The Mel Brown B-3 Organ Group
The Mel Brown B-3 Organ Group, dubbed "Jimmy Mak's signature band" by The Oregonian, performed at the famed Pearl District jazz venue on Thursday nights for the club's entire twenty-year run. When George Benson heard the group, he said, "If this band played in New York City, they'd be a sensation!" The Oregonian's Kyle O'Brien described the band's unique style as, "the sound of spontaneity."
Sadly, Jimmy Mak's is no more due to Jimmy's untimely death from cancer on January 1, 2017--one day following the club's final show. But the Mel Brown B-3 Organ Group will continue to perform--hopefully at a re-opened Jimmy Mak's. Stay tuned to this website page or the Mel Brown B-3 Organ Group's page on Facebook for updates.
Past festival appearances include: the Mt Hood Jazz Festival, the PDX Jazz Festival, Jazz at Newport, the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival (with Phil Upchurch), the Britt Festival (opening for George Benson in '03 and for Mary Wilson in '07), the Bite of Portland (twice), the Rose Festival, Jazz in the Valley (four times), the Port Townsend Jazz Festival, Jazz & Oysters (twice), Jazz at the Oxford (twice), Vancouver Wine & Jazz, and more.
Here's a history of the band:
The Mel Brown B-3 Organ Group, called “Jimmy Mak’s signature band” by The Oregonian, performed on Thursday nights for 20 years at the noted Pearl District music venue. That’s a remarkably long run, but the band's roots extend back even further than its September 1997 debut at Jimmy Mak's.
In 1997, most Portland music fans were familiar with Mel Brown as the dean of Portland jazz drummers and for his earlier stint as a Motown staff drummer (working with the likes of Diana Ross, Martha Reeves, Smokey Robinson, and the Temptations). But before that, Mel had gigged around the NW with Billy Larkin & the Delegates, a funky organ group. (The band had a regional hit record, “The Pygmy,” which was covered by Booker T & the MG’s.) Similarly, in 1997 organist Louis “King Louie” Pain was known to Portlanders for his work with the great Portland blues/soul icons Paul deLay and Linda Hornbuckle (now sadly both deceased), but his roots were in the soul-jazz organ group genre. In the mid-seventies, back in his native Bay Area, Louis had cut his teeth playing in an organ group led by Bay Area sax legend Jules Broussard, who Mel had actually worked with a few years earlier.
Mel and Louis didn’t learn of this connection until they’d been playing together for some time. But when Brown first heard Pain in late ‘96, playing a soul-jazz organ group gig in Lake Oswego, that familiar sound got his imagination going. Later, when Mel sat down with Jimmy Mak and bartender JD Stubenberg to discuss what kind of music to bring into their new music venue, Mel thought of Louis and that funky, swinging organ group sound.
Choosing the rest of the band members for the Mel Brown B-3 Organ Group was easy. Mel’s musical right hand man, Florida-born trumpeter Thara Memory (a 2013 Grammy winner), had deep roots in soul-jazz. Guitarist Dan Faehnle, who played regularly with Mel and Thara, was a bluesy jazz player who had played in Louis’ Lake Oswego band. And saxophonist Renato Caranto was the most exciting and soulful young sax player in town.
Within a month of the group’s inaugural Jimmy Mak’s gig, customers were lining up down the block on Thursday nights. The band’s unrehearsed-yet-tight Hammond B-3-anchored style (featuring organ bass), dubbed “the sound of spontaneity” by The Oregonian, was something totally new to the young, hip Pearl District audiences. Adding to the coolness of the gig: mixed in with the young fans were some veterans of Portland’s ‘50s & ‘60s jump jazz scene--rooting the band on and, in the case of the late Sweet Baby James Benton, occasionally sitting in.
In a stroke of good timing, the club was launching just as the Pearl District was taking off, and Thursday nights at Jimmy Mak’s became a phenomenon. There was even a huge mural of the band on a building just across the river from the Pearl District. The excitement of those early years is captured in the group’s first CD, “Live At Jimmy Mak’s,” recorded in March, 1999. Memory, Faehnle, and Caranto exchange long, scorching solos, punctuated by improvised breaks & horn riffs and backed by Louis & Mel’s funky grooves. The material ranges from the Jimmy Smith bluesy jazz classic, “Back At the Chicken Shack,” to the smooth Philly Soul ballad, “Betcha By Golly Wow,” with a stop along the way for “The Pygmy.”
