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SLUTSKY, ALLAN – STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN

FUNKY ON FILM
One of his best friends left Allan Slutsky “a going away present on the way up to heaven,” he tells Andrew L. Urban: a chance to have Slutsky’s story about the little known but legendary Funk Brothers put onto film, Standing In The Shadows Of Motown.


Having spent 40,000 hours over 16 years on the book and the film, Allan Slutsky still gets mad watching the result, Paul Justman’s acclaimed documentary, Standing In The Shadows Of Motown. But it’s nothing to do with Justman’s direction: “There are things I see that other people don’t see; technical behind the scenes things, but I guess that’s the same in any film – and I see some things that drive me nuts,” says the writer and musician with enthusiasm. 

The Funk Brothers, subject of the film, “were magnificent…they cranked out story after story after story, each one was better than the next. We had to make agonising decisions what to leave out. The film could have been six hours long…there is so much great material that had to be left out…the DVD will have more on it,” he says.

Most of the 40,000 hours have been spent “chasing the deal”; he wrote the book in 10,000 hours and spent 11 years looking for funding. The 11 years came to an abrupt end one day, when a financier was found – literally out of the blue. Slutsky’s close college friend Steve Brown had died prematurely, and another college friend, Richard Adler – both of whom were supportive of Slutsky’s project on a daily basis - was flying back from Los Angeles to Detroit for the funeral. He struck up a conversation with the man sitting next to him, Paul Elliott, and discovered he was a musician, which quickly led to talk of Slutsky’s book, which Elliott knew very well. By the time the plane touched down in Philadelphia (their home town), Elliott was seriously interested in financing the film. 

“Paul told Richard to have me call him, maybe he could help,” Slutsky recalls. “Richard said, well, they need help like $3 million … can you help on that level? And Paul said, I couldn’t last week, but I can now…I just sold my company to Cisco Systems for about a billion dollars.” [It was a fibre optics system he’d invented.]

"after over 1000 pitches, it just fell in our lap"

Within 24 hours, Slutsky and Paul Elliott had a phone conversation, “and he laid his money down. So after over 1000 pitches, it just fell in our lap….the only way I can look at it is that my friend Steve left me a going away present on the way up to heaven.”

That was 2000; Slutsky’s book was published in 1989. It was a biography of legendary bass player James Jamerson, and won the inaugural Rolling Stone/Ralph J Gleason Award for Music Book of the Year, and provided the inspiration for the film. Slutsky had already published a popular series of guitar transcription books (and earned the nickname Dr Licks).

Writing the biography led Slutsky into “a goldmine of music history,” when Jamerson’s widow took him round to some of the Funk Brothers, who started telling him stories. “I realised this was a national treasure of music history.”

The self-named Funk Brothers were a group of session musicians gathered in Detroit who created what is known as the Motown sound, putting the backbeat, the soul, the funk, into the recordings of legends like Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and The Supremes, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder and many more. Working at Motown records from 1958, over a 14 year period, members of the Funk Brothers played on more No 1 hit songs than Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones – combined.

Like so many others, Slutsky had listened to the great Motown artists but through Jamerson’s story he discovered The Funk brothers behind them and realised their importance – and their story value.

"connection to the music"

His connection to the music was profound: from the age of 15 Slutsky himself played in a band, a black group called The Majestics. “When songs like Get Ready or My Girl came out and played on the radio, two days later I’d be in the club playing it with The Majestics. It was the music of my youth…”

The music was certainly one of the motivations for Slutsky; the other was his love of black culture. “Most of my life I’ve been around black people; I dig the way black people talk, the interaction, the warmth you get from being around them, because they’re very emotional people. For instance, The Majestics – 35 years later and I’m still family with them. The Funk Brothers are also still very close. Yet they’re multi-racial in the most racially torn city in the US in the 60s, Detroit. So it’s a story of racial harmony …”

When Funk Brother Robert White died in 1992, both Slutsky and his friend and film director Paul Justman felt the pressure of time. It encouraged them to push ahead with a film that would capture not only the spirit of the Funk Brothers, but their music. “I felt I’d let Robert down,” says Slutsky. “I really wanted their legacy preserved.”

That has been achieved. Apart from the film itself (and the DVD) the project has ignited extensive media interest; Slutsky and his team and several members of The Funk Brothers together had given over 800 media interviews by mid January 2003. And more is to come.

The documentary includes performances on archival footage, plus brand new, super-sharp works recorded at Detroit’s Royal Oak Music Theatre, where the Funk Brothers (those still alive) are re-united for the jam session of their lives. They dig out songs like Reach Out I’ll be There, Heat Wave, You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me, Do You Love Me, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted and What’s Going On. Other songs scattered through the film include You Keep Me Hanging On, Where Did Our Love Go, Baby Love, My Girl and Dancin’ In The Streets.

"huge standing ovation"

The Funk Brothers themselves are said to be “flabbergasted” at the film and were astonished when at the first, packed screening, held at The Library of Congress in Washington, “they got this huge standing ovation,” says Slutsky with pride, “and they’d never been applauded for anything. They turned and looked at me as if to say, is this for us?”

Published February 6, 2003

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Allan Slutsky (left) with Joe Messina

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