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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan
THE FUNK BROTHERS Ronnie Scott’s, London, January 18th 2007
Ronnie Scott’s was closed for much of last year for refurbishment, but I’m delighted to report that although the red and white checked tablecloths are sadly no more, and a smoking ban is now in place and the lavatories have been brought into the twentieth (or should that be twenty-first century?) little has been lost by way of atmosphere or intimacy. Tonight is apparently the quietest night in London of the year – it’s the day when everyone feels the Christmas pinch on their bank-balance the most. London (like the rest of the UK and much of Europe) has also been battered by storms. So it isn’t that much of a surprise that the place is not more than two thirds full despite the presence of one of the legends of sixties soul.
The Funk Brothers
The legends are the Funk Brothers, the Tamla Motown studio band who between them played on more hits than the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley and the Beatles (as we’re reminded at rather frequent intervals), creating a unique mix of jazz, blues and rock that simply defined the term ‘soul music’. Until recently they were relatively unknown and uncelebrated, but a book followed by a 2002 film, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, changed all of that. And I have to say that the award winning movie makes compelling viewing, made up of interviews and live performances from a group of eight or so of the surviving original musicians (perhaps the most regarded, bassist James Jamerson, died in 1983, fortunately the much admired drummer Richard “Pistol” Allen lived just long enough to make the film) and guest vocalists. A good number of these made it across to the UK for a memorable (I’m told) concert series in 2004.
Jack Ashford
Jack Ashford
Sadly tonight we have only two Funk Brothers on stage. There’s band leader, percussionist Jack Ashford (“Ladies and gentlemen, that’s the tambourine that defined the Tamla Motown sound”), who also plays vibraphone, and keyboard player Joe Hunter. Hunter’s an old man (he was the first musician to join Berry Gordy at Hitsville USA, and had left by the early 1960s before the most famous hits were recorded). He’s frail and takes an age to get to his Hammond B3 – and when he does there’s not a great deal to show for it – in fact I half suspected it had been switched off, or at least turned down a few notches. There are some ‘names’ in the line up – drummer Derek Organ is a veteran session-man who played regularly with Janet Jackson, Gregory Wright on keyboards is a retained producer for Tamla Motown, guitarist Angelo Earl is a Memphis-based performer and producer.
Vocalist and lead front man Larry Johnson was plucked from Bar-Keys. But really it’s no more than a very high-quality Tamla Motown tribute band, and it’s hard not to think that there’s a bit of going-through-the-motions in the phoney Soul Revue style enthusiasm that Johnson keeps on trying to pump up through the night.
Who would blame Ashford or Hunter for wanting to cash in, somewhat belatedly, on work that accumulated vast fortunes for some, but not for them? Not me. Particularly as they were dumped, like Detroit, in 1972 when the label moved lock stock and barrel to Los Angeles, losing as many would say, their groove in the process. But really it’s the sort of night that might make you want to reach for a copy of the Trades Description Act and read the section on ‘passing off’ very closely.

Oh yes – and to compound our misery it took us hours to get home in the rain and wind, not helped by a glimpse of what could have been the Funk Brothers’ Bentley parked outside the club as we left. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)




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