The group’s second CD, “Live At the Britt Festival,” was recorded in September, 2003. The group was opening for George Benson, with whom Mel had worked while living in New York in the ‘70s. Benson was all-out in his enthusiasm for the B-3 group, saying, "If this band played in New York City, they'd be a sensation!” By this time, Thara Memory had left the group, and Dan Balmer had replaced Dan Faehnle on guitar, but as the recording shows, the group had lost none of its fire.
Three years later, Jimmy Mak’s moved to new, fancier digs a half block away from its original location at the corner of NW 10th & Everett. Soon after the move, in June, 2006, the group recorded its third CD, the appropriately-titled “Smokin’ At Jimmy’s.” This was the group’s first recording with percussionist Curtis Craft. The CD captures the band’s evolving sound: still fiery & spontaneous, but with the improvised arrangements more cohesive and nuanced as a result of the group’s many years playing together.
In the ten years since the release of that recording, the beat has continued for the Mel Brown B-3 Organ Group. In addition to their regular Thursday gig, the band has played at the Mt Hood Jazz Festival, the PDX Jazz Festival, Jazz at Newport, the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival (with Phil Upchurch), the Britt Festival (opening for Mary Wilson the second time around), the Bite of Portland, the Rose Festival, Jazz in the Valley (3 times), the Port Townsend Jazz Festival, the Vancouver Jazz Festival, and Jazz at the Oxford (twice). The group has also backed Mel's former boss, the legendary Martha Reeves, at Jimmy Mak's on three occasions.
The group’s sound is no longer entirely unique in Portland; as early as the late ‘90s, young soul-jazz organ groups, inspired by Mel’s band, began to spring up. But what has always made the Mel Brown B-3 Organ Group special isn’t really its instrumentation or material: it’s the talent & soul of the band’s members, and their love of creating exciting music together “on the spot.” Audiences can’t get enough of it!
On November 14, 2013 and December 2, 2014, the band celebrated the sixteenth anniversary of its Thursday night Jimmy Mak's gig with a pair of special shows that were recorded live. In his rave review of the first of those shows, The Oregonian's David Greenwald wrote that the group's performances, "take a jazz blowtorch to pop history." On June 12, 2014, the band released not one but two exciting new CD's recorded at those gigs! The CD's are entitled, 16th Anniversary, Part 1: Ticket To Ride and 16th Anniversary Part 2: More Today Than Yesterday. The latter CD was reviewed by Downbeat Magazine in August, with reviewer Frank-John Hadley stating, "Something special occurs when this local quintet appears at Jimmy Mak's jazz club in Portland, OR." [see complete review below].
As part of the 2015 Portland Jazz Festival, the group backed the brilliant blind pianist/vocalist Joe McBride, and for the 2016 festival, the group teamed with heavyweight Chicago guitarist Henry Johnson for a tribute to Wes Montgomery.
The Mel Brown B-3 Organ Group recording live at Jimmy Mak's, 11-14-03
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From The Oregonian: a review of the performance captured on the band's two new recordings:
Live review: The Mel Brown B-3 Organ Group Brings Heat, Laughter to Anniversary Show
"You gotta give 'em an allowance!" The trumpeter sang-spoke with comic enthusiasm. "$5!"
In front of him, laughter. Around him, the Mel Brown B-3 Organ Group kept the blues humming. "Baby," Memory went on, "You gotta go to Walmart!"
There was an $8 cover charge on Thursday, but at any price, the concert was a bargain. The quintet, with Memory joining for their second set, has been playing together for 16 years, 7 of them at Jimmy Mak's current location, and their chemistry would impress Walter White.
The B-3 Organ Group's shows take a jazz blowtorch to pop history, and from "Moondance" to "House of the Rising Sun," no song went unscathed. "Don't hurt 'em, Mel!" someone called out as the bandleader finally allowed himself a long, raucous solo over an hour into the set. They opened with Leon Spencer's "Hip Shaker," the song turning to fireworks as saxophonist Renato Caranto and guitarist Dan Balmer reminded the crowd what they'd come for with back-to-back solos.
Sometimes the heat lessened: the band turned mellow on "My Girl," and Balmer led a quiet, romantic "Let's Get It On" with plucked chords. "That's fast," Louis Pain, anchoring the evening on the B-3, said as they opened "Let It Be," the second Beatles song of the night, and they started again. Announced guest "Sweet Baby" James was feeling under the weather and missed the gig, but Memory (an original member of the group) was a lively presence on vocals and trumpet in the second set, as was percussionist Curtis Craft, who took the opportunity to showcase his extensive kit.
