The revolving group of musicians known as the Funk Brothers—Motown's house band from 1959 through 1972—created more enduring radio classics than any assemblage of studio cats in history. The group labored in anonymity by design of label massa Berry Gordy. Credit wasn't assigned until years after the fact, when the 2002 film Standing in the Shadows of Motown worked toward granting overdue recognition for these mysterious, faceless wizards. Surviving members of the Bros appear Dec. 26 at the House of Blues, making this a fine time to look back on a passel of their sweetest fruit.
"Dancing in the Street"
Martha Reeves & the Vandellas (1964)
This is more than just the hottest dance track of its day. In the first few seconds alone, a slippery drumroll followed by an insistent, unforgettable horn hook heralds that what you're about to experience is an anthem, a call to arms for kids to celebrate their youth, independence and freedom—to march with limitless destiny. The crashing backbeat defies anyone with a pulse to remain still, as a brawny baritone sax grunts gleefully throughout. The track never relents for a second, and after it fades out, you feel like you've chugged a gallon of black coffee.
"I Can't Help Myself
(Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)"
The Four Tops (1965)
This song became the template for Motown's up-tempo soul/pop for years, with its tambourine-atop-high-hat mixed way to the front; bass line copped from Stax Record's own house monster, Donald "Duck" Dunn; vibraphone slyly doubling that bass line; and strings entering the second verse to sweeten the pot and joining with horns to take home the riff that resolves each chorus. Bonus: the brief but greasy sax solo, worthy of King Curtis.
"Reach Out (I'll Be There)"
the Four Tops (1967)
The eerie, tension-filled 15-second opening sequence of this track is enough to enshrine it as an all-time classic (what is that sound anyway, flute and low piano keys? With a proto-funk bass line over wood blocks playing a hambone beat?). But the band then explodes in an alternating major/minor chord progression of pressure, release and pure, raw emotion. This tune was great enough to spawn no less than three near-verbatim knockoffs by the Tops—"Bernadette," "Standing in the Shadows of Love" and "Seven Rooms of Gloom"—all on the same album, no less!
"Ball of Confusion (That's What the World Is Today)"
The Temptations (1970)
The ominous, opening bass line announces you'd better hang the fuck onto your hat, kiddies . . . demented slapback guitar enters to a disorienting effect as a swelling Hammond pad keeps one foot planted. The track suddenly begins to chunk rhythmically; stabbing horns enter the fray along with a fuzztone guitar and a penetrating clavinet; then it all takes off into a dizzying rollercoaster ride, a pissed 'n' paranoid mach 5 eruption of psychedelic ghetto funk to make white middle-class '60s America tremble in mortal terror.
"The Tears of a Clown"
Smokey Robinson & the Miracles (1970)
Only the Funk Brothers could make a hook resembling retarded circus music sound hip and soulful—by surrounding it with the slickest drum fills this side of Hal Blaine, a double-time tambourine shakin' like a revival meeting and, of course, a flatulent baritone sax holding up the bottom. Motown sans bari is like the Stones sans guitars.
Edwin Starr (1970)
A military drumroll crescendos into three and a half savage minutes of James Brown's Famous Flames OD-ing on steroids, augmented by the horn sections of three Count Basie Orchestras blaring right in your face. A distorted nerve guitar strafes the verses like villagers running from a napalm attack, as a clearly outraged sax underpins it all with an aural middle finger thrust skyward. This is the most brutal instrumental track in the Motown canon.
"Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)"
The Temptations (1971)
The ultimate bed for the definitive, elegant soul ballad: swampy, reverb-drenched guitar, a seductive, countermelodic bass line; lovely, lush string and horn flourishes that sound like God himself was behind the mics; all while marimbas percolate, rim shots tick-tock and timpani thunder majestically. The overall effect is like holding hands with Aphrodite in a Jacuzzi sprinkled with lavender petals on a bellyful of Vicodin.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"Papa Was a Rollin' Stone"
The Temptations (1972)
Here's a seven-minute operetta in which it seems Miles Davis, Curtis Mayfield and Leonard Bernstein partnered up to create a moody, cinematic soundscape for the ages. This is a sparse arrangement by Motown standards, but those wacka-wacka guitar fills, unsettling orchestral embellishments and back-alley trumpet ruminations wrap themselves around your frontal lobe and refuse to disengage. A dirge for the disenfranchised, a wake-up call for everyone else, "Rollin' Stone" is straight-up cool—attitude draped in black leather and choking on foul air.
The Funk Brothers, with guest vocalists Darius Rucker and Joan Osborne, at the House Of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583. Fri., 9 p.m. $37-$40. All ages (16 and under must be accompanied by an adult).