September 2003
The Shadows of Motown

You've got to catch this flick!

by Paul D. Lehrman

You know the hits, now read the book. You've read the book, now listen to the tapes. You've listened to the tapes, now watch the movie. You've seen the movie, now buy the DVD.

No, it's not Harry Potter and the Invisible Weapons of Mass Destruction or The Matrix Regurgitated. For us in the music biz, this year's superhot multimedia property is Standing in the Shadows of Motown, a 16-year-long project that just keeps getting better and better. The latest incarnation is so good, in fact, that it actually inspired me to go out and buy a DVD player.

It all began in the late '80s when Philadelphia-based musician/writer/arranger/guitarist/fanatic Allan Slutsky, who publishes under the name Dr. Licks, decided to write a book about James Jamerson, probably the most influential bassist in rock 'n' roll history. Jamerson was one of the legendary jazz-trained Motown session players who called themselves The Funk Brothers, and whose work supported hundreds of hit records; as the opening titles of the movie (based on the book) tell us, the Brothers have "more Number One records than The Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley combined."

Jamerson never garnered much attention for himself, but as anyone (especially a bass player) who has ever listened closely to his tracks knows, he was nothing less than a genius. He drove the Motown rhythm section with lines that were melodic, inventive and constantly in motion, defining the beats and harmonic structures by filling the spaces between them rather than simply coming down straight on them. Slutsky's biographical/instructional book, Standing in the Shadows of Motown -- The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson, which came out in 1989 (and was covered in Mix in October 1990), supports Jamerson's reputation with the strongest possible evidence. Besides detailing Jamerson's life, which ended tragically at the young age of 47 after years of alcohol abuse, Slutsky's book also faithfully transcribes some four dozen of Jamerson's most amazing bass parts, from "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" to "You Can't Hurry Love."

And there's more: Recordings of the transcriptions, along with some great interviews of Jamerson's friends and fans, are featured on two CDs that are stuck into the back of the book. (In the first printings, these were cassettes.) The 24 players on the recordings include luminaries like John Entwistle, Will Lee, Jack Bruce, John Patitucci and Jamerson's son, James Jr., who also talk about their love of and respect for the Motown bassist's work. The recordings are in the old "music-minus-one" style: The bass part is on one channel and the rest of the instrumental tracks are on the other. Slutsky's book is still available, and for about the cost of a six-pack of rewritable DVDs, you can't ask for a more valuable educational tool.

The rest of this column, along with 56 more, is now available in The Insider Audio Bathroom Reader, published by Thomson Course Technology PTR.

Copyright ©2006 by Paul D. Lehrman


From literally the other side of the planet comes news of another great loss to the music world: the death of Italian composer Luciano Berio on May 28 at age 77.

Berio was an extraordinarily prolific composer and wrote for all combinations of instruments and voices, including 14 Sequenzas: fiendishly intricate pieces for solo instruments. His monumental "Sinfonia" brought together the disparate forces of the New York Philharmonic and baroque-jazz group the Swingle Singers in the late 1960s. But in my opinion, his most amazing works were his early electronic pieces, dating back to the '50s: intense and evocative tone poems and collages that often featured the breathtakingly nimble soprano voice of his first wife, American-born Cathy Berberian. His works were as good a refute as you'll ever need to use against those who argue that electronic music was sterile and inhuman.

I was in high school when I stumbled across his 21-minute acid-flash audio horror movie Visage and Thema, his deconstruction of a part from James Joyce's Ulysses. Thema uses virtuoso tape-editing techniques that still elicit gasps of admiration from my students when I explain patiently to them that, no, Pro Tools wasn't available in 1958. (In fact, somebody once told me that when Berio was shown Pro Tools for the first time, he exclaimed, "So why did I work so hard?")

Up there with Varése, Ussachevsky, Cage and Stockhausen, Berio was a god to those of us who listened to electronic music at the beginning of its evolution. I even got to work with him once in the early '80s. A local contemporary-music group putting on a concert of his music suddenly realized that they needed a small pipe organ for a piece and the hall didn't have one. For some reason, they knew I had a computer-based synthesis system that could do a reasonably good pipe organ imitation. (It was an alphaSyntauri system on an Apple II, which otherwise sounded awful.) Though the composer initially looked upon the contraption with an expression that alternated between horror and contempt, he smiled at me afterward and admitted that it didn't sound too bad. In fact, the whole concert was terrific.

As is true of Jamerson, there is much education to be gleaned from listening to the music of Berio. Visage and Thema are available on CD, although on the relatively hard-to-find Dutch BVHAAST label (www.xs4all.nl/~wbk/BVHAAST.html). Needless to say, it's worth hunting down.

Copyright ©2003 by Paul D. Lehrman