But it was hard not to linger on Brown, whose face was fixed in a smile through most of the night. The man's earned it: perhaps he was moved by the anniversary, or the knowledge that the band was recording the set for a live album. Or, in his third show of the week, the schedule he keeps every week, he was just having fun.
-- David Greenwald
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The following review of "More Today Than Yesterday" (16th Anniversary, Vol. 2) appeared in the August, 2014 issue of Downbeat:
Something special happens when this local quintet appears at Jimmy Mak’s jazz club in Portland, OR. Playing “Hip Shaker” and “House of the Rising Sun,” saxophonist Renato Caranto works himself into a state of wild excitement worthy of a honking tenorman walking the bar in R&B’s golden age. On the aforementioned and most of the other well-played songs, drummer Mel Brown, guitarist Dan Balmer and swinging organ player Louis Pain evince a more temperate but equally convincing affinity for the blues.
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The following review of the band's two new CDs, written by Jessica Rand, appeared in the June, 2014 issue of Jazz Scene, published by the Oregon Jazz Society:
“If this band played in New York City, they’d be a sensation!” These are words from legendary jazz guitarist George Benson, describing Portland’s long running soul-jazz outfit, the Mel Brown B3 Organ Group.
In 1997, the group began their long-running weekly performance at Jimmy Mak’s, Portland’s premier jazz club. When Jimmy Mak’s moved locations in 2006, the band followed and have now been performing as the house band for more than 16 years.
The band plays fiery soul-jazz, but the fire lies less in the style of music they choose to play, and more in the hearts of the talent who play it. Drummer Mel Brown heard Louis Pain’s scorching Hammond B3, and during a meeting with Jimmy Mak, they hand-picked the rest of the original members: long-time trumpeter and educator, Thara Memory; guitarist Dan Faehlne; and the saxophonist Renato Caranto.
Since the early days, Curtis Craft has come on board as percussionist and Dan Balmer replaced Faehnle on guitar. This torching new jazz band took the up-and-coming Pearl district by storm, and they became a sensation!
The double-disc anniversary collection presents Thara Mem- ory as a special guest on these live Jimmy Mak’s performances. On “Ticket to Ride,” Memory gives a hilarious vocal performance, capturing his sass on “Five Dollah Blues,” a song about his trouble with women. Poor Thara, it’s a little over ten full minutes of trouble.
The rest of the album is mostly fiery soul-jazz covers of rock songs from the ‘60s through the ‘80s. They nail Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” (Google the original if you don’t remember, you definitely know it). They also cover Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean,” and two John Lennon/Paul McCartney songs, “Let it Be,” and a fiery version of “Ticket to Ride,” which opens the record. It’s fun and lighthearted, with tight playing.
The second volume focuses less on rock songs, and, al- though it still burns, it’s a little more like a constant simmer than a raging fire. The track that you’ll probably put on repeat is “Spooky,” a funky tune with Craft adding another layer on his percussion and Caranto’s saxophone up front and center. “Blues for J” is so straight-ahead it sounds like it’s on an out-of-print Prestige vinyl from the 60s.
These two records were both recorded during two Jimmy Mak’s performances at the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014. Both records burn, but “Ticket to Ride” is more focused on remakes of pop songs. Clearly in these last 16 years, these guys have mastered their crafts and hopefully will continue to be the house band at Jimmy Mak’s for another sixteen.
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This review of the group's second CD, "Live at the Britt Festival," appeared in The Oregonian on 3-19-04:
Band Member Bios
An Oregon icon, Mel Brown has been labeled the "Gentleman of Jazz," with a career spanning over forty years. The city of Portland proclaimed June 22, 1989 Mel Brown Day in recognition of Mel's achievements as a musician and educator, and he received the Governor's Arts Award in 2002. Mel is also a member of the Oregon Music Hall of Fame.
Mel first made his mark as a Motown staff drummer, recording and touring with Martha Reeves, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, and others. He subsequently spent ten years working with Diana Ross and other pop acts before giving up the road in 1991 and returning home to his first love: jazz. Mel has been a fixture in Portland ever since, leading different groups six nights each and every week at Jimmy Mak's and other venues. That's when he isn't recording, playing big band gigs, or backing top visiting jazz artists like Joey DeFrancesco and Benny Golson. And somehow, Mel keeps up this busy musical schedule while maintaining a day job as a tax accountant!
