Monday 16 February 2009


NOTE: In November 2002 I wrote these two pieces. The first for the FT, combining two films from the London Film Festival; the second for the Guardian, an obituary of Motown Funk Brother Johnny Griffith, whose death came, sadly, just before the Funk Bros. documentary made its US debut. Neither piece ran, perhaps in the case of the first because there wasn't a year with a zero at the end to tag it to. A few months later I made a pilot for BBC Radio 6; the series was to be called This Is My Country, examining the musical roots of various American cities. I did the pilot about Detroit while all this was fresh in my mind. I'd conceived of it and proposed a half-hour show using song fragments; they insisted on an hour with complete songs, then passed on commissioning the series saying the show was too long. Go figure, BBC. The two articles follow: Happy Anniversary, Motown!
Of all the American cities identified with their music, and there are many, from Nashville to Seattle, Detroit may be the one whose sounds best reflect its character. Although we think automatically of Motown, currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, Detroit’s legacy extends far beyond Berry Gordy’s vision of pop perfection. Its music is tough, gritty, up-front and challenging, as much as product of its factories as automobiles were. It was that way before Motown came along and it still is a heady mix of black and white influences.

Detroit’s music was featured in two very different films which I first wrote about in 2002 at the London Film Festival: Curtis Hanson’s 8 MILE, starring the rapper Eminem and loosely based on his own life story, and STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN, Paul Justman’s vibrant documentary about the Funk Brothers, Motown’s too-anonymous studio band, whose diverse talents moulded the music produced by rock’s greatest hit factory.

For Hanson, whose seductive neon Los Angeles dominated LA CONFIDENTIAL, the star of 8 MILE was a seventies-film gritty Detroit itself, its presence hovering over every person and every action in the film. The impact of the city gives 8 MILE undoubted power, even for audiences unconvinced by rap music, or bored with the familiar story framework of show-business success sagas. Eminem’s character, Rabbit, is an immigrant looking for work; Kim Basinger as his mother plays her southern trailer-park accent for all it’s worth. That’s important, because Detroit is a city of immigrants. They poured in from middle and southern Europe, even before Henry Ford’s production line sprang up on the River Rouge. Even the great depression couldn’t shut them down; poor whites from Appalachia and the south flooded north, seeking work. Years later, their voices would echo in the country-tinged refrain of Bobby Bare’s ‘Detroit City’: “I want to go home…”

The Europeans and the Appalachians were followed by blacks driven from the deep south by mechanical cotton pickers. Even before the Civil War, Detroit had been a haven for runaway slaves; the last stop before Canada on the Underground Railway. After World War II, as the big-band era died, Detroit’s urban sound coalesced around the electric blues of John Lee Hooker, originally from Clarksdale, Mississippi, and the small jazz combos playing in the city’s countless nightclubs. Berry Gordy’s first entrepreneurial effort, a jazz record store, failed, but back working on Ford’s production line, Gordy co-wrote a song for Jackie Wilson, just released from Lansing State Correctional Institute. Backed by local jazz musicians, including pianist Johnny Griffith, ‘Lonely Teardrops’ became a hit, and it gave Gordy ideas. He began producing records like the Contours’ ‘Do You Love Me’, melding sophisticated background music to pop tunes. That became Motown’s formula, and Gordy organised Motown with the precision of Ford’s assembly line. Writers, arrangers, singers, and musicians laboured in departments, fitting together the pieces of hits as accessible as Model Ts to the (white) American public.

Fifty years later, the world still hums the hits of the Supremes, Four Tops, and Temptations, but STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN rescues from obscurity the geniuses who made those songs, including Griffith, who sadly passed away the night of the film’s Detroit premiere (see his obituary, which I wrote at the time, below). It explores their roots in jazz and blues, and demonstrates the fertile creative atmosphere of The Snakepit, Motown’s studio built in Berry Gordy’s basement. The film’s defining moment dramatises the Detroit riots, which started in July 1967 after a police raid on an after-hours ‘blind pig’ drinking club. The riots left 43 people dead, and 14 square miles of urban destruction. Soldiers patrolled the streets. The black Funk Brothers shepherded their white colleagues home through the flames, but this staring in the face of repression and chaos meant the carefree music of Motown was changed forever. Soon Marvin Gaye produced Motown’s most political statement, and not coincidentally, “What Going On”was the first record to credit the house musicians individually.

Just as Motown and black American music influenced British rock, the British Invasion helped create a new Detroit rock sound. Post-Motown Detroit was tough rock, with an edge. Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels wore their Motown-influences proudly, but just as typical were the raw sounds of bands like Question Mark & The Mysterians (“96 Tears”), Bob Seger, or the MC5, house band for John Sinclair’s White Panther political movement. Detroit gave the world Alice Cooper, the early heavy metal band Grand Funk Railroad, and the proto-punk rock of Iggy Pop and the Stooges. And when Motown met LSD, George Clinton’s doo-wop band, The Parliaments, were transformed into P-Funk, the spawn of Parliament and Funkadelic, where veterans of James Brown‘s backup band, most notably bassist Bootsy Collins, drifted into outer space.

