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When the black music turned white

This blog is about the soul music from the United States and especially about the Funk Brothers. These studio musicians have composed and recorded more number one hits than Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys combined.

It is about the racial problems of the United States after World War 2, police violence, and the feature depicts how 'black music' played its way into the hearts of the white communities.

The Temptations at a live performance.


In 1973, I visited Franz Fetz's Felsenkeller on the Bödele. There was hardly a song Franz played that I had heard before. His music program was too select and exotic. He certainly did not get his records in Austria.

Franz Fetz at his DJ desk in the Felsenkeller, on top of the pass between Dornbirn and Schwarzenberg. (today patron at the Hotel Hirschen in Schwarzenberg).

Where Franz got his music from can perhaps be read in his memoirs?

Actually sensational, what kind of music was played in the Felsenkeller at that time.


I was an apprentice cook at the Adler in Mellau at that time.

A picture from the year 1972

Gasthof Adler Mellau, newly built and opened in 1969.

In 1973 in October my boss Tone Matt, Wilfried Broger and Sigi Lehner (all from Mellau) went to Lloret de Mar, Spain on vacation.

Foto at the Garbi discotheque in Lloret de Mar in 1973.

Full of euphoria they arrived 3 weeks later again with Tone's white VW Beetle in Mellau. In Spain, Tone said, things were really happening and we had to build a bar right away.


At the first snowfall I went with Tone to Oberfeld to the parents' house of the Matt family. There the old tractor was loaded with boards and the bar was ready after a short time. Tone was a good craftsman and I was a good handyman. We ordered a 2 x 8 watt stereo system from the Kurfürstversand and on Christmas Day 1973 we opened the bar in the basement of the Gasthof Adler. Tone had a few long-playing records by the Rolling Stones, Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel. We also stole some singles from the music box in the guesthouse.


I was now the bar operator and in my 2nd year of apprenticeship. The bar was called Nikki's Club, after my real first name Nikolaus.

Every evening after closing time at 9:00 p.m., I now went to the basement.

The bar was actually planned only for house guests, but more and more friends and acquaintances came. Among the guests was a pretty lady from Belgium, Machteld Voet. She and her twin sister came to Mellau through Christiane Haller. Gudrun was already involved with the master butcher Hermann Broger at that time and Tone Matt made a pass at Machteld, who was working as a waitress at the Hotel Kreuz at the time.

Nikki's Club with Adlerwirt Albert Matt (center).

Shortly after Epiphany 1974, the Adlerwirt visited the mayor and wanted to apply for a concession for the bar. The application was rejected, because they did not want any noise in the center. So the bar continued to operate without a license.


My second encounter with soul music.

Machteld was now often at Nikki's Club. Once she brought a whole stack of singles records. I didn't know a single one. The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross & the Supremes, the Four Tops, etc.

I liked the music from the beginning. The melodic harmonies and the fat beat were new territory for me. Almost all the singles were from the record label 'Tamla Motown'.

The following year Sigrid visited her twin sisters and I fell head over heels in love with her. Through this I was a few times in Oostende, Belgium and visited the relevant clubs there. Actually only soul music was played.


But now to the story of how the music of the African-American population came into the hit parades of the 'white' population.

When Henry Ford had his Ford T produced on the assembly line in Detroit starting in 1902, the so-called Motor City Detroit was born. Soon General Motors and Chrysler were also producing cars there.

Many of the mostly black workers came with their families from the poor southern states. Between 1900 and 1930, the population of Detroit increased fivefold.

When the United States of America converted its industry from armaments to normal operations again after the Second World War, many Southerners moved to the industrialized North to Chicago, Cleveland and also to Detroit.

Detroit was the Motor Town (Motown for short) with the auto plants of General Motors, Chrysler and Ford. Countless black workers from the South came to Detroit at that time. Among them were many very good musicians who paid homage to jazz and the blues. To escape the dreary daily grind of the assembly line, but also to supplement their salaries, they played in the relevant black clubs in the city.


At that time, racial segregation was still omnipresent in the USA, also in music. There were 'black' radio stations that played race music and others that played Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.

Rosa Parks gained sad notoriety in 1955 when she refused to give her seat to a white person on a bus. That was the law at the time. Parks was arrested. In 1957, she moved to Detroit.

In the big national hit parade, the US Billboard Charts, there was already at that time an R&B (Rhythm & Blues) section, which listed titles of the African-American groups and stars.


Berry Gordy Jr. was a songwriter in Detroit and wrote 'Reet Petite' for Jackie Wilson in 1957.

Gordy Jr. recognized the opportunity and founded the Tamla Motown record company in 1959 with US$800.

