Everybody called him “Pistol,” and he fired off shots heard round the world. Rim shots that is. And snare rolls; and cymbal splashes, crashes and shimmers; and hi-hat snaps; and bass drum throbs that helped the Motown sound beat the ’60s chart competition time and time again.
Although a soon-to-be-released movie about the musicians who were the Motown sound’s sound may change this, he is virtually unknown outside of Detroit and the city’s jazz circle. But hundreds of well-wishers packed the Swanson Funeral Home last Friday to acknowledge Howard Richard “Pistol” Allen and the debt that musicians and music lovers in that circle felt they owed him. Pistol, who would have been 70 next month, lost his long fight with cancer the previous week. He was survived by his wife Barbara Ann Williams, 10 children, 14 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
The proceedings sometimes took on the air of an extended family reunion, give or take a few star-struck relatives. Folks seemed to swim through the room, doing the handshake and the hug as the preferred strokes. The space buzzed with recognition: “Teddy Harris.” “Bob Mojica.” “Marcus.” “Ralph.” “I haven’t seen you since …” “Weren’t you at …” “I was thinking about you the other day.” “Diana Ross was leaving as I was getting here.” (No, it wasn’t actually Diana Ross.) “Ain’t too many of us left.” “That’s Martha Reeves over there.” (Yes, it was.) “Where’s Stevie?” (Stevie Wonder was there, as was Berry Gordy’s sister and Motown Museum head Esther Gordy Edwards.)
Memories of Pistol poured out: Pistol the speedy, Pistol the teacher, Pistol the natural, Pistol the prankster, Pistol the caring friend and father.
Trumpeter Louis Smith, standing at the podium, recalled when he and Pistol were fellow hipster musicians at Manassas High School in Memphis, Tenn. They skipped classes to hang out in the practice room, sponged wisdom off Beale Street veterans, and sometimes earned $8.50 in a single night, “big money to us.”
Smith recalled the thrill of later meeting up with the mature Pistol and riding his beat, “just bouncing up and down in my shoes.”
“You just felt the rhythm no matter what,” Smith said. But you might have trouble keeping up. Smith was only one of many who talked about Pistol’s joy at taking the bebop classic “Cherokee” at impossible tempos. “We’d be struggling. He’d be laughing and laughing.”
In one story recounted, Pistol shows up at another band’s gig in his house slippers, pajamas and a beret. He hijacks the drum set, calls “Cherokee” at one of his ridiculous tempos and “blows everybody away and runs out the door.” Where someone else might have downed a nightcap to get to bed, Pistol apparently ran out for a quick hit of “Cherokee.”
The last story came from Allan Slutsky, whose Standing in the Shadows of Motown about Pistol and his fellow Motown session regulars is making the film festival rounds and is set for general release in the fall. The jazz-steeped studio core of Motown musicians — commonly known to insiders as the Funk Brothers — scored more No. 1 hits, by Slutsky’s count, than the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys and Earth, Wind and Fire put together.
But because Motown never recorded the Funk Brothers as a unit, let alone listed their names in even the tiniest type on album covers, they were as anonymous to the world at large as the music they played was omnipresent. After Motown left Detroit in the early ’70s, after musicians like Pistol were no longer called for pop work, they by and large returned full time to the Detroit jazz scene, where they’d always been known by name. That’s not to say that they weren’t let down and bruised when the Motown years ended. Pistol said, “Fuck Motown,” and slammed the phone the first time Slutsky broached his film idea. It took him years to make peace with the Motown experience. “Anonymity takes it toll,” Slutsky said.
Slutsky lamented that after winning Pistol over to the project — which will include a CD release and a DVD — he wouldn’t be around to see the film pull him out of the shadows.
After the funeral crowd relocated for a feast and jam at Bert’s on Broadway, the film made its unofficial Detroit debut; a video played on a TV at the front of the room while the sound was piped through the space for the hundreds in attendance. There was Pistol on the screen, radiating life with his grin, playing with various ringers and the surviving Funk Brothers, including his drumming partner Uriel Jones, who was sitting just a step away from the TV screen. Post-Motown vocalists from Chaka Khan to Joan Osborne to Bootsy Collins and Ben Harper took turns onscreen riding the brotherly funk, interspersed with interviews, archival footage and other documentary fare.
At a nearby table, Lottie the Body, legendary show dancer and MC, raised her wine glass to the drummer’s image on the tube. “Pistol is kicking ass,” she pronounced. “I can just see him in here. Pistol’s spirit is in here.” And in a far corner, a woman sitting alone communed with musical spirits her own way, lip-synching the chorus to “You Really Got a Hold on Me.” “Hold me, hold me, hold me, hold me,” she silently mouthed.
Later in the afternoon, the talking and eating gave way to music making. Musicians played jazz standards like “Just Friends,” and “Blue ’n’ Boogie” and “Giant Steps,” blues like “Hootchie Cootchie Man” and “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues,” precursors to the Motown classics like “My Cherie Amour” and “(Love is Like a) Heatwave” that also rocked the stage.
“Sing it for Pistol, y’all,” Martha Reeves wailed while Wonder pounded the chords to “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.”
The day of remembrance and farewell that had begun before noon carried on toward nightfall, ending only when Funk Brother Jones left and took his drum set with him.W. Kim Heron is the Metro Times managing editor. Send comments to [email protected].