The nursing home community room is a forest of synthetic pines, each one covered in crocheted snowflakes and topped with a beaming cherub. The air smells a little too sweet -- a peculiar potpourri of sugar cookies, disinfectant air fresheners, and lilac perfume.
A perfect environment in which to enjoy a few of the Funk Brothers.
Lunchtime is over, and the residents have taken their places for a "special music performance." After the stragglers are seated, the band assembles around the piano. Four snaps later, the guys start swinging through a set of cheerful holiday classics and dusty pop standards. The most lively members of the audience bop their heads to the beat or tap along on the arms of their wheelchairs; the least active ones just kind of sit there and stare into space.
If Joe Hunter believed in such a thing, this might qualify as a bad gig.
"When you're a working musician, any gig is a good gig," he says afterward -- he has a knack for blurting out these kinds of grandfatherly mantras. With just a quick glance at the pianist, it might be hard to tell that he isn't a nursing home resident himself. Hunter's agile playing may belie his age, but at 76 he's probably older than some of the folks in the crowd.
But Hunter's career hasn't been limited to charity gigs for the elderly. Three miles away from the East Detroit nursing home and 46 years earlier, he irrevocably changed the face of popular music.
It was 1958, and after a few years of playing in blues bars around Detroit, Hunter took a gig with the fledgling Motown label. The little wooden house at 2648 W. Grand Boulevard was dubbed Hitsville, USA; Hunter's core of studio musicians called themselves the Funk Brothers. Before he left the record company's employ in 1963, he'd put his hands to countless notable sessions, including Martha and the Vandellas' "Heat Wave" and Marvin Gaye's "Pride and Joy."
For the next three decades, Hunter kept active, playing piano around Detroit in relative obscurity. Sure, his influence on Motown's sound signature had profound aftershocks around the globe, but it was just a gig. And to a working musician, any gig is a good gig.
The day after the nursing home show, Hunter and fellow Motown veteran Uriel Jones are cracking jokes in a cafe. They interrupt each other with a mélange of mind-blowing antidotes: getting too drunk to play a Supremes gig, sneaking the underage Stevie Wonder into his first bar, and playing for President George W. Bush. Their stories are rife with quick-witted retorts and gentle teasing, told in a way that suggests the Funk Brothers are happy that people are finally listening.
"One time I played a gig in Phoenix, Pennsylvania," Hunter says. "I wasn't even playing piano. They didn't even know that I played piano. I was playing clarinet, and it was a country and Western music band. We played 'On Top of Old Smokey. '"
Stories like these were first unearthed in the mid-'80s by a guy named Alan Slutsky, who was knee-deep in a biography about deceased Motown bassist James Jamerson and had interviewed the aging remnants of the Funk Brothers for source material. In 1989 Slutsky published Standing in the Shadows of Motown as a tribute to the Brothers' legacy. One thing led to another, and he decided to put together a documentary under the same name. Released in 2002, the film enjoyed a relatively long stay in art houses around the country, pulled in a handful of critical awards, and won a Grammy for its soundtrack. That triggered a full-on Funk Brothers reunion, new recording sessions, and extensive touring.
Since the cinematic success of Shadows, the spotlight on the Brothers has been brighter than any other point in their lives. As Jones and Hunter lunch in the cafe (on the club sandwich and salmon cakes with ketchup, respectively), passersby stop to shake their hands and gush. "I just needed to say, 'Thank you for your music,'" one of them says. It's ironic that when the Brothers played uncredited on Motown chartbusters and worked club gigs in the '60s, few people knew their names, let alone their faces.
"It wasn't about being famous -- it was about working," Jones says. "When someone called for a gig, you never asked what kind of music they played. You asked how much money they had. We did all kinds of gigs and all kinds of music. Maybe you don't need to be a musician like that anymore, because all you need is a keyboard to make a record. But the guys who hung around Motown in those days were of a certain caliber of musician who could do anything."
Hunter is quick to agree: "If you wanted them to play the ric-a-ma-tic -- you know, the stuff that you heard when John Wayne was walking out of the tavern -- or if you wanted to hear a New Orleans ragtime, they could do all that."
"I played polka music," Jones adds.
When Jones took his first paying gig in 1958, it wasn't playing polka: He was drumming for Detroit bluesman Jim Weaver for a whopping $13 a night. He picked up the job at Hitsville six years later, manning the kit for much of the "psychedelic Motown" era. When he speaks about the versatility of the Funk Brothers, he's talking about himself. He could be loose and funky (the Temptations' "Ain't Too Proud to Beg"), or laid-back and reserved (Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine").
All told, lunching with Hunter and Jones is like having an audience with sacred practitioners of pop music -- the Funk Brothers recorded more number-one songs than anyone else in the world. Still, Hunter claims they could never see the big hits coming.
"One of the funniest sessions I ever worked on was that tune that goes, 'Do you love me?'" Hunter says, singing part of the recognizable chorus to the Contours' 1962 classic. "I thought to myself, 'This song is going nowhere. This will never be a hit. Never.' But it turned out to be a hit. Guess it just goes to show you that you shouldn't worry about that kind of thing."
"The musicians that came in, we weren't like, 'We're going to make hits' or 'We are going to create this sound,'" Jones asserts. "It just happened that the particular musicians that came into the studio each were unique players. And nowhere did thirteen other musicians have that same sound. It was music that would come out of each individual person and melt into that sound. I know that's true, 'cause at the time we were like, 'Let's cut this track, get paid, and get on out of here.' We weren't trying to create nothin'. But it just happened. There will never be those thirteen people playing together again, so there will never be another Motown. Least not the one that I saw."
But even if Slutsky's rediscovery of the Funk Brothers doesn't re-create the Hitsville magic, it has done well to finally bring them out of obscurity. They talk about upcoming gigs on the West Coast and overseas, halfheartedly bemoaning the busy schedule of the upcoming months. But even their complaints are tempered with a kind of bemused humility. Whether it's a gig in front of thirty frail senior citizens or an opening slot on New Year's Eve with the remaining members of the Grateful Dead, it's all just work.
"All that has really changed with these gigs out of town is that we don't work as much around here," Jones says matter-of-factly. "But I never dreamed that I'd be playing on the same stage as the Grateful Dead. To me, it seems like taking something the middle of the ocean and putting it with something from the middle of the desert. But when you're on a job, you never know what is going to work out. So far, things have worked out pretty good."
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