In August 1959, Gordon Jr. had purchased the single-family home at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit. The former photo studio on the first floor was converted into a recording studio. Studio A, or as the musicians called it, The Snakepit. From now on the sign Hitsville - USA adorned the house.

The first track released by Tamla Motown immediately made it to #2 on the R&B charts.


But now to the studio musicians, some of whom were not called the Funk Brothers until after their deaths.

Berry Gordy Jr. had 13 studio (session) musicians under contract by turns. These musicians also initially worked during the day on the assembly lines of the big car factories. In the evenings they played in the clubs and often had so-called jam sessions.

Tamla Motown's recording studio was open 24 hours a day and functioned like a factory. If a jam session came up with a melodious new tune, they would run to the studio and record it. The Tamla Motown studio always had up to 20 recorded songs on call. Now the hired lyricists went to work and actually a new hit was ready. Now it depended on who should sing it.

Smokey Robinson was head of the group 'The Miracles' and was vice president of Berry Gordy's record company.


Developing young musicians was a major part of Motown's business. The company's artists were well-groomed, well-dressed, and excelled at sophisticated choreography during live performances. It was inculcated in them that their breakthrough on the white-dominated charts would help other African American musicians develop as well. The musicians were expected to think, speak, act, and walk like aristocrats in order to dispel the poor image and reservations about black musicians among the white population. Since many of the young talents came from humble backgrounds and often lacked basic social skills, Motown's efforts were not only exemplary, but created an elegant style of their own that people long associated with the company.


With the Marvelettes they landed their first number 1 hit in the USA in 1961.

White radio stations were now starting to get into trouble as their audiences wanted to hear the new black music.


Little Stevie Wonder was already hanging around the Tamla Motown studio at the age of 11 (1961).

A tribute song to Ray Charles - Uncle Ray - Sung by Stevie Wonder at the age of 12. He also played the harmonica.


In 1962, the Contours reached #1 on the R&B charts and #3 on the Billboard charts with this track. The title was written by Berry Gordy Jr.


In 1963, the Civil Rights Movement around the civil rights activist Martin Luther King reached its first peak with the March on Washington.

Martin Luther King Jr.

King's speech with 'I had a dream.....' went down in history.


The top hits of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.

The music had definitely caught on with the white population, as seen in this video from 1963.

The top hit from 1964.


The Supremes.

Diana Ross worked for Berry Gordy Jr. as a secretary and was his mistress. One day she joined the already established Mary Wilson and together with Florence Ballard the Supremes were born.

Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson , Diana Ross.

In 1964, the Supremes made their breakthrough with this title and landed at number 1 on the Billboard charts. Now all radio stations were suddenly forced to play the title and black music now became white.

The Supremes had a total of 12 number 1 hits between 1964 and 1969. Only the Beatles had more number 1 hits in the USA in the 1960s.


But where were the studio musicians. They were never mentioned on any record sleeve. They had invented the hits, recorded them and delivered them for a few dollars. If a title made it into the top ten, they got a few extra dollars.

The session musicians demonstrated an amazing stylistic adaptability. Their instrumentation spanned from the prototype Motown sound, the 1964 million-seller Baby Love by the Supremes, to the complex sound of the 1972 overlong Papa Was a Rollin' Stone by the Temptations. The Funk Brothers can be heard as session musicians on 22 top hits on the pop charts and 48 top hits on the rhythm & blues charts.

With their instrumentation, the Funk Brothers formed the core and backbone of the Motown sound. Typical for this was the rimshot technique of the drums with strongly syncopated beats, a dominant bass guitar, a saxophone part in the instrumental part and often tambourine-overloaded percussion. At times, the instrumental parts were punctuated with violins. Lyrically, the Motown sound included a treatise of topics around love and partnership, which had to be completed in a maximum of three minutes. In terms of vocals, the call-and-response style of gospel predominated, which is why it was mainly groups that performed.The Motown sound was the result of a few composers and music producers who attached importance to a pop-oriented rhythm and blues. The basic model for all later hits was Where Did Our Love Go, the Supremes' first hit from 1964, which was recorded mainly in the cramped Studio A at Motown headquarters in Detroit. However, the Motown sound was by no means homogeneous, but lived from individual differences, which were expressed by the idiosyncrasies of the performers.

Today we know that the Funk Brothers were among the best musicians in the world. Especially the bassist James Jamerson is still called the best bassist of all time.

Jamerson's position as Motown's most sought-after studio bassist led him to play on countless hits - including those of Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, the Supremes and Stevie Wonder - and his innovative, unique bass playing had a major impact on the stars' songs. His bass lines, by now played mainly on a '62 Fender Precision Bass, became world famous and had a major influence on the worldwide development of bass playing. A special feature of his playing technique was that he struck the strings with only one finger, the index finger, which earned him the nickname "The Hook".

