- The Washington Times - Monday, November 11, 2002

There's a scene early in the new documentary "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," where the narrator quizzes music store patrons on their favorite Motown tracks. People gush with enthusiasm over Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson, but are stumped when asked who played guitar or drums or bass.
The answer is simple the Funk Brothers. Unlike many studio musicians of the day, they remained a constant on the Motown scene, giving records a solid musical backing and flair, without ever gaining mainstream recognition.
On a recent October morning, two of the original Funk Brothers guitarist Eddie Willis and percussionist Jack Ashford sat down with the film's producer, Allan Slutsky, in the lounge of the St. Regis Hotel in the District, to talk about that legacy.
"To me, it's the story of an incredible studio band," Mr. Slutsky says. "You can't go to a celebration, a party, a gathering today where you don't hear a Motown record."
In press notes for the film, which is set for local release Friday, Mr. Slutsky says that the Funk Brothers have been on more No. 1 records than the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys and Elvis Presley combined.
Mr. Slutsky, who goes by the nickname Dr. Licks, first stumbled across the studio group while researching an instructional book on Motown bass and guitar riffs. That research eventually blossomed into the book "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," which profiled the late, legendary bassist James Jamerson. The documentary expands the book's focus to include the entire group, with interviews, live performances and documentary footage of the Motown scene.
"It's music that makes a woman feel like a woman, makes a man feel like a man," Mr. Slutsky says.
As far as their contributions go, Mr. Ashford and Mr. Willis remain proud, yet modest.
"I was the funky guy," Mr. Willis, 66, says, simply. "I did lots of ad-libs, little fills."
With a smile on his face, Mr. Ashford, 68, adds: "For him to do what he did is amazing. I can hear a certain line in a song a little funky thing and know it's him."
Mr. Willis' distinct guitar playing can be heard on a wide range of tracks, from Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made to Love Her" and the Temptations' "The Way You Do the Things You Do" to Gladys Knight and the Pips' "Friendship Train." The Mississippi-born player was in Detroit near the start of Motown, and toured regularly with the Marvelettes and the Four Tops.
"I was happy just to get in the studio," Mr. Willis says of his early days. "And it went over well. I didn't know it would be so big."
There are several scenes in the film where the reunited Funk Brothers get together to play their old songs, a reunion in which Mr. Willis was thrilled to take part.
"It had been 20 years since I saw some of those guys," he says. "Some of them were teary-eyed. There was so much happiness. It was joyful."
Mr. Ashford joined the Motown scene through Marvin Gaye, who brought him to Detroit in 1963. It was his distinct playing on early Motown records that led one record executive to wrongly predict that the fledgling label was doomed because the tambourine was too loud.
In addition to the tambourine, Mr. Ashford played vibraphone, bells, chimes and added hand claps, foot stomps and just about every other type of percussion imaginable to the scene.
"We were all part of the total package," Mr. Ashford says. "It was all part of the Motown mystique."
His style pops up on such songs as Mr. Gaye's legendary "What's Going On" and the Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go."
"You have to dig down deep," Mr. Ashford says. "That's what made it special. We always dug down deep."
Both men say they are flattered by the film, which gives recognition that seems long overdue.
"I've seen stars rise and fall," Mr. Willis says. "When you can get someone interested in what you do, it's a blessing."

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