Escaping the shadows

By Garth Paulson

Legend is perhaps one of the most overused terms in the critical lexicon. Should you want to become a legend, the rule to follow is simply to refuse to go away. Longevity, whether welcomed or not, is the criterion used to determine who receives the prestigious distinction and who is delegated to VH1 specials. This leads to far too many aging, so-called “legends” lurking in our consciousness and trying to make yet another dollar by exploiting the history that got them where they are today.

This isn’t the way of all legends. Some truly deserve the title and continue to be vital voices. And then there are those who are the most deserving, the shadow legends. Those still largely unknown or only just beginning to reap the rewards of their labour. Such is the case of Joe Hunter, a founding member of arguably the most important group of musicians ever assembled–the Funk Brothers.

“I wasn’t wise enough to be wary of the future legacy it would bring,” reminisces Hunter about his time with the group. “At the time it was just about playing, learning, and innovating as best we could,”

The Funk Brothers were a collection of studio musicians responsible in some way for just about every song off the Motown label from 1959 to 1972. Though largely uncredited at the time, the Funk Brothers had their hands in more number one hits than Elvis Presley, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined. Everybody knows the artists they backed up: Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, Smoky Robinson and the Supremes, to name just a few.

Yet, until the release of the movie Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the Funk Brothers were largely unheard of. Finally receiving the recognition they deserved, Hunter, the original bandleader, says things haven’t really changed that much within the group.

“It was a fine little job then, and it’s still a fine little job now,” he says. “Some of the guys have departed from the planet Earth, but five of us are trying to continue on. Everybody is enjoying themselves, until we start fighting about who’s eating too much popcorn.”

For the making of Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which documents their legacy, the remaining Funk Brothers reassembled to play as a group again. Though some of the members hadn’t touched their instruments in over 30 years, the chemistry remained intact. Thanks in large part to the success of the film, they are again an active band, embarking on a tour which will bring them through Calgary as part of the Blues and Roots Festival.

“We’ll be doing the old classics as well as a couple of new things. Joan Osbourne will be singing on some of the songs like ‘Heard it Through the Grapevine,’” says Hunter. “She does a hell of a version of ‘Heat Wave.’ They’re the same songs, but voice makes a big difference.”

Considering how many artists Hunter has worked with, it is no surprise he can’t name a single favourite artist he has played with or album or song he’s played on.

“I liked Marvin Gaye, I fell in love with Mary Wells, I liked a lot of different artists. I can’t pick an individual singer. I like all of them, I just like music,” he says in a manner betraying his stature as the living legend he’s finally being recognized as. For a moment, Joe Hunter is just a regular guy with a profound love for music.

The shadow legends may truly be the most deserving, but the Funk Brothers have earned their chance to finally step out of those life long shadows. They enter the spotlight simply as legends, no disclaimers necessary.

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