Alumni Profile - Allan Slutsky '78
Out of the Shadows by Matthew S. Robinson
Allan Slutsky '78
Stevie Wonder. Marvin Gaye. Martha and the Vandellas. These are names that those familiar with pop music know like the names of their own family members. But does anyone know the names of the men who made these greats so great? After decades of anonymity, music lovers, historians, and members of the general public are finally becoming aware of the artists who made the Motown Sound, thanks to the devoted work of guitarist and pop music historian Allan Slutsky.
"Everybody thinks that they know everything about Motown," Slutsky notes, "but they don't know anything." Considering that the collective of Motown session players known as the Funk Brothers played on more chart toppers than the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis, and the Beach Boys combined, it is unbelievable that so few people know their names. "This was a great unknown story of rock and roll," Slutsky says, "and it needed to be told." Slutsky himself first became interested in the Motown story as a teenage guitarist performing in his native Philadelphia.
"America has always been obsessed with 'cool,'" he observes, "and Motown was the coolest thing I had ever found." In an effort to emulate his unknown idols, Slutsky spent hours trying to translate the signature Motown riffs into a format that he and his band mates could understand.
"We tried to copy the licks," he says. "But it was such a Detroit groove, that no matter how we tried, we couldn't play it right." To approach this vaunted level of cool, Slutsky studied music at Temple University and then came to Berklee to pursue guitar studies. "If not for Berklee, I wouldn't have been able to do the things I've done," he says recalling musical mentors such as Bill Levitt and Herb Pomeroy. After graduation, Slutsky returned to Philly, where he continued to work on transcriptions. Garnering the nickname "Dr. Licks," Slutsky also gained a publishing deal with Hal Leonard for a series of tablature books that bore his new monicker. Despite his notable precision, however, Slutsky still had trouble notating the groove when it came to Motown.
"As I started transcribing that music," he recalls, "I was blown away. I wanted to find out who created these sounds, and that led me first to the story of bassist James Jamerson." Further research led Slutsky to the discovery that, despite the general public's familiarity with their music, Jamerson and other late greats like drummer Benny "Papa Zita" Benjamin, Eddie "Bongo" Brown, and keyboardist Earl "Chunk of Funk" Van Dyke were all but unknown to millions of fans of the Motown Sound.
"Jamerson and company had played all those hits, yet nobody knew who they were!" Slutsky says. In an effort to right this wrong, he decided to expand the Jamerson transcription book into the musical biography Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Over a period of three years, Slutsky interviewed the surviving Brothers - including bassist Bob Babbitt, vibraphonist Jack Ashford, keyboardists Johnny Griffith and Joe Hunter, drummers Uriel Jones and Richard "Pistol" Allen (who died soon after the filming), and guitarists Joe Messina and Eddie "Chank" Willis - and painstakingly wrote their story of nameless fame. When it won the 1989 Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award as Rolling Stone's music book of the year, Slutsky knew he was on to something.
"After I won, I decided what I had to do next," Slutsky says, explaining his leap from page to stage, "was to get these guys back together and document them performing." Though the Brothers had not played together since Motown moved its headquarters to Los Angeles in the 1970s, Slutsky was not to be denied. Eleven years, 30,000 hours, and a bunch of pawn slips later, Shadows was released as a feature film by Artisan Entertainment (visit www.artisanent.com for more info).
"They had put out Buena Vista Social Club," Slutsky notes, citing another popular film biography of unsung musical heroes, "so we knew they could do something like this." Combining testimony and reminiscence with live-concert footage of the Brothers and contemporary artists such as Bootsy Collins, Ben Harper, Chaka Khan, and Joan Osborne, Shadows is part history, part biography, part tribute, and all Motown.
"It doesn't play like a movie," the film's coproducer Slutsky opines. "It's more like a revival meeting. People go to pray at the altar of the Motown Sound." And what a revival it has been! Already, the film has won rave reviews from the international press and public, including a standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival, which is the second largest gathering of its kind in the world.
"People have chased our limo down the street," Slutsky recalls. "Everyone seems to love the film, and hopefully that will help to get the word out - that is why I did this." Not one to sit on his laurels, Slutsky is at work on a book about the famed rhythm sections that backed James Brown in the 1960s and 70s and is mounting a Buena Vista- style tour for the Brothers. "These men who were anonymous are now being recognized," he says. "They are the biggest hit machine ever, and now people are getting to know who they are."