[21 August 2008]
The great musicians who labor behind the stars are likely to be unknown, as we all know. That was the point of Standing In the Shadows of Motown, the documentary that brought to the forefront “The Funk Brothers”, the brilliant, shifting band of musicians who truly created the Motown sound by laying down such incredible grooves behind Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, and so many others.
In the 1970s, there was a group in New York that played a similar role, if in a less concentrated way. They played on hundreds of record dates and made a thousand gigs with biggest artist of that era. Folks like Paul Simon and Joe Cocker relied on these guys to give their music its urge. And, like The Funk Brothers, when they weren’t in the studios or supporting a legend, they were on their own.
In this case, the band had a name and made some records. They were simply called “Stuff”: Gordon Edwards on bass, Cornell Dupree and Eric Gale on guitars, Richard Tee on piano, and Steve Gadd on drums. And they were the groovingest band in the land for some time.
This DVD captures the only known video footage of Stuff in concert on their own, in this case at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976. Though they are briefly joined by the singer Odetta on “Oh, Happy Day”, this is mostly just the band, playing their own grooves and some rock and soul standards of the day. There are guitar and piano solos, sure, but this is not “jazz” in any real sense. This is pure gospel-pumped soul music that happens to be instrumental. It is pure groove for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It is ecstasy.
Music fans who don’t know the band as such surely know a player or two. Gadd has wound up the most famous, a drumming legend who has made technique videos and whose particular grooves are singularly famous. His beat for Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” is indelible, and his fills on Steely Dan’s “Aja” are more famous than Paris Hilton. Despite this, however, Gadd is hardly the dominant force in Stuff. The engine of the band is more like Richard Tee on piano, who gooses every song with his distinctive gospel voicings and percussive attack.
Tee is not the star of the band—Stuff had no star—but he is the flavor that sits most distinctly on the tongue. Even when he is not soloing or playing the melody, it is his groove that creates the most push-and-pull. The opener “Foots” is locked down by Gadd’s and Edwards’ pocket, and it constitutes a duet between Gale and Dupree. But the barrelhouse gospel of Tee is the chili powder in the dish. It’s no coincidence that his showcase comes on the tune “Stuff’s Stuff”, where he plays with just Gadd behind him, whipping up enough rhythmic intensity to devour most bands.
Which is not to give short shrift to the fire and ice of Dupree and Gale. Dupree plays stinging Telecaster while Gale plays a relatively clean hollow-body, and they are almost continually coiling around each other, with neither player dominating. This is the opposite of Guitar God playing—each plays in concise but killer bursts, using elements of jazz harmony but mostly staying within blues and soul conventions. They can each be economical, what with the rhythmic support of the band being impeccable. Their natural feel for great soul songs like “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” makes it seem like Stevie Wonder’s voice just isn’t necessary, if you can believe it.
Generally, Stuff gets away with a generous dose of cover tunes. Their groove is so fine that there’s little if any sense that these are cheesy instrumental fluff versions of great soul songs. Indeed, their version of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World” is entirely more funky than the original, with a dollop of N’Awlins feeling that Maurice White himself could not match. “Feelin’ Alright” barely nods at the original, just launching Stuff on a long groove. “You Are So Beautiful” also makes an appearance, as the band was backing up Joe Cocker during 1976. It’s a bit more conventional, perhaps, but Dupree’s lead is a pure lullaby. “Boogie on Reggae Woman” simply hops with feeling, and you have to thank Edwards’ rock solid bottom. It also leads into a brilliant Gadd solo that is simple at first and then increasingly knotty.
It’s in transforming these familiar tunes that the group seems most like a jazz band, perhaps. Every well-known pop song becomes “Stuff stuff” under the band’s treatment—each melody seems like little more than a skeleton on which the quintet places its own sense of style. The essence of that style is church music. It is, of course, a truism that American pop music is simply gospel music about the body rather than the soul. But Stuff makes the connection unusually clear. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is often called “The Negro National Anthem”—a hymn for hope, liberty and faith—and Stuff gives it equal parts reverence and sexiness. Tee punches his sanctified chords with joy, and Dupree just gets nasty with it. You wish that Ray Charles had been there to approve.
Instead, the guest is Odetta, who knows a thing or two about spirituals. She lays “Oh, Happy Day” over the “Lift Every Voice” groove, and it’s a nice moment. But after a few choruses, Tee takes over again and Odetta simply seems out of place, the fifth (or in this case, sixth) wheel, the uninvited guest. She is, ultimately, irrelevant. The groove is all that matters here, and the group slides into something called “Ode to Stuff”, giving you a clear understanding of what is really being celebrated here.
It’s not that Tee, Dupree, Gale, Edwards, and Gadd are selfish—quite the opposite. It’s that on this day, the Holy Grail was simply the groove itself. And that is what the DVD ultimately places front and center: just a band grooving like mad, not even stopping between tunes. The production values are fine, if nothing spectacular. There are no “extras”, no interviews, no other business to get in the way of the music. Two essays on the inside of the box (one by Edwards, the band’s founder and leader of a sort, the other by a huge fan who owned a copy of the concert on VHS) give you some context, and that’s enough. (The only thing you might want to know: the “Do It Again” that ends the concert is not the Steely Dan song that topped the charts a few years earlier.)
Bands of any kind who really want to Lock In should watch this recording. Groove 101. Glorious