They provided the heartbeat and the soul for a generation of music lovers--yet few knew their names or their faces. Though they played behind Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and virtually every artist who passed through Motown's Detroit studio, they got little if any recognition.
"When you're making history, you don't know it because you're living it," says Jack Ashford of the legendary group of Motown studio musicians known as the Funk Brothers.
The band came up with most of the arrangements from a scrap of a tune, a lick or a line an artist or songwriter brought to the "Snake Pit," the musicians' nickname for the basement studio where the sessions took place. The players often were paid just $10 a song, and the session lasted until the producer of the session was satisfied.
"At that time, that was the only game in town," says Ashford, a vibe payer recruited by Marvin Gaye who went on to be the band's percussionist, raising tambourine playing to an art form. "It was playing, and it wasn't taking anything out of us extra, so we just went on and did it."
The Motown ride lasted little more than a decade--from 1959 until label owner Berry Gordy moved the studio to L.A. in '72. The band got another shot at fame in 1986 when author/bassist Allan Slutsky started research for a book on Funk Brothers bassist James Jamerson. The book led to a 2002 documentary of the band, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which won the New York Film Critics Circle Best Non-Fiction Film Award and helped the Funk Brothers win a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2004.
That makes the Funk Brothers' comeback even sweeter. "We had never thought of anybody appreciating what we did. We all thought that was dead," Ashford says. "So we started touring, and got better and better. We all looked at each other and said, 'Man, we still sound the same.'
Now they're out on the road to show once again how special they are.
"We've got some things to do," Ashford says. "We have a lot to offer."
The Funk Brothers play the McKimmon Center at N.C. State, Saturday, June 12. The evening starts with a reception and autograph signing at 6 p.m., followed by the concert at 8 p.m. Tickets are $60.