Let’s Hear It For The Band

I’ve always been fortunate and humbled to have some of Detroit’s finest musicians in my bands, and my latest ensemble continues that trend.

This versatile and talented group of cats bring a diversity of experience and musical sensibilities to the table.

They deserve a special shout out.

Let’s start with the quarterback. Weighing in on 4-string and 5-string vintage axes, groove monster Chris Spooner plays some mean, pocket heavy bass guitar. Spoon has been laying down the bottom in a number of Motor City soul, funk, blues and rock bands like YOU, Detroit City Council, The Saints of Soul, and Detroit’s Mayor of the Blues, Paul Miles.

Spoon says his favorite bass player is drummer Steve Ferrone (Average White Band, Duran Duran, Chaka Khan), and he is a loving husband and father of two beautiful daughters.

Tate McBroom is best known around these parts as the drummer and leader of The Gorilla Funk Mob, THE go-to backing band for Michigan’s best hip hop artists. The Mob has supported a who’s who of Detroit hip hop and soul artists – Slum Village, Athletic Mic League, Invincible, One Be Lo, Finale, Monica Blaire and jazz great Allan Barnes, just to name a few. [Read more…]

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Ambassador Mag Round Table: Detroit Rock City

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Originally Published in Ambassador Magazine May/June 2010

Next time you travel beyond Michigan’s mitten, stop a stranger and ask what he thinks about when you say “Detroit.” Most likely, you’ll get one of two answers: “The Motor City” or “Motown.”

The traditions run deep. This is an industry town, and its two most celebrated commodities are cars and music.

While the automotive business has taken a beating over the past few years, Detroit’s music industry is celebrating something of a creative renaissance. Armed with an arsenal of new technology and girded with Detroit’s trademark, “never say die” spirit, area musicians are lighting the path through uncertain economic times and succeeding on their own terms.

Young artists like Invincible, My Dear Disco, One Be Lo, Hot Club of Detroit, and Monica Blaire carry a longstanding tradition into the new millennium. They follow icons like Kid Rock, Amp Fiddler, Carl Craig, J Dilla, and The Dirt Bombs. Before them it was The Romantics, Awesome Dre, Alice Cooper, and Anita Baker.

What is it about this town? How does Detroit produce so many amazing artists with the same clockwork precision that new model cars roll off Big Three assembly lines?

For this month’s edition of Ambassador’s roundtable, we assembled a group of Detroit music industry veterans whose careers were molded in the city’s clubs and studios. The gathering took place at Harmonie Park Studios, where since 1996, partners and brothers Mark and Brian Pastoria have hosted music royalty – Aretha Franklin, George Clinton, Eminem, Grand Funk Railroad – and some of the region’s most powerful brands – DTE, The Tigers, The Red Wings, and Rock Financial. In fact, Mark picked up a couple of Grammys along the way for his work with Queen Aretha.

Ambassador publisher Denise Ilitch kicked off our discussion by invoking the most hallowed of Detroit music legends, Motown. 2009 witnessed the 50th anniversary of the music empire that began on West Grand Boulevard, and went on to change popular culture throughout the world. “How has Motown influenced your music, your aspirations?” Ilitch asked.

“I don’t think you can get away from the tradition of Motown, and I don’t think you want to,” replied noted blue-eyed soul singer/songwriter Stewart Francke, who so reveres the label’s sound that he hired The Funk Brothers, members of Motown’s house band, to record several songs on his 2005 album Motor City Serenade. “I think the tradition is so powerful and so enduring, that you want to remain within the influence of it musically, traditionally, historically.”

bones_edwardsAlthough Jimmie Bones spends much of his time playing rock and roll keyboards for Kid Rock and Uncle Kracker, he says, “not only Motown, but all of the soul labels, Stax, Volt, whatever… It’s religion to me.” Bones confesses that when he isn’t playing music or learning new songs, he listens to old soul music and rock bands like The Faces and The Rolling Stones who were inspired by it.

Harmonie Park partner, Brian Pastoria, notes that The Beatles so loved the label that they recorded three Motown hits for one of their earliest albums. Pastoria is not only impressed with the music created at Hitsville, but also with how Berry Gordy structured his hit making assembly line.

“The focus was on the producers and writers,” Pastoria says. “I think they felt like they could make stars out of anybody if they had the right songs and the right records.”