It’s been that way since Louis started playing professionally in his hometown of San Francisco back in 1970. Starting out in “Top 40” bands, Louis quickly graduated to playing in a variety of genres top Bay Area musicians, including funk guitarist Bruce Conte (Tower of Power), jazz saxophonist Jules Broussard (Ray Charles, Santana), gospel vocalist Dorothy Morrison (Edwin Hawkins Singers), and the late rock/jazz saxophonist Cornelius Bumpus (Doobie Bros & Steely Dan).
Since moving to Portland in ‘86, Louis has continued the trend, working with top Portland blues/soul artists including the late, great Paul deLay, Curtis Salgado, Lloyd Jones, and Linda Hornbuckle, as well as several jazz standouts, including members of the Mel Brown B-3 Organ Group and pianist Tom Grant. Louis also is the “first call” organist to back visiting musical legends, who have included Bernard “Pretty” Purdie,” Phil Upchurch, Martha Reeves, the Shirelles, and late musical giants Solomon Burke, Howard Tate, and Bo Diddley.
In addition to his work as a sideman, Louis has blossomed as a bandleader in Portland, co-leading King Louie & Baby James with legendary NW vocalist “Sweet Baby James” Benton and organizing a series of successful soul music tributes featuring the Portland Soul All-Stars. In late 2015, Louis teamed up with vocalist LaRhonda Steele to record a cd, "Rock Me Baby," which received raves from critics world-wide, including a 4-star review in Downbeat. Louis also has led bands for weddings and corporate gigs, becoming Nike’s go-to musical contractor along the way.
Dan Balmer has long been considered one of the finest guitarists, composers, and educators in the Northwest. In 2009, Dan became one of only five musicians to be honored with membership in both the Oregon Music Hall of Fame and the Jazz Society of Oregon Hall of Fame. He has been hailed by the Los Angeles Times as, “the model of what a contemporary guitarist should be.”
From 2005-2009 Dan recorded and toured the world with two-time Grammy winner Diane Schuur. Dan has appeared on over 80 CDs, including eight of his own which have received critical acclaim and international airplay. Dan’s music has been featured in movies and television shows both in the U.S. and overseas.
During the 1980’s and 90’s, Dan enjoyed a highly successful ten-year musical partnership with pianist Tom Grant that produced several chart-topping recordings, national tours, and huge popularity around the Northwest.
Perhaps Dan’s greatest asset is his versatility. He has done recording sessions in numerous genres, including jazz, country, rock, and blues. His playing is requested by band leaders in all jazz styles, from traditional swinging jazz to fusion to soul to funk to free.
Dan has performed with a long list of jazz greats including Joey DeFrancesco, Benny Green, Steve Smith. Airto, Bruce Forman, Houston Person, Jeff Hamilton, Bill Mays, Gerald Wilson, Eric Alexander, and Pat Martino.
Renato Caranto arrived in the U.S. From his native Philippines with no possessions save a suitcase full of clothes and his horn. After touring the West Coast for a decade with a Philippine Top 40 band, Renato settled in Portland in 1992 and began playing the kind of music he loved: blues, soul, & jazz. Soon he was recognized as the best blues sax player around, winning the Cascade Blues Association's award for best saxophonist in '94, '95, '97, and '98. But jazz was Renato's true passion, and he never stopped studying and practicing with the goal of breaking into Portland's jazz scene.
Gradually, Renato began playing more jazz gigs and recording sessions, appearing with top Portland players including Mel Brown and Thara Memory. (Along with Louis Pain, Renato is a charter member of the popular Thursday night band, the Mel Brown B-3 Organ Group). After a flirtation with smooth jazz on his first CD, Renato's aptly titled 2001 release, “Straight Ahead,” announced his transition to blues-rooted modern jazz. In publicizing the release of that recording, The Oregonian called Renato “one of Portland's most soulful jazz saxophonists.” All the hard work had paid off.
Renato is now in constant demand, picking and choosing the projects he wants to participate in. Among his favorites: King Louie & Baby James . Renato's late father was a sax player from James' generation, and Renato loves nothing better than to enter the "Way-Back Machine" and play in his dad's style behind James' crooning vocals!
In 2013, Renato toured the world with Grammy-winning artist Esperanza Spalding. And--demonstrating Renato's remarkable versatility--he recorded and toured with country music legend Merle Haggard from 2014 until Haggard's passing in 2016. More recently, Renato has toured with Haggard's son, Ben Haggard.
