The Funk Brothers at the Royal Festival Hall,
London, 30th January 2004

Mary Payne reviews a night to remember

The members of the band may have appeared somewhat frail, as they were assisted on to the Festival Hall stage to receive a standing ovation, but there was nothing frail about the way the way the Funk Brothers handled their music. The guys who had enhanced more Motown sessions than any of them could possibly remember, performed every note exactly as we all remembered from those well-loved recordings.
eared somewhat frail, as
Jack Ashford
Eddie Willis. Allan 'Dr Licks' Slutsky looks on.*

Percussionist and vibes player Jack Ashford was our MC for the night. Although he admits to an initial intense dislike of the instrument, Jack's tambourine was to become the magic ingredient in the Motown mix. It was a spine-tingling experience to hear Jack playing live, on the unforgettable intro of Marvin Gaye's version of 'Heard It Through The Grapevine', where the instrument subtly invokes the spreading whispers of the song's subject.

Jack, who had been with Motown's first UK tour in 1965, is one of six of the original thirteen Funk Brothers, who have finally received their due recognition, thanks to the huge success of the 'Standing in the Shadows of Motown' film. Sunday, February 8th will see them become recipients of the 2004 Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award the 46th Annual GRAMMY Awards ceremony, in Los Angeles. So sad to think that less than half of the Funks were given any recognition of their achievements during their lifetimes.

Uriel Jones, Jack Ashford and Bob Babbit
Joe Messina

Also on stage were pianist Joe Hunter, (at 76 years old, the senior Funk), drummer Uriel Jones, guitarists Eddie Willis and Joe Messina and bass guitarist Bob Babbitt. Seven additional musicians filled the shoes of the departed band members with great respect, and were assisted by lead vocalists, 'First Lady of Philadelphia Soul' Carla Benson, and her cousin, Johnny Ingram.

Uriel Jones, Jack Ashford and Bob Babbit
Joe Hunter

It was clear that the band members loved what they were doing and were delighted by the warmth of the audience, which included life-long Motown fan, Sir Paul McCartney and his wife Heather.

Few of us stayed in our seats for long – we were up and dancing! It was a huge family party, with every generation represented, from small kids to grannies. Everyone adored that music. Jack Ashford encouraged a group of youngsters (probably aged around nine) to join him on stage. Every one of them knew all the words to the songs!

Steve Winwood , with Jack Ashford and Uriel Jones
Pretty much like genuine brothers: Uriel Jones, Jack Ashford, Bob Babbit, Joe Messina

They loved the show! Motown mega-fans Toby Walker, (left) Webmaster of the Soulwalking website, with escapee from the Jazz FM Soul Cellar, Peter Young

In the first half, Sir Paul's old friend Billy Preston, who had filled Isaac Hayes' shoes at extremely short notice, performed terrific versions of 'Pride and Joy' and 'Ain't Too Proud to Beg'.

Steve Winwood, who has been stunning us with his amazing soulful voice since he first appeared in the Fab Forty with the Spencer Davis Group, treated us to 'How Sweet It Is', 'Shotgun', 'Function at the Junction' and 'What's Going On'.

Saddest moments?

Hearing Jack Ashford's heartfelt tribute to the much-loved and missed departed band members.

Realising that, had Edwin Starr had still been with us, he would have been the perfect choice to front this show.

Seeing some 'jobsworth' security woman escort an attractive young lady from the stage, whose sole intention was to give Joe Hunter a well-deserved kiss. Lady, he earned it!

Happiest moments?

I was dancing in front of the stage and Johnny Ingram focused on me to sing 'I'm Losing You'. I turned to the lady who was dancing next to me and we both giggled like teenagers!

Hearing that 'Grapevine' tambourine – unforgettable!

In a word - 'FUNKTASTIC!'

A number of us had been poised for months for the announcement of the UK dates. Thanks are due to our friend Alan Hardy, who was quick off the mark to obtain seats at the Festival Hall only six rows from the front. (Not that I made much use of mine!)

Of the concert, Alan says:

Because we were so lucky to get seats (or gyrating space) so close to the stage, it made the evening feel like a private party rather than a concert in front of thousands of people. And it helped having seen the film, because the Funks looked like old friends! I thought it was a superb, special night. Although - especially in the first half - I felt we were getting into sing-along territory - the second half really made up for it. Some unusual songs, a brilliant Steve Winwood and an emotional end, with Jack introducing us to the other Brothers and expressing his feelings. A night to treasure and remember. It was an honour to be able to see and hear them.

Put on some classic Motown, listen to it and marvel at the fact that you heard exactly the same musicians and saw them only feet away from you. I played 'I Can't Help Myself' by the Four Tops on my show on Radio West Mid the morning after the concert, and it was a really strange sensation.


*Dr Licks, aka Allan Slutsky, wrote a book about legendary Motown Funk Brother bass-player James Jamerson. He called it 'Standing in the Shadows of Motown', the title being inspired by an article by music writer, Nelson George. The book (which comes with a CD) became the catalyst for the making of the movie of the same name. As well as co-producing the film, Allan Slutsky played a major part in the production of the music contained in the film, and is musical director for the Funk Brothers' tour.

(click photo to buy)

'Motown, the View from the Bottom', written by Jack Ashford, published 2003

(click photo to buy)

Film soundtrack CD
(click photo to buy)

(click photo to buy)
(click photo to buy)

The 'Standing in the Shadows of Motown' website: All about the movie and the Funks tour dates

An interview with Jack Ashford and Joe Messina on Front Row (BBC Radio 4) (scroll down to the interview's link)

Toby Walker's Soulwalking website

Peter Young is on Jazz FM, Sundays 1400 to 1700.

Pictures are © Chris Payne and Radio London 2004

Back to 'Reliving the Sixties'