This morning I sat down to watch Standing In the Shadows of Motown, a documentary about the musicians who comprised the back up groups of many of the Motown greats. I had seen part of it last year, but had not had an opportunity to watch it from the beginning. It was a movie that not only educated me, but made me smile.
From 1966 to 1968 my family lived on Subic Bay, Naval Air Station in the Republic of the Philippines. I remember base housing. “Cookie cutter” military housing and ours was like most everyone else’s… three bedroom, two-level home. All the living quarters were on the top floor. I had my own room for the first time in my young life. It had a vanity, a bed and a desk made out of bamboo wood. It was exotic to me and it was mine. I had set up in this room, an old turntable that I would listen to 45’s and 33’s lps, but what I’d rather listen to was the reel to reel tape deck that my dad had. This state of the art reel to reel had all the latest R&B, and when he and my mom weren’t at home, my brother and I would play the large reels and crank up the volume.
Many of those songs in the documentary made me remember times that were made less lonely for a preteen, that was half a world away from anything she knew. Music, like books, was an escape. I would listen to the Temptations or the Four Tops and dance in my room, or in the kitchen, and the Filipino lady that helped my mom with the house, would laugh at me. She taught me the steps to a popular cultural dance of her people, that involved steps and hops between two long bamboo poles that were rhythmically tapped on the ground or together by two people holding one end in each hand. I had not thought of that dance in years, until today, watching the Funk Brothers documentary.
Later, we moved back to San Diego, my parents bought their first home and I had my own room with a small plug in radio that played AM/FM. I never listened to the FM station, because ALL the good music, that was top 40 or top 100, was on the AM stations. My desk was a makeshift one, of the center panel of our dining room table that was placed on two ceramic elephants that my mom had brought back from the Philippines. They were meant to hold larger potted plants, but they comprised the two stands of my desk, and that is where I did homework, wrote in a journal or read my books, listening to the latest hits by Jimi Hendrix, Santana and Marvin Gaye.
Who knew that the musicians behind “What’s Going On”, were the Funk Brothers and that that was one of their last major hits as backup musicians? Until today, I did not know. Over the years, with the books and movies that came out about the artists who never received compensation for their hits, were in a lot of cases, taken advantage of. Many musicians did not know the business, did not know to protect themselves from copyright infringement, only to have producers, managers other musicians and artists remake their music and make millions and more significantly, receive recognition for their contribution.
I learned, as I got older, about musicians. My cousin played drums for years. He had enough talent to play in a couple of studio gigs, but he mostly played in the Sacramento area for anything from R&B, Funk, and country rock. It was never about the money for him, it was about playing, because he loved to play. He loved music. My cousin Ray introduced me to Tower of Power and next to Santana and War, is one of top favorite bands. I can still picture his little practice room, where he had his drums. In the documentary, what was remarkable was that the quality of music that these men play today, is as it was when the hit record after hit record was made. Musicians are musicians no matter what age they are.
Watching the Funk Brothers, listening to the songs of my youth, dancing (badly, of course) to Shotgun that was Junior Walker’s hit, remembering the first time I heard Marvin Gaye’s song, What’s Going On…Persidio Park in Old Town, San Diego. We used to go there as a family and walk the trails, good old fashioned exercise in those days, and if you know Percidio Park back in the 70’s, you know you could park on the south side of the park, walk up the trails to the top of the park and then walk down the other side or over to the Persidio museum. It’s true, what the experts say, that music, like a scent, can take you back to a place and time.
Thank you Sundance.