Curtis Craft--like Louis Pain, a Bay Area transplant--first made his mark on the Portland scene playing with internationally-renowned smooth jazz pianist & composer Tom Grant (whom Dan Balmer had also worked with). Since then, Curtis has performed with several other top Portland groups. Curtis displays a knack for playing just the right thing at the right time--drawing colorful sounds from a wide variety of percussion instruments.
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The poem below was published in the Cider Press Review, a prestigious poetry publication. The subject? The Mel Brown B-3 Organ Group's performances on Thursday nights at Jimmy Mak's back in the day!
Below is a recent photo of the band, taken during their special, sold out 12-28-14 appearance at Bend, OR's Jazz at the Oxford series. (The booking violated one of promoter Marshall Glickman's cardinal rules: never book the same act twice!)
Mel Brown B-3 Organ Group promotional flyer, available on request:
Modern Drummer, April 2017
What Do You Know About…Mel Brown?
Brown in the ’70s
Portland, Oregon, gave a young child the gift of music. The kid took that gift with him to Detroit, and proceeded to elevate the music of some of the greatest performers of all time. Back home, he’s repaid the debt in full, providing the city’s nightlife with endless hours of feel-good grooves and sharing with its up-and-coming musicians the same lessons that took him so far, all those years ago.
He’s not touring the world anymore, but life is good for Mel Brown. “I’m very blessed,” the drummer says, “because I can play five nights a week—and play five different ways.” Brown worked as a Motown drummer in the 1960s and ’70s, recording and touring with Martha and the Vandellas, Diana Ross, the Temptations, the Spinners, the Four Tops, and the Miracles. After that heady time, he returned to his hometown of Portland, Oregon, and became the spark for that city’s jazz revival, fronting bands in the styles of Art Blakey, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Philly Joe Jones, and Bernard Purdie.
The Mel Brown B-3 Organ Group, featuring Louis Pain, recently celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Portland’s jazz hub, Jimmy Mak’s. The group nailed soulful takes of “I’ll Be There,” “House of the Rising Sun,” “Watermelon Man,” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Getaway,” and the drummer took his funk seriously too. A series of anniversary recordings from the club, as well as Brown’s 2000 release, Mr. Groove, attest to Mel’s wide-ranging skills.
It’s not a stretch to say that Brown’s experience playing for some of the world’s greatest R&B singers has served him well in his career, even in instrumental situations. “Drummers need to learn to hum or sing the tune, kind of get a feel of what’s going on,” Brown says. “The best way to play a tune and make it feel good is to think like a singer. A singer has to take a breath sometimes, so when you’re playing a tune, leave space for somebody else to play. You’ve got to know when to play and when not to, and to play real simple and steady.”
Brown learned important musical lessons early. As a boy he delivered the morning paper through Portland’s “jazz district.” Sometimes the clubs’ shows would just be ending as he was riding by. “This is like six o’clock in the morning,” the drummer recalls. “The doors would open up and I could see guys playing inside. Back then there were shows with strip dancers and comedians and tap dancers and all kinds of things going on. There were also a lot of musicians that lived in my neighborhood, and I could hear them practicing during the day, so I was around a lot of music.”
Much of that music was jazz. “We called it jazz,” Brown says, “but it was also an entertaining thing. People would go out and dance, and that’s where you learn to play a groove. ‘This is a shuffle,’ or ‘Give me a backbeat on this one,’ or ‘This is a ballad.’ You learned to be part of a group. You weren’t saying, ‘Hey, look at me—I’m an outstanding player.’ You said, ‘Hey, listen, what tune is this? And how can I make it sound good?’”
Later Brown was mentored by Portland trumpeter Bobby Bradford and trombonist Cleve Williams. “I’d get home after high school,” Mel remembers, “and guys would say, ‘Hey, man, come by the house and sit down and listen to this record. Listen to the way Sam Woodyard is playing with Duke Ellington, and the way that Sonny Payne is playing with Count Basie, so you know how to set up figures.’ When a horn player is getting ready to come in and make their shout, the good drummers will play a fill for a bar or two, or maybe half a bar. You could feel something coming up because of their fill, and it was always a big help for the horn players. I was always a good reader, but I had learned how to set things up. You know, if you’re doing ‘Satin Doll,’ you do a bar of triplets, snare and floor tom, building it up.”