A very rare recording with the great master.


A recording of the Temptations in the recording studio in 1965. This title became a world hit.


The Brand New Beat reached Europe as early as 1965.


The only track on the Tamla Motown label not played by the Funk Brothers.

Jr. Walker was able to convince Berry Gordy that his All Stars could also play music.

The track was #1 on the R&B chart for 22 weeks.


The Supremes were already appearing on television in 1966.


This title was already produced by the young Stevie Wonder in 1967.


Another world hit from the year 1967 of the Tamla Motown factory.


The Isley Brothers were also signed to Tamla Motown for three years. A title from1967.


Detroit was a social powder keg at the time. Between 1948 and 1967, 130,000 jobs were rationalized away in the car factories. These were mainly the jobs of the black population. Racism within the police force was pervasive and 90 percent of the police were white.

On the morning of July 23, 1967, some police officers raided a 'Blind Pig'. Blind Pigs were illegal joints, usually associated with gambling and prostitution, frequented still open after the official 3:00 a.m. curfew.

A war returnee from Vietnam owned the joint. When he was arrested harshly, a passerby became incensed and threw a bottle in the direction of the policemen. More and more passers-by vented their anger at the police. Well over 1000 people lined 12th Street at daybreak. The first fires were set.

All available police units deployed, but were unsuccessful. During the first days of the riots, 16 people died.

President Johnson finally sent the 101st. Airborne Division, which had returned from Vietnam only days earlier.

More than 2500 buildings were on fire at that time.

The mob made no distinction between black and white neighborhoods. Many innocent people lost their belongings.

After 5 days, Detroit was quiet again. There were 43 deaths, 1189 injuries and 7000 arrests. 5000 people lost their homes.


Still on July 23, civil rights leader Martin Luther King came to Detroit and held a peace march.

In this 'Long Hot Summer', there were also riots in other parts of the country.

The contrasts could not have been more stark. While the city of Detroit burned, the mainly white hippie movement in California celebrated the Summer of Love. The motives were completely different. The youth of the predominantly affluent population rebelled against the establishment and the Vietnam War.


The city of Detroit never recovered from these riots. Many of the whites moved to the suburbs and the city visibly decayed. In 1967, Detroit was the fourth largest city in the U.S.; in 2016, it ranked 21st. In 1960, Detroit had 1.6 million residents; in 2016, it still had 677,000.

I visited my brother Norbert in Dearborn, Michigan in the late 1990s, who was working for Ford at the time. From Dearborn toward Detroit, you drive for hours past abandoned houses with broken windows. The situation doesn't change much until you get to downtown Detroit.

At an intersection on the Detroit River, another world begins. There you drive along the Ford Estate, the residence of the Ford family. Rich and poor, with only a traffic light in between.

Ford Estate on Lake St. Claire.


Also in the house Tamla Motown it seethed. There was no agreement with the songwriters about the royalties and the number 1 hits became sparser. Also some of the studio musicians had health problems, mostly caused by alcohol and drugs.

Berry Gordy Jr. always urged his stars and musicians to stay out of civil rights cases. His music should always arrive for all races and walks of life.


In 1968 Marvin Gaye delivered a world hit.


On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

This was followed by riots in over 100 cities and again many people died.

Martin Luther King Jr. was buried by 50,000 people in Atlanta, Georgia.

The Supremes performed on the Tonight Show on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's death.

They sang the song 'Somewhere' from the musical Westside Story, obviously drawing attention to the divided nation.


From 1968, the blind artist Stevie Wonder delivered hit after hit.


The stars meanwhile also toured in Germany.

The Supremes in Munich.


Black musicians hardly delivered protest songs about the Vietnam War. The Temptations made an attempt with 'War'. This title brought Edwin Starr with a new recording into the hit parade in 1969. The music had become funkier and the studio musicians had adapted to the new times.


The big other race music producer was Atlantic Records in New York City.

Many of the black blues and jazz greats were signed here, but also, for example, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett.

A title by Wilson Pickett from 1968, for all those who thought the originators were the Blues Brothers.


In 1969, the Jackson Five had their breakthrough. The lead singer Michael Jackson was 11 years old at the time.

The title made it to number 1 on the US Billboard charts right away and became a big box office hit at Tamla Motown.


Between 1965 and 1969, the Temptations were number one on the U.S. R&B charts with ten albums in a row. In total, they reached the top there 17 times. Until well into the 1990s, the Temptations were listed as the most successful R&B artists worldwide.

The Temptations reached the peak in 1972 with this title, which went down in history.

