The Face Behind “The Uncelebrated Musicians of the Motown Empire”
There are two key words that focus the reader’s attention on the subject of this article: Musicians and Motown. One accentuates and influences the other, and both are synonymous with Detroit.
For decades, music and Detroit have “clicked, bounced around” and then “jelled.” Some of the world’s greatest talents have their roots buried in the soil of this city-a city with a glistering past, a reviving present and a promising future. In spite of the architectural decay, financial ruin and crime-stricken neighborhoods, Detroit is a city on the rise, a city moving with ingenuity, energy, innovation and steady entrepreneurship. Key to that revival is the music of Detroit-the long and rich heritage, the artists, the genres and… Motown. Let’s explore that term a bit…
Motown is a record company founded by Berry Gordy Jr. It combines two words, motor and town-embracing the concept that the automobile’s roots are deeply embedded in a town called Detroit. The “catchy” title quickly caught on, and soon became another name for the city. Gordy used two record labels to establish the company and generate the motown sound-Tamla Records and Motown Records and was the most successful in establishing what became known as “the Motown sound.”
What is the Motown Sound?
It has been described as a “style of soul music with a distinct pop influence.” Such a definition leads to another question “What is soul?”
In 1985, Gerri Hirshey set-out to answer that question in a book entitled Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music. After interviewing several soul giants like Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Wilson Pickett, she concluded that soul evolved from gospel and blues and speaks to all races, ethnicities and generations. It generates pride, celebrates respect, whispers determination and inhales persistence and perseverance. Hirshey tells the story by the people who lived it. She says no one sound produced the “Motown sound.” It came about through the use of several innovative techniques. However, at the core of it… is soul.
Having spent many interviews with soul masters James Brown and Aretha Franklin, Gerri knows the sounds, feels the beat and hears the message-earning the right to say “What distinguished soul music were those big, beautiful voices. I don’t think there are as many flat-out great singers today.” The Motown sound is immersed in soul, drenched with gospel and sprinkled with rhythm-and-blues.
It is a sound that leans toward pop appeal-using percussions to accent the beat, identifiable melodic electric bass and guitar lines, and a call-and-response singing style. Distinguishable pop influence can be seen in the use of orchestral string sections, graphic horn sections and superbly arranged background vocals. It has a distinct melodic and chord structure that avoids elaborate and complex arrangements. One person believed Motown writers worked hard to adhere to the KISS Principle-keep it simple, stupid.
The third word that changes the focus of this article is uncelebrated? Why that word? Who are Motown’s uncelebrated? What does the word mean and how does it apply to the musicians of Motown? These are questions that this article will answer.
What Does Uncelebrated Mean?
Several related phrases define the word “uncelebrated.” Phrases like not publicly acclaimed; unrecognized; obscure; unsung or not formally or officially honored. The reader then, can expect this article to discover Motown musicians who have not been formally honored or recognized for their musical contributions. Such a conclusion generates more questions: Who believes there are Motown musicians that are uncelebrated? What made them uncelebrated? and Who is the face behind such an accusation? One man-Duane Parham-a man who believes it so strongly that he could not resist making a documentary and naming it: The Uncelebrated Musicians of the Motown Empire.
Duane Parham – The Man with the Saxophone
Before discussing Parham’s view of unrecognized musicians, a fair question maybe “Is he creditable in making such a statement”? and “Is the statement valid?” To answer these questions, it is necessary to uncover the identity of this man.
Walter Duane Parham II was born in Detroit, Michigan, graduated from Cooley High School and began a professional career as a jazz saxophonist. Known as an innovator and top performer in smooth jazz, Duane has opened for performers like Anita Baker, Martha Reeves and Spider Turner and performed alongside gospel singers Michael Matthews, Shirley Caesar and Rance Allen. While his list of accomplishments, accolades and awards are endless, this article will direct you to the official website at duaneparham.net to gain such information and instead focus on a more personal interview with him. To get this personal view, the writer sat down face-to-face with Parham and the interview went something like this:
Smith: What is your earliest memory of music in general?
Parham: My earliest memory of music in general is my mother at Christmas time, playing her Oliver Nelson albums long before I learned to play a saxophone. I became accustomed to the saxophone in the background-Curtis Amy and Jimmy Smith. She did not play Jingle Bells like most mothers did… she played jazz and my Dad played blues-B.B. King! Mom had a “bunch” of albums and these were my introduction to music. I learned to dance on a record by The Drifters called Under the Boardwalk.
There were also many singing groups around the neighborhood like The Uniques that influenced my musical experience. These groups entered contests and had serious rivalry groups that made them work hard to excel.
As a kid, I suffered with rheumatic fever and was not always able to do the exercises demanded by my gym class, so I sat on the sidelines a lot. One day, my teacher asked me if I wanted to attend a concert that was being held in the cafeteria in lieu of gym. I said “Sure,” because it beat sitting down doing nothing. When I entered the cafeteria, Smokey Robinson’s band The Egyptian Playboys was playing and the girls were completely mesmerized by them-screaming and yelling their names… at that moment I knew I liked the screams and said, “I can do that!” I did not know what I could do, I only knew I wanted to get in the band and have the girls screaming for me!
