You may have never heard of musicians named Joe Hunter, Robert White or Jack Ashford, but you’ve likely heard their music. They are members of a group known as the Funk Brothers, who backed up virtually every Motown artist in the ’60s and ’70s, contributing to dozens of hits.
“You don’t realize you’re making history because you’re living it,” Ashford said in a telephone interview from his home in Memphis. “All you know is that you’re having fun.”
The Funk Brothers worked in obscurity and their contributions went largely unrecognized until the release of a 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
Although it shed overdue light on the accomplishments of Ashford and his fellow musicians, and boosted his career, he has mixed feelings about the film.
“It was a blessing and a curse,” Ashford said.
He says the film’s producer knew nothing about Motown when he set out to make the film and took liberties with the facts and used unreliable sources for his information. While the film claims there were 13 Funk Brothers, Ashford insists there were only 12.
Ashford participated in the documentary, but he is even troubled by its inaccuracy. In it he relates a story about bass player James Jamerson lying on the floor during a Marvin Gaye recording session. He says he was coerced into repeating the legend and that it wasn’t true.
“I told (the Producer) ‘If you knew Marvin Gaye, you would know that would never happen,’” Ashford said. “And Berry (Gordy) ran a tight ship.”
“That part of the movie is very sad for me. James was my friend and to depict him as doing something bizarre…I’m really sorry about that. But I can’t change it.”
Now Ashford is focused on getting what he calls the real story out there.
“At this stage of my life, my mission is to carry the banner of the Funk Brothers and Motown with dignity and respect, because it was such an important part of music history.”
Ashford will be sharing stories from that golden age at a workshop during the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival, where fans will have the opportunity to ask him questions.
He’ll also share the music itself and demonstrate his unique tambourine playing style as he takes the stage Saturday night with his new band of brothers. And although it’s been a roller-coaster ride getting to the point where his work is acknowledged, he’s enjoying stepping out of the shadows.
“I’ve been waiting 40 years for this; I’m going to make the best of it.”