had scaled the very top of the charts, where both the aforementioned Booker T. & the MG’s and the Funk Brothers’ Soul Records labelmates Junior Walker and the All Stars were racking up Top Tens, and so this doesn’t read as a sop to the musicians, but rather a “meh, what the hell, why not?” gesture on Motown’s part, the label never shy about chasing money wherever it was to be found and potentially scenting some here.
Was this the band’s big chance? As far as Motown singles were concerned, probably, yeah – we won’t be seeing another Van Dyke/Funk Brothers release for over a year, and even that might be seen as an exception to the normal rule. Motown often displayed loyalty to those artists who had served their apprenticeships on vinyl before the label hit the big time, but they had no room for commercial failures; the musicians’ years of service and vital contributions to so many hits might have been expected to carry weight, but then that was never the Motown way. If you weren’t having hits, you weren’t going to get a lot of singles, no matter how many hours you’d logged at the coalface.
(Heck, look at the producers – Lamont Dozier got one single, Hal Davis got one single, Ivy Jo Hunter got two (eventually, grudgingly). The behind-the-scenes stuff entitled you to no more than a shot at a shot, and sometimes not even that much – the likes of Norman Whitfield and Brian Holland, who between them made millions of dollars for the company, and who both became performers of a sort after leaving, got no artist credits at all.)
But the real surprise about The Flick is that it exists at all, given we’re constantly being told it doesn’t. Don’t believe a word of it. Play it, and thrill to it, and reflect on the men who made it – but excellent though this is, if you seek the true monument to the greatness of the Funk Brothers, it’s already all around you every time you turn on the radio. These guys built Motown. This is how they rolled.
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.
“Anything You Wanna Do”
|Earl Van Dyke & the Soul Brothers
“The Flick (Part 1)”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
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