They defined the Sound of Young America. But no one knew it.

They played on more chart-topping singles than Elvis, the Beatles and the Beach Boys combined. But nobody would have spotted them in a crowd.

They were the underpinning of Motown, but as fabled as that label became, as iconic as its singers were, the 15 or so studio musicians known as the Funk Brothers would never be as famous as their music.

They were paid -- about $10 an hour -- but the Funk Brothers never got credited for their round-the-clock session work in the cramped basement of Studio A at 2648 West Grand Blvd. in Detroit, Motown's headquarters.

As Motown became a crucial cultural force in the '60s, the Funk Brothers toiled in anonymity, consigned to what they affectionately called the Snakepit. And when Motown suddenly packed up and relocated to Los Angeles in 1972, the musicians learned of the move only when they showed up at Studio A and found a notice on the door: "Session canceled: will reschedule."

The Funk Brothers were left standing in the shadows of Motown -- California already had plenty of session musicians. One of the few Brothers to head west was James Jamerson, the seminal bassist. Escalating personal problems would derail Jamerson's career, and when Motown celebrated its 25th anniversary with a gala television special in 1983, a drunken Jamerson had to scalp a ticket to sit in the balcony of the theater, unrecognized, unheralded. He died just a few months later, his passing unnoted. In later years Jamerson's reputation as an innovator soared; he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame two years ago.

Now there's a new documentary, "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," that shines a spotlight, however belatedly, on the surviving Funk Brothers. That club's membership is fast dwindling: Drummer Richard "Pistol" Allen died of cancer in June, before the film was screened theatrically. And last Sunday, 66-year-old keyboardist Johnny Griffith, who'd performed Nov. 7 at the film's premiere at Harlem's Apollo Theatre, died of a heart attack.

What "Buena Vista Social Club" did for long-forgotten Cuban musicians, "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," which opened Friday in Washington, does for the departed Brothers and those who survive: percussionist Jack Ashford, guitarists Eddie Willis and Joe Messina, keyboard player Joe Hunter, bassist Bob Babbitt and drummer Uriel Jones. When they got together in December 2000, most had not seen each other in 20 years or more; they'd scattered around the country soon after Motown's westward migration. They had not played together for even longer. Some had stopped playing entirely.

Not surprisingly, there was some wonderful storytelling, myth-building and resurrected camaraderie. After a few weeks of woodshedding, the Funk Brothers went back into a recording studio to recut Motown masterpieces -- using original, classic arrangements -- with such contemporary singers as Chaka Kahn, Joan Osborne, Gerald Levert, Ben Harper and Meshell Ndegeocello.

And then they did it again in concert at Detroit's Royal Oak Theater, on a bandstand whose empty chairs held portraits of departed Brothers: Jamerson, drummer Benny Benjamin (who died in 1968), percussionist Eddie "Bongo" Brown (1983), keyboard player, arranger and bandleader Earl Van Dyke (1992) and guitarist Robert White (1994).

Hearing the Funk Brothers today, you'd swear they'd never stopped playing, never stepped out of the groove. At the Toronto International Film Fest in September, with several of the musicians attending, the film received what the Funk Brothers themselves never experienced: a standing ovation.

"After every song, they applauded, and at the end of the film there was an eight-minute standing ovation, for the entire credit roll and two minutes past," reports Allan Slutsky, the film's co-producer and musical director. "We didn't know what to do, so we ushered the guys out a side door to the limo and people started chasing the car down the street! These guys are going, 'Did we steal some hubcaps?' "

No, just some hearts, suggests Slutsky, the faith and force behind a film that has snowballed into new album projects and a national tour in early 2003 -- a first for the Funk Brothers.

"Isn't that something? I can't believe it, man!" muses the 68-year-old Ashford, in town recently with guitarist Willis, 66, and Slutsky, 50, whose 1989 book "Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson" is at the root of today's revival.

A musician's manual with transcriptions and arrangements played by more than two dozen of the world's greatest bassists, Slutsky's tab-book-with-tapes, written under the name Dr. Licks, offered an extensive biography of the elusive Jamerson. It ended up winning the Rolling Stone/Ralph J. Gleason Award for music book of the year. In researching it, Slutsky interviewed all the Funk Brothers he could find.

What he discovered was a story that desperately needed telling. Motown founder Berry Gordy's own autobiography barely mentions the Funk Brothers, and Motown stars' biographies and autobiographies have given them short shrift. That's hardly surprising: The Funk Brothers were never identified in interviews, even during Motown's golden era.

"I made over a thousand pitches," says Slutsky, recalling his early efforts to get financing for a film. "And I'd get all these blank stares because it was so far out of the box. 'Something about background people?' "

What turned it around was the box office and soundtrack success of "Buena Vista Social Club."

"We'd started wayyy before 'Buena Vista,' but it got funded quicker and easier because it was only a $900,000 budget," Slutsky notes. "But now people had something to relate to -- 'It's kinda like "Buena Vista Social Club" -- and their brains would click and go, 'Oh yeah, yeah, and that made money.' All of a sudden they thought it was feasible."

Still, it was a lucky stroke that eventually got the film rolling. One of Slutsky's college roommates, an ardent supporter of the project, was flying east for a funeral when he struck up a conversation with his seatmate, who turned out to be a onetime bass player who, just before the dot-com crash, had sold his share of an optical networking company to Cisco Systems for half a billion dollars. The man, Paul Elliot, was a huge fan of Dr. Licks and Motown; he and partner David Scott put up the funding for "Standing in the Shadows."