Jim Edwards, who has done everything on the Detroit music scene from being a roadie, to running his own label, is currently lead singer for Detroit rockers, The Hell Drivers. He stresses that great songwriting was an important part of the Motown system, and he studies the label’s hits to understand the finer points of song structure. “It’s like going to school every time you listen to those records.”

johnnybeeAnother Hell Driver, drummer Johnny Bee, witnessed that Motown artistry first hand. Bee provided the backbeat for Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels, a band that scored a top five hit of their own in 1966 with “Devil With A Blue Dress On.” The Wheels often shared the bill with their Motown heroes, and Bee took it all in.

“We started off as little kids, 12 or 13, playing on TV shows with Stevie Wonder, and the Temptations,” Bee recalls. “They kind of took us under their wings.“

Bee remembers playing college shows where Ryder and The Wheels would open for a red-suited Marvin Gaye. “Everything was learning, just watching his every move, and how they were schooling everybody at Motown. It was everything – the songwriting, the music, the choreography… You’ll never see anything like that again, EVER!”

So perhaps what makes Detroit music so great is both learning from the best and the pressure of living up to the legacy. And though Hitsville affected the entire city, the heritage reaches beyond Motown.

Francke explains that there were twin traditions that grew up side by side in Detroit – black soul music, with Motown and the other labels that sprang up in Gordy’s wake, and white rock and roll, epitomized by Mitch Ryder, and the MC5. The musicians would watch and learn, compliment and comment on each other.

Francke cites the MC5 classic, “Kick Out The Jams.” “The end of that [lyric] is, ‘or we’ll find someone who will.’ ”He says there’s a certain way you do things. Do it till you drop. Don’t fake it. Look and dress sharp. “There’s a certain ethos to this place, and it affected the world. It still does.”

Detroit music is high quality. In the past, excellent music programs in the public schools bred world-class musicians. With the current state of area school budgets, this truth is now debatable. But it is certain that Detroit audiences expect a lot from the city’s entertainers.

“Detroit’s a town of hard-working people,” Johnny Bee says. “They work hard and they party hard. When they go out they want to see good music.”

“It’s almost like the DNA that was set by Motown is culturally embedded in the community of Detroit,” says Bill Evo, who isn’t a musician, but an attorney, former pro hockey player, past president of the Detroit Red Wings, and a strategic consultant for Harmonie Park. He believes that non-musicians in Detroit – the fans – don’t understand how sophisticated their musical taste is. There is so much stellar music around the city, it can be easily taken for granted.

Artist manager Steven Sowers used to own a nightclub that represented all that was great about Detroit. The Motor Lounge took its name from Detroit’s other famous industry, but on any given night, patrons at the Hamtramck bar would hear the city’s best sounds in its many varied genres. Sowers says that music is such a part of the spirit and culture of the city, that whenever a young Detroiter demonstrates a spark of talent, someone is there to help. “That’s one thing I’ve seen,” Sowers says. “When somebody shows an interest, there’s always someone there to grab them, help them along, and encourage them. I don’t know if that happens in other cities, but it sure does here.”

Juan Atkins emphasizes another important aspect of Detroit’s musical community. Atkins is the “Godfather of Techno,” a title he earned as the first to develop the Detroit-born sound that bangs from speakers in dance clubs all over the world. Juan Atkins, along with his Belleville High School friends, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, is one of “the Belleville Three,” the holy trinity credited with founding what later came to be known as techno music.

juan_sowers“Detroit is not a really big city like New York or LA, so all the musicians know each other, and it’s a close knit community,” says Atkins whose independent label, Metroplex Records, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

“There’s a friendly competition.” Because all the artists compete with each other in a friendly way, the quality of the music is raised to a higher level. “It’s a respectful competitiveness,” Brian Pastoria explains. He saw it at Harmonie Park while recording Christmas in Detroit, an annual all-star holiday album the studio produces to benefit S.A.Y. Detroit (Super All Year Detroit), a non-profit charity that improves the lives of homeless people.

There were many artists who donated their time and talent for the cause, but the friendly competition pushed each of them to greater heights. “Somebody would come in to do a song, and hear what the guy did the night before,” Brian says. “And it was like, ‘Wow! That was really killer!’ This set the bar higher forcing each artist to step his or her game up.“

In addition to the competition, Detroit musicians are not only willing, but are enthusiastic about collaborating with one another. “Everybody mixes together,” Bones says, “and we all kind of add our own little flavors to everybody else’s thing.”

All of these elements meld with Detroit’s blue-collar work ethic to inspire boundless creativity and originality.“It makes you want to try something new, build something from the ground up, and make it the best it can be,” Bones says.

“There’s a lot of soul here,” Johnny Bee interjects. “Buckets and trucks full of soul.” – Nadir Omowale

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