Few people on this planet have not heard the guitar work of Robert Willie White. Until a few years ago I was among the multitudes of fans who had no clue about who he was. He was a member of the Funk Brothers, a group of musicians who played on more No. 1 records than those by Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones —combined. Think about that! Surpassing any single member of this list of stars would be impressive on its own merits. It boggles the mind to think these unnamed musicians surpassed the combined success of these industry giants. Perhaps these are just numbers, but in today’s world of instant information how can such an accomplishment go unannounced by a media machine hungry for stories?
My awareness of the Funk Brothers changed when I watched the documentary film “Standing In The Shadows Of Motown”. The film was released in 2002 and tells a story that began in 1959 when the Barry Gordy first recruited the best jazz musicians he could find and brought them to Detroit where they recorded until 1972 when Gordy made the questionable decision to move the company to Los Angeles.
In my younger days, I was not a big Motown fan. Even so, it was impossible to not know of the songs and the stars from Detroit. One would have to be living on another planet not to have heard Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and the Supremes saturating the airwaves of my youth. My attention focused more on the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Creedence, Dylan, and Doors.
Looking back, I realize my musical tastes seemed pretty ‘white’. Does that require an apology? After serious consideration, I don’t think it does. Youth is our time to figure things out; to take in what we see around us and try to make sense of the world. Those artists on my radar were not as focused on ‘silly love songs’ (as Paul McCartney would later call them). I’m no longer that teenager, and my tastes have evolved with my life experiences.
The documentary about Motown had one moment that saddened me. Robert White passed away in 1994 from complications of a heart surgery and never enjoyed the recognition the film gave to the surviving members of the Funk Brothers. In an interview with Allan Slutsky, who wrote the book and produced the film, he tells a story about a luncheon meeting at a restaurant with Robert White. When the waiter was taking their order, the song “My Girl” began playing on the house speakers. Slutsky saw his friend’s eyes light up as if he wanted to say “hey, that’s me playing”. But his humility censored him from making his proclamation. He lowered his mood and ordered his meal, not wanting to point out his accomplishment and claiming the recognition he deserved. Six or seven years later the film was released and the world would realize how great was the work these musicians had done. Robert White and several other key players (e.g. bass genius James Jamerson, and former band leader Earl Van Dyke) did not survive to receive the praise he so richly deserved.