The Funk Brothers had also reached their zenith.


In 1971, arguably one of the most insightful Vietnam War protest songs hit the market.


In 1972, the headquarters of the Tamla Motown factory was moved from Detroit to Los Angeles to enter the film business from there. Motown was involved in the film Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross, which was nominated for several Oscars. Also released were Mahogany, The Wiz, Thank God It's Friday, and The Last Dragon, among others, though these failed to match the huge success. Some of the Funk Brothers studio musicians left, new ones joined.

However, music continued to be produced.


When I played this single at Nikki's Club in Mellau in February 1975, it was clear to me that a new era had begun. Modern music with a super groove, with string and brass sections and velvety voices of the Three Degrees.

For the young people of the Bregenezrwald, it was not very far from the polka step to discofox.

When the ban on dancing for same-sex couples was lifted in New York in 1969 after the Stonewall Riots of gays and lesbians, and a new self-confidence also developed in the gay and lesbian scene, gay clubs and bars sprang up in the city, where the beginnings of the disco culture of the 1970s were to be found.

Disco comes from the Greek discos - meaning disc or record.

Disco is a style of pop music related to funk music, which became an independent musical genre around 1974. Lyrics, melody and vocals take a back seat in disco music; danceability, groove, a beat of about 100 to 120 beats per minute (bpm) and the mix are the main focus.


At that time, we were blessed with a lot of new black music from the USA. We danced to the titles of Barry White, Lou Rawls or the Tavares.

In 1976 I went to Lloret de Mar with my friend Manfred Robausch, by the way also with a VW Beetle, year of construction 1956.

As we stood on the dance floor at Moby Dick, the overture of Beethoven's Fifth suddenly sounded.


Thelma Houston was also signed to Tamla Motown. Her smash hit from 1977.


The Commodores were the drawing cards of the record label Tamla Motown in the 70s. This track is a masterpiece of the studio musicians.

Before Lionel Richie started his solo career, he was the lead singer of the Commodores.


Even soul stars who had already been drained came out of the woodwork again thanks to the disco wave. A very good example was Diana Ross.

One thing is certain. In our country, many people only became aware of the great black stars of the 60s through the disco wave of the 70s.


The Jackson Five left Tamla Motown in 1976, and so Berry Gordy could no longer share in Michael Jackson's financial glory.

From the mid-1980s onward, the company continuously incurred losses, and in June 1988 Gordy was forced to sell his life's work to MCA/Universal and Boston Ventures for $61 million.


As always, the best comes at the end.

The Funk Brothers received late and for some studio musicians posthumous recognition of their achievements.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown is an American documentary film released in 2002. It covers the story of a group of studio musicians called The Funk Brothers, who worked as a studio band for Motown, a Detroit soul record label, from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. Although the musicians recorded quite a few hits as the backing band for many famous soul artists, they themselves had remained largely unknown for a long time before that.

The film Standing in the Shadows of Motown was based on the book of the same name by "Dr. Licks" (a pseudonym of author Allan Slutsky), which won the 1989 Rolling Stone/Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award. The title of the book and film is a reference to the song Standing in the Shadows of Love, which had previously been recorded for the Motown label by soul artists The Four Tops and The Jackson Five, among others.

Filmed on original locations in Detroit (the "Motor Town" of the USA), the nearly two-hour film also shows photos and film footage of the musicians of The Funk Brothers who had died earlier, as well as excerpts from a concert of the group with singers such as Chaka Khan, Ben Harper, Bootsy Collins, Montell Jordan, Joan Osborne or Gerald Levert. During this live performance, all the great Motown hits that members of the studio band had participated in were performed again by them.

The film also documents what each musician contributed to which song.

The Funk Brothers had recorded more No. 1 hits as a band than the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley and the Beach Boys combined.

The film took more than ten years to shoot. Following a similar pattern to the film Buena Vista Social Club, this documentary brought longtime Motown studio musicians Earl Van Dyke, Joe Hunter, Johnny Griffith, Eddie Willis, Joe Messina, Robert White, William Benjamin, Uriel Jones, Richard Allen, James Jamerson, Bob Babbitt, Jack Ashford Bass and Eddie Brown to the attention of a wider music audience for the first time.

Film Trailer.

The film is absolutely recommended and a treat for anyone interested in music.


By the way: The fate of the Motown studio musicians was shared by almost all studio musicians, including the whites. The Funk Brothers' peculiarity, however, was that they had already composed and recorded most of the songs before the lyrics and singers were put to work.

The racial problem in the U.S. is as evident today as it was then, and so is police brutality against the black population.


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Klaus Riezler.

My little Bar in Austria in a basement from 1685.



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