‘White Jewish kid’ Slutsky obsessed over every single RECORDED note

Jewish Telegraph, July 2003

AUTHOR Allan Slutsky says writing the story of Motown was a form of ‘tzedakah’ (charity).
Slutsky’s book was used as the basis for new documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown — for which he is a producer and music supervisor.
He says: ‘‘From a very young age I worked with my father. I was always around black people way more than the average white kid was.
‘‘In Philadelphia, there were always a lot of Jewish businessmen working in the ghetto. They had variety stores, clothing stores. My father was in the cigarette-vending business. The mob controlled all the ‘good’ neighbourhoods. My father, being an independent, had to go into the worst parts of the city to do his business.
‘‘The mob didn’t want any part of that. It was too dangerous. But there was a history in my family of a lot of interaction with African-Americans. My grandparents were very, very religious. And my father was always willing to help people out. In the Jewish religion, it’s called tzedakah.
‘‘I don’t think that I was consciously thinking about that, but it was the way I was raised. My parents did a good job on that end.’’
He adds: ‘‘Really, the film has to make a $10-million profit just for me to break even. I knew I probably wasn’t going to make money on this. It was more an affair of the heart.’’
One of Slutsky’s roles in the film was re-teaching the Funk Brothers — who played on most of the Motown classics — the songs.
‘‘It’s kind of arrogant to think that I’m going to teach these masters. But the way that they had always approached their music, it was like disposable music,’’ he said.
‘‘They each went in, played, got a cheque and split. They didn’t sit there — like this white Jewish kid — to obsess on every note. They played it, and it was on to the next tune.’’
Standing in the Shadows of Motown is released in cinemas by Momentum Pictures on July 25.
The film was directed by Paul Justman and co-produced by Sandy Passman.
‘‘As far as the Jewish connection between me, Paul and Sandy: When we were trying to come up with a management name, we would sometimes kid around and jokingly call ourselves ‘Three Jews Management’ or — you know the old Louis Jordan song Five Guys Named Moe? — we thought about calling ourselves ‘Three Guys Named Moishe’,’’ Slutsky added.
The author’s love of Motown can be traced back to his performing at simchot.
He said: ‘‘In addition to everything else I’ve done, I’ve probably played 2,000 Jewish weddings and barmitzvot. I’ve played these songs over, and over, and over, and over.
‘‘Every barmitzvah band has its obligatory Motown medley. It’s all part of my background.’’
Slutsky, 50, joined a band called The Majestics when he was 15. He says: ‘‘I was the lone white, Jewish guy in an all-black band, which was kind of crazy at the time because all my friends were into rock, you know, Hendrix and The Who.’’
Slutsky’s book won the Rolling Stone-Ralph J Gleason Award for Book of the Year in 1989. But it took him more than 1,000 pitches to get a film made.
He said: ‘‘We got close a few times. But I was a pretty angry guy. Do you know the story about how Schindler’s List got made? There was a tailor in LA and he would pitch the story to every movie type who came into his place. No one was interested until one day Steven Spielberg walked in.
‘‘Obviously, Motown is not at the level of the Holocaust, but I knew I had an unbelievable story and I couldn’t get anyone to listen to me. From hanging out in South Philly, I got a bit of what they call ‘Italian Alzheimer’s disease’: You forget everything but a grudge. So I used anger as a motivating force.
‘‘The level of disrespect shown to these guys! These guys created such monumental stuff and nobody would give them a break.’’

Jewish Telegraph deputy editor and arts editor. Email Mcohen@jewishtelegraph.com with your Jewish arts stories