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The man from Motown

Wilson Williams was one of the last performers to sing the Motown sound. His 1978 album Up the Downstairs was backed by the largely forgotten band of virtuosos known as the Funk Brothers.

Wilson Williams was one of the last performers to sing the Motown sound.

His 1978 album Up the Downstairs was backed by the largely forgotten band of virtuosos known as the Funk Brothers, who recorded on almost every major Motown hit before they dispersed soon after.

You’d think someone who had a final glimpse into one of the greatest recording eras in history would be tired of being prodded to tell his stories.

But not Williams.

Sitting comfortable among the guitars, drum kits and saxophones hanging around Mark and Paddy’s Wondrous Music Emporium on Wednesday, Williams wants you to step into history.

“It was electric,” says Williams, when asked what the bustling Detroit of the era was like.

“Have you ever been to Vegas?” he asks.

He spreads his arms out to his sides.

“When you walk in Vegas, you feel like money is getting ready to jump off the buildings,” he says.

He pulls his arms back in.

“And it’s like it’s about to jump on you.

“That’s what Detroit felt like.

“It was magic ... it was way magic.”

Williams arrived in Detroit in the 1960s amidst throngs of musicians seeking glory.

“I had an album with me when I got there already, so I got lucky,” he says.

“But other than that, I would have been one salmon egg in a whole river.”

Artists could make millions of dollars selling Motown albums, but still make barely a blip in history.

“Anybody heard of Melvin Davis? Ever heard the name?” Williams asks the room.

“He sold millions and you would never have heard of him.”

Motown records even had spies to follow its studio musicians around to see if they were playing with other labels.

If you were caught, you were fired.

“But it depended on who you were,” said Williams.

“If you were Earl Van Dyke, you couldn’t get fired,” he said, citing one of the Funk Brothers’ legendary keyboardists.

When you think of Motown, you probably think of a variety of artists - Martha Reeves, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross, just to name a few.

But nearly every Motown hit you know, from Heard it Through the Grapevine to Dancing in the Street, had the same dozen or so artists, known as the Funk Brothers, playing the instruments.

The brothers, such as “the greatest bassist who ever lived” James Jamerson and keyboardist Joe Hunter, were the men who invented the music behind those famous voices.

“They would go down to the basement room and play music for 12 to 14 hours a day for years,” says Patrick Singh, the music emporium’s owner and the drummer for Williams’ busy tour through the Yukon.

“That ain’t all they did,” says Williams.

“They left for showbars and then played again after that.”

The unrecognized legacy of the Funk Brothers, retold in the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadow of Motown, speaks to the elusive search for a definition of what made Motown so popular.

“People will ask, ‘What is the Motown sound?” says Paul Riser, a Motown arranger and producer, in the film.

The magic of soul music has often led people to look for lofty and complicated answers to the question; was it the production methods, or the spirit of the times?

“They’ve asked producers, they’ve asked executives from Motown,” says Riser.

“And, really, it was the musicians.”

While more than a dozen men would work as the Funk Brothers, they always covered the same instruments, says Williams.

“Essentially, it would consist of two guitars, two keyboards, a bass and drums - that was the rhythm section, and that was those guys,” he says.

“The question was: did they have a certain knowledge of how that stuff was supposed to go? I wish I could tell you.”

Williams was blown away by their ability to reach each other’s playing with minimal practice.

In the studio, they were given a lead sheet with just the chords on it, without specific notes.

“Dave (Van Depitte, one of the producers) counted it off and they started playing it like they had been playing that for 10 years, and it was brand new to them,” says Williams.

“So, did they have a finger on that pulse? Yeah. Yeah, they did.”

The unmistakably happy sound of Motown evolved into what it was because of audiences’ tastes, he says.

“Music is pretty much a means to achieve a state of mind, if you will,” he says.

“If I’m sad and I want to get lifted, I’ll go and play some upbeat stuff.

“But, for my generation anyway, it’s stuff that had lyrical content that I wanted to hear.”

“The songs are saying something.

“Besides having a beat - the songs are saying something.”

After Motown, Williams would join the Platters, who had hits like Only You and The Great Pretender in the 1950s.

They were a Vegas act when Williams joined, and he became the new lead vocalist.

“The dynamics changed because I changed them,” he says. “I do different stuff.”

On his Platters tours, Williams gets a lot of older fans.

“But because of oldies radio, there are some younger folks there,” he says.

While in Yukon, Williams will play with Singh on drums, Andrew Thompson on bass, Annie Avery on piano and Hammond B3, Bob Hamilton on guitar, Cathy Craig on backup vocals and Fred Osson on saxophone.

They played Foxy’s cabaret last night and will continue tonight, Saturday and Sunday.

They follow that with shows in Atlin on December 12, Haines Junction on the 14, and Dawson City on December 16.

The crew are ready to bring Yukoners back to the golden era of Motown, says Williams.

“We want to go back there,” he says.

“It might be 90 minutes, it might be two hours, it might end up being three, if we start going crazy.

“Whether you like it or not, we’re going to give it to you,” he said.

Tickets are available for $15 at Mark and Paddy’s Wondrous Music Emporium. Call 456-2480 for details.

Contact James Munson at