Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Capitol Fourth: Motown on The Mall

In Washington, D.C., when someone says, "Bring in da funk, bring in da noise!" it usually just means Congress is back in session. But this Fourth of July weekend, when the people took over the mall for fireworks and the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival, it was the real thing. This year's tribute to Rhythm and Blues featured some founding fathers (and mothers) of the modern music era. For me the main attraction was The Funk Brothers, another group of studio musicians who have shed the phrase "back-up" and become their own act, show band and even documentary film (with award-winning sound track).
Assembled in Detroit's Motown studios starting in 1959 they played for everyone that Berry Gordy invented or produced: The Temptations, Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, Jackson Five, Marvin Gaye, Four Tops, et al. They were introduced as having played on more # 1 hits than the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys combined. Numbers aside, the music they created has become part of our cultural DNA, from 45s to film soundtracks to television commercials. All they had to do was to hit the opening chords to "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and the packed tent ooohhed and aaahed in anticipation of listening pleasure. The dance floor was jammed for hit after hit, from "Heat Wave" to "Dancing In The Street" and even audience tryouts for "My Girl" solos because everyone knows those lyrics.
Watching tourists and baby boomers boogieing in the 94-degree heat made me wonder if the Park Police had some ambulances idling nearby because "there aint no party like a Funk Brothers Party cause a Funk Brothers Party don't stop."

Earlier we caught a set by the legendary doo-wop group, Sonny Til's Orioles. There are no original members left from the Baltimore days but this group would make the founders proud the way they carry the musical mantle of being the "first" R & B vocal group. Dressed in matching light blue leisure suits (a basic jumpsuit-pajama style that seemed appropriate for a hot July day) they sported gray beards and bald heads. But when they launched into the Orioles first hit, "It's Too Soon To Know," recorded in 1948, it gave new meaning to the word ageless. It was as if their bodies had changed around their voices which still sounded as fresh and young as we all once were. They too had us up dancing with hits like "Baby Please Don't Go," "Mother-in-Law" and "Crying in the Chapel." Their show ranged from a song written during World War II, "Why Don't You Write Me" to Michael Jackson's "I'll Be There."

We also sampled a few songs by Shirley Jones and the Jones Girls and Nat Dove and we stuck around for a glimpse of Swamp Dog (aka Jerry Williams) a Virginia native who quit his job as an A&R man for Atlantic records (Patti Labelle, the Drifters and Gary U.S. Bonds) for a solo career that produced what The Washington Post called "the fiercest, funkiest album the world still has never heard," Total Destruction To Your Mind. The title track opens with these lines:

Sitting on a cornflake
Riding on a rollerskate
Too late to hesitate or even meditate.
Always looking up what's down,
They've come to get me from the lost and found.
But believe me I'm feelin fine
To the world I toast some wine,
I do total destruction to your mind, mind, mind.

Swamp Dogg did not disappoint, appearing in a velour suit the color of lime green sherbet with matching fedora and tie.

It was great day for listening to music that not only made history but made you tap your feet and smile.

1 comment:

  1. Good for you two old kids getting funky in the tent.
    Your opening line is a classic!
    Nice fashion notes too. Thanks.