In high school Brown performed with the Portland Junior Symphony, and while studying at Portland State University he played local jazz clubs with Billy Larkin and the Delegates. One summer the band took some gigs in L.A., where Brown met the legendary Miles Davis drummer Philly Joe Jones and immediately asked for lessons. “I wanted to have the drive like Art Blakey,” Brown recalls, “but a clean sound like Max Roach—the musical sound. And I wanted some of the smoothness like Philly Joe, so I would study all these guys—Philly Joe, Blakey, Max, Roy Haynes, Jimmy Cobb. It was like, there are certain things that these guys do that I can’t do.”
Jones’ lessons would always involve improving listening skills. “He would leave the room and have me play something,” Brown says, “and he’d tell me what it was that I played and which hand I started with. And then it was my turn to do the same thing. He’d play something, and I’d say, ‘Okay, you’re playing some ratamacues, you’re playing some paradiddles, you’re playing the paradiddle-diddle, and you started with your left hand. He was giving me ear-training classes. So by the time I got back to Portland State, I could listen to that Milestones album, like the track ‘Billy Boy,’ and hear exactly what he was doing—he’s starting with his left hand on the floor tom and working back to the snare drum. I could hear everything.”
Brown suggests that drummers who are trying to find their voice on the instrument learn to be choosy about what they incorporate from their heroes. “You use whatever you can use, and the rest of the stuff you appreciate but don’t even attempt to do. It’s like taking stuff and putting it in a bucket. I’ve got the best of Philly, the best of Max, the best of Roy Haynes, the best of Art Blakey…. You take a spoon and stir it up, and you say, ‘Okay, now what kind of sound can I have?’ Everybody’s got a signature, a thumbprint.”
After college, Brown took a steady gig in Vancouver with guitarist Tommy Chong (later of the comedy duo Cheech and Chong), and singer Martha Reeves happened to hear him on a gig. Soon Brown was learning a whole new feel. “I came from the jazz side,” he says. “The person who really showed me the Motown groove was Stevie Wonder, ‘Little Stevie Wonder’ back then. ‘Hey, Brown, come here. This is the way we do it back in Detroit.’ ‘Oh, okay.’
“It took me a minute to adjust, to fit with the snare drum being on the downbeat and the bass drum on the ‘&’ of the beat. It turned everybody around, because we didn’t just play on 2 and 4. The snare drum was on 1, 2, 3, and 4, and the bass drum was on the ‘&’s, and that screwed everybody up. They were used to the bass drum being on 1, 2, 3, 4, not the snare drum.”
There were always two drummers on the Motown sessions, according to Brown. “Guys would say, ‘Do you want to play the top or the bottom?’ If you played the top you were playing the snare drum and ride cymbal. If you played the bottom you were playing the hi-hat and the bass drum. That could be tough, but after a period of time you can read each other. Everybody thought it was one drummer.”
Besides a pair of drummers, the rhythm section would usually feature bassist James Jamerson and three or four guitar players. “Everything was put together like a puzzle,” Brown says. “We’d lay down a rhythm track at Hitsville, and then they would take that track across town and put the horn players on it. When they finished with the horn players, they’d bring the track back down to Motown and put the strings on it. We had a chalkboard—it’d be, “Temptations at midnight,” and the Temps would come in and put their voices on top of the track. And then at three in the morning they’d have the Supremes come in and lay their voices down on a track that was done for them. So everything kept going.
“We hardly ever were all in the studio at the same time. When a record came out, you’d listen back and say, ‘Am I playing on this track?’ Motown hated the idea of putting the musicians’ names on records, so unless you kept a notebook in the studio, it was very hard to tell. Smokey [Robinson] would come in and say, ‘Okay, this tune I want you guys to play is for Stevie, and this tune here is for the Four Tops, and this tune over here is for the Spinners.’”
The Motown era was an exciting one for all the musicians involved, and Brown never knew what opportunity awaited him next. While in England with the Temptations, recording Live at London’s Talk of the Town, he was surprised by a visit to his dressing room from Billy Preston and members of the Beatles. The next morning a limo arrived to take Brown to the studio, where he recorded the original version of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” which appears on Preston’s 1970 Encouraging Words album.
Now in his early seventies, Brown hosts a jazz camp every summer at Western Oregon University. One of the things he tries to get students to understand is that the drummer isn’t solely responsible for keeping the time in a band. “You have to listen to other people,” Mel says, “and if you think you might be ahead of the beat, synchronize yourself with the bass player and the piano player, because no one knows who’s in the wrong [if the time goes astray]. But if the rhythm section is together, everything works. Because every tune that you play, there’s a sweet spot. You may have to pull back on the time, or push the time, but once you get to that sweet spot, no one cares. It just feels good.”