Smith: How did you choose the saxophone?
Parham: Well, I got in the Egyptian Playboys band as a singer, even though everybody knew I couldn’t sing. Well… maybe everybody but me. The guys would let me sing one song-High Heel Sneakers by Stevie Wonder. They would try to forget that I was suppose to sing my one song, but I would say, “What about my song?” Then I noticed that when I started to sing, the band would play very loud because they didn’t want anyone to hear me. I didn’t care… I was in the band and all I did… was sing louder! They let me hang around too because I was sort of the “flunky.”
One day, Smokey’s mom wanted the equipment moved from the practice room so that it could be cleaned, and you guessed it… I was the guy to do it! It was in Smokey’s house that I discovered a saxophone in his parents’ closet. I asked Smokey if I could play it and he told me to ask his dad. His dad said the horn had been left by someone else and at some point the person would come back for it. Every chance I got I asked Smokey’s dad if the saxophone was still in the closet. After numerous times of bugging him about it, he finally sold it to me for $100. However, it was a time that my father had been laid off from work so, my grandmother purchased it for me. That was the beginning of my love for the saxophone.
Smith: How old were you?
Parham: Fourteen years old.
Smith: Did you always play the saxophone?
Parham: No, at one time I played the trumpet and tuba? It took being thrown out of the band in middle school for fighting and almost destroying a trumpet by oiling it with Crisco, before I settled in and made the saxophone my instrument.
Smith: Did you meet any of the Motown players in high school?
Parham: No, in high school, we were too “cool” to do Motown… we did jazz.
Smith: When did you realize that you were a professional musician?
Parham: It was the first day that I played at Mr. Kellys and was paid five dollars. When I got the five dollars, I was “all in.” I had heard someone say, “If you get paid for playing your instrument, you are a professional, and that stuck in my head… I got paid, I was a professional.”
Smith: If you had to do it all over again, would you choose another profession?
Parham: No. I think I would choose another instrument along with the saxophone-the piano, but not another profession.
Smith: I understand you are about to release a documentary. Can you tell me the name of it and what its about?
Parham: The name is “The Uncelebrated Musicians of the Motown Empire. It’s about the horn players who played during the Motown era and their names are rarely mentioned. The Funk Brothers have been identified as mostly rhythm, bass and guitar musicians, little or no horn players mentioned. Even the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which was an excellent documentary, did not give them their kudos. It simply did not mention any of the horn players! I shed a tear over that. Seeing such an omission of the horn players is what planted a seed in my mind to correct it.
Smith: Is this why you used the term “uncelebrated?”
Smith: What is your timeline for the documentary?
Parham: Here’s where I am now. I’m having a guy take the “meat” of the story and package it again, get a narrator that will fill in all of the gaps and explain it so that it flows, and anybody watching it can understand clearly what the message is.
Smith: What is next for you?
Parham: Like the biblical character, I hope I have at least five talents, and I am using them for directing, producing and finishing up the documentary. Parallel to this, I have written a song called Detroit City is Coming Back. It features successful local and legendary artists in many genres: gospel, R&B, soul, smooth jazz… and will be made into a CD for presentation in November. The project is spearheaded by State Representative Coleman Young Jr. We hope that it will stimulate and raise the spirit of residents throughout the city and state.
Smith: I know there is something you like to do besides music, what is it?
Parham: I like to bowl, play tennis, shoot pool… I take none of them seriously, but use them only as a form of relaxation.
Go to the link below to hear the voice of Parham as he talks about his documentary:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-Ux2ls-OgE Don’t forget to come back here!
Hitting the strong points of the interview, Parham seems to be saying that horn players of the “Motown sound” contributed to that sound as much as any other player, but no one recognizes them for doing so. There is simply silence when it comes to honoring them, and he feels something should be and is being done about it. His documentary will lift the cover off of their contributions and let the “horns shine through.” One could conceivably say, “Well, you can’t talk about everybody, you have to cut somewhere!” Let’s see if such a statement holds validity.
Prior to the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown in 2002, little had been said about the Funk Brothers, the Motown acts took center stage-acts such as The Miracles, The Temptations, The Supremes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, The Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, The Contours, Jackson 5, The Four Tops, The Spinners, The Originals and The Andantes. Having director Paul Justman and others recognize that without the Funk Brothers the Motown sound would not be the same and devote a documentary to changing history, was just as essential then as having Parham saying now that without the horns, the Funk Brothers would not be the same. So, this writer took a closer look at the players honored in the documentary. Thirteen members were highlighted and they are:
Richard “Pistol” Allen (drums), Jack Ashford (Tambourine, percussion, vibraphone, marimba), Bob Babbitt (bass), Eddie “Bongo” Brown (drums), Johnny Griffin (keyboards), Joe Hunter (piano), James Jamerson (bass), Uriel Jones (drums), Joe Messina (guitar), Earl Van Dyke (piano), Robert White (guitar), and Eddie Willis (guitar).