One night, Berry Gordy packed up and moved to Los Angeles, taking the ultimate cross-over act, Michael Jackson, with him. The Funk Brothers went back to playing jazz clubs, and as sidemen for blues singers. But Detroit continued to innovate, everything from the disco of the Commodores in the 70s to Detroit Techno, the industry standard of 1980s dance. When I originally wrote this piece, America’s hottest rock band was White Stripes, a husband-wife duo from the Detroit suburbs who played at being urban brother and sister. They owed a huge debt to Mick Collins, a singer-guitarist (no relation to Bootsy) one of whose bands, the Dirtbombs, fused garage music with Motown in ULTRAGLIDE IN BLACK, an audacious cover of Motown standards, Nirvana fronted by Stevie Wonder. Detroit can no more escape Motown than Motown could Detroit.

Eminem is often accused of garnering his popularity simply because he’s white, but he is far from a modern version of Vanilla Ice. 8 MILE presented a kinder, gentler Eminem, conspicuously friendly to gays, children, and even respectful to his trailer-park mom (Kim Basinger). But it firmly anchored rap in the roots of a community that gave the world its cars, and now gets nothing in return. It’s no coincidence 8 MILE features its own version of urban flames. Workers came to Detroit from all over the world, and their melting pot made and still makes powerful music. Though Motown deserted them, though they’re having trouble selling their cars, as Martha Reeves reminded us in ‘Dancing In The Streets’ you can't forget the Motor City. At least not its music.


Few people will recognise Johnny Griffith’s name, but his seductive piano opening to Marvin Gaye’s version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” is one of rock music’s most recognisable licks. Griffith, who has died aged 66, was a key member of the Funk Brothers, the Motown house band, who not only played but actually created much of the music for the greatest hit-making machine of all time.

Although it was a badge of rock snobbery to be able to drop the names of James Jamerson, generally regarded as rock’s finest bassist, or Benny Benjamin, the great drummer, the Funk Brothers generally laboured in obscurity. Ironically, Griffith, who had recently moved to Las Vegas, died back in his hometown of Detroit, of an apparent heart attack before the local premiere of a new documentary about the Funk Brothers, STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN. The film, like an American BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB, helps rescue these virtuosi from anonymity, and received its British premiere last month as part of the 2002 London Film Festival.

Growing up in Detroit, Griffith received classical training, but seeing no opportunity for black classical pianists, he turned to jazz and blues. At 16 he was travelling with John Lee Hooker; later, his skill as a tasteful accompanist saw him hired by Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington; he also toured with then-gospel singer Aretha Franklin.

He had already played piano on Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops”, co-written by Berry Gordy, when, in 1961, Gordy, a jazz aficionado who had gone bust running a jazz record store, lured him to Motown with the promise of a jazz recording contract. True to his word, Gordy issued on his Workshop Jazz label two Griffith albums which are now collectors items. But Griffith was one of the few Motown studio musicians not contracted exclusively; as a ‘hired gun’ he played on such non-Motown hits as The Capitols’ ‘Cool Jerk’. At one point, Gordy paid him $100 a week to spy on Motown musicians who might be moonlighting; after Griffith continued to pocket the money without ever turning in any of his friends, Gordy tried to fire him, eventually settling for terminating his career as a spy.

It was as one of the Funk Brothers three keyboardists that Griffith’s legacy will endure. His elegant stylings often served as counterpoint to the ‘gorilla piano’ of the late Earl ‘Chunk of Funk’ Van Dyke, the group’s spiritual leader. But Griffith was just as much at home on the organ: that’s him on the Hammond B3 delivering the powerful opening of Junior Walker’s “Shotgun”.

The Funk Brothers included white musicians, and their collective reaction to Detroit’s racial turmoil in the Sixties can be heard best on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”, the first album on which they received individual credits. They remained close even after Berry Gordy packed up one night and without warning moved Motown to Los Angeles, but as a unit the Funk Brothers ceased to exist until they were reformed for the film.

Griffith stayed in Detroit, playing jazz clubs, session dates, and touring with, among others, guitarist Kenny Burrell, and he took over the keyboards in Muddy Waters’ blues band after Otis Spann’s death. He also served as musical director of a local radio station, and was involved in the founding of Detroit’s first black-run television station.

Only eight of the 13 Funk Brothers remained to participate in the film, and Griffith is the second of those eight, following drummer Richard ‘Pistol’ Allen, to have passed away since its filming was completed. The night Griffith died, the band went ahead with their performance at Detroit’s Uptown Palladium. “We celebrate his living by playing,” said percussionist Jack Ashford. Usually, during performances, Griffith and fellow keyboardist Joe Hunter would place a studio photo of Earl Van Dyke between them; their colleagues did the same with photos of the other deceased Brothers. The loss of Johnny Griffith may finally leave an unfillable seat in this greatest of rock bands.

Johnny Griffith, musician born July 10, 1936 Detroit
died November 10, 2002 Detroit
survived by his wife Delma, one son, two daughters, six Funk Brothers

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