Hm-m-m, not a single horn made the cut. A close look at the thirteen players of the Funk Brothers honored, three were drummers, three guitarists, two bassists, one percussionists, two pianists and one on the keyboards. It seems fitting to ask: Why weren’t one of the drummers and guitarists omitted and two horn players added in their places? You figure it out.
Motown Horn Players
As I viewed the preliminary stages of Duane Parham’s Uncelebrated Musicians of the Motown Empire, I felt the depth of “public omission” those horn players who spoke on the documentary were experiencing. Unlike Parham, I did not shed a tear, but I did have a “surge” of compassion. I began to understand why he wanted to salute the horn players! While this article’s focus is on the face behind the documentary, a few paragraphs will be devoted to the horn players of the Motown Empire. Who were they and what were their instruments?
Trumpets: Marcus Belgrave, Russell Conway, Maurice Davis, Billy Horner, Eddie Jones, Floyd Jones, Don Slaughter, Johnny Trudell, Herbie William, John “Little John” Wilson.
Saxophones: Lanny Austin, Thomas “Beans” Bowles, Teddy Buckner, Angelo Carlis, Henry “Hank” Cosby, Lefty Edwards, Eli Fontaine, Kasuka Malia, Eugene “Bee” Moore, William “Wild Bill” Moore, Larry Nozero, Norris Patterson, Bernie Peacock, Ernie Rogers, Andrew “Mike” Terry, Dan Turner and Ronnie Wakefield.
Trombones: George Bohanan, Bob Cousa, Ed Gooch, Bill Johnson, Patrick Lanier, Carl Raetz, Paul Riser, Don White and Jimmy Wilkens.
Flute: Dayna Hartwick
These are the uncelebrated musicians of the Motown Empire that Parham speaks of-musicians who poured their heart, soul and energy into creating, producing and performing a sound that electrified the world. That is a fact, whether the world recognizes it or not-they are part of that empire. While this article does not lend itself to specific and detailed information on each musician, one member of each group is briefly discussed.
Maurice Davis was the lead trumpeter for Motown records for 15 years. He recorded with superstar greats like Tony Bennett and Sammy Davis Jr. He was born in Memphis, TN in 1941, received a Bachelors Degree from Tennessee State University and taught at Rust College in Mississippi. One of Davis’ greatest achievements is being the lead trumpet on the three-time Grammy Award winning Temptations song Papa Was a Rollin Stone. He passed away at the age of 71 on July 13, 2013.
Eli Fontaine was one of the originators of the soulful Motown sax solos. He was a producer, contractor and studio musician. One writer notes that Fontaine was doodling around on his horn in the Snake Pit, the practice session studio, warming up to play the opening notes to what was expected to be “many takes” to Marvin Gaye’s song What’s Goin’ On, and he was told to go home. A bit confused, he asked why? Gaye loved his “doodling” so much that it was chosen to be the opening notes to that famous song. Thus, Fontaine had done the job he was suppose to do, and could really… go home.
Jimmy Wilkins is the youngest brother of Ernie Wilkins, a composer and big band leader. He recorded with Count Basie in the 50′s and Motown in the 60′s. He lives in Nevada, a city outside of Las Vegas, and still leads a band at the age of 90. To read a live interview with the Motown trombonist, click on the link below:
Dayna Hartwich played the flute with Motown as a teenager and was the only female player with the group. Some consider her a child prodigy because of her ability to play with such an elite group of players at such a young age. Today, she lives in Michigan and collects cars-having in her possession two vintage 1957 Thunderbirds.
Each player had, and still has a special place in the hearts of Motown lovers-a place that cannot be erased in history or diminished by silence. Parham, a horn player himself, sees the value in igniting the torch and making it visible for all to see.
In summary, the Motown sound is a style of soul music that was greatly influenced by pop music-music with distinctive characteristics, including percussive rhythms, bass instrumentation, a unique melodic line and chord structure and a “call and response” singing style which has its roots deeply immersed in gospel music. The Funk Brothers, a group of musicians hand-picked by Berry Gordy Jr., created and produced that sound with horns, strings, percussive instruments, keyboards, woodwinds and piano-each artist making a contribution in his own special way. Not a single instrument should be over-looked, underrated or excluded from a “sound” that accompanied unique choreography, intense rhythms, exquisite wardrobes and soulful voices-a sound that continues to get even the writer on the dance floor… every time she hears it.
Who is the face behind the Uncelebrated Musicians of the Motown Empire?
Walter Duane Parham II. Thus, it is fitting to summarize this article in the words of this man-the “man with the saxophone.”
These great “Unsung Musicians” blew (the) breath of life that formed music into their instruments on some of the greatest memorable celebrated hit recordings. However, they have been un-named and un-celebrated until now. This documentary will… educate and enlighten you… !
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