With money finally in the bank, Slutsky and director-producer Paul Justman began their interviews, and the Funk Brothers began to pick up their instruments again, to shake off the rust.

"I was on the road with the Four Tops for 15 years, but I'd quit in 1990," recalls Eddie Willis. "I had moved to Mississippi and hadn't played the guitar for 10 years. I'd walk around and look at it -- I'd keep it lying on the bed -- but I hadn't touched it."

Ashford says he hadn't touched his vibraphone since 1975, "even though I kept it sitting up in the dining room. I would dabble at it but with no intent, simply because so many years had gone by and who's gonna think of me, in my sixties, starting a new career?"

Slutsky, says Ashford, "was the only one who had ever taken any interest in us, believe me. You'd have thought that somebody with the magnitude of hits that we had would have gotten a lot of attention. Allan gave it to us."

It was Earl Van Dyke who turned a loose-knit group of local jazz-rooted musicians into a crack studio band. The basic Funk Brothers lineup -- anchored by Van Dyke, Jamerson and Benjamin -- was in place by 1964, setting the standard by which all future R&B rhythm sections would be judged.

Oddly, Motown's singers seldom visited the Snakepit. The studio musicians simply cranked out tracks composed by staff songwriters on Gordy's assembly-line principle, building durable chassis waiting for their star engines to be plopped in. A lot of the time they didn't even know what the songs were titled, much less for whom they were intended.

"It didn't make any difference," Ashford insists. "I was thinking about how many songs it took to get that $5 or $10."

Under union contracts, the Funk Brothers were each paid $52.50 per three-hour session, with escalators ($52.50 overtime for the next hour and a half, $52.50 for each half-hour after that). Which added up when they did two to four sessions a day, six days a week.

While the film was being made, the Brothers revisited the Snakepit, now part of the Motown Historical Museum. The tiny room, a converted garage, is essentially untouched, with ancient analog equipment locked into old locations and smoke stains long faded into the ceiling tiles.

It hardly looks like the gold mine it was throughout the '60s.

Researching his book, Slutsky came across an old work sheet for a session that produced the Four Tops' "Reach Out (I'll Be There)" and "I'll Turn to Stone," as well as Stevie Wonder's "With a Child's Heart."

"In one three-hour session!" he marvels. "James Jamerson got $61.40 scale and $4 pension -- and that was it! In other words, that bass line for 'Reach Out' is worth $20! Mind-boggling!"

Unlike the studio wizards for the Stax/Volt labels in Memphis, Booker T and the MGs, the Funk Brothers never benefited from being marketed as a self-contained act. The closest thing was Earl Van Dyke, who released Motown albums as the Twistin' Kings and Earl Van Dyke and the Soul Brothers (apparently Berry Gordy didn't like the word "funk").

Marvin Gaye's 1971 album, "What's Going On," was the first Motown album to list the Funk Brothers by name. Today, session credits are routinely included on Motown reissues, but in the '60s it was common practice to omit them. Motown was hardly alone in this.

The downside of this anonymity became evident later, says Willis. "When I'd go to a record company and they'd ask to see my re{acute}sume{acute}, they'd say, 'You've got to be joking! You played with everybody that ever had a hit record!' "

One of the few things that anger Slutsky is that it took so long to get funding that Earl Van Dyke and Robert White, whom he'd interviewed for the book, didn't survive to be a part of the film, and that Allen died before its first commercial screenings.

"I haven't seen the end of the film yet, because I can't stand to look at Pistol," Ashford says of Allen. "He made it to the finish and fell at the line."

According to Slutsky, "Pistol and Uriel [Jones] had no business doing this film -- they risked their lives" by working so arduously in the recording of its live performances. "Uriel knew he needed quintuple bypass and he didn't tell me. And Pistol knew he was dying and he didn't tell me, either. They refused to tell me until afterwards. We wrapped the film, and two days later, Uriel was getting cut on the table.

"But I knew they were looking at it like 'this is my whole life right here; I don't get another chance.' "

Maybe Berry Gordy does. The film uses 30 Motown songs, which would normally have warranted a huge licensing fee. According to Slutsky, "Berry interceded and he gave them to us at a ridiculous price -- he couldn't do it for free, because that wouldn't be fair to the composers. But he showed great respect in honoring these guys, and to me it's a beautiful end to the story."

It's also a beautiful beginning: The upcoming tour will feature the seven surviving Funk Brothers and a horn section, as well as the backup singers from the film.

One thing that will be unchanged are the arrangements, all laboriously transcribed from the original recordings by Slutsky. "These guys have never been allowed to play their music in public," he notes.

Funny thing, he adds: "The musicians don't always remember what they played because they played it one time, 40 years ago! So I feel like a total dope telling the guy who played it how he played it."

"But you have always been right," says Ashford.

The film shows the Funk Brothers breaking down "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" to its individual instrumental components, and the accompanying soundtrack features two classic instrumental-only tracks, "Bernadette" and "You Keep Me Hangin' On." In January, Universal, which now owns the Motown catalogue, will release a whole album of deep-vault outtakes, and there is talk of the revived Funk Brothers cutting an album of Motown tunes with all-star guests.

"Everything is possible in the wake of a successful film," says Slutsky.

Including redemption.

Jack Ashford, left, and Eddie Willis, right, are among the Funk Brothers spotlighted in producer Allan Slutsky's documentary.Robert White, above left, and Joe Messina in the heyday of Motown's Studio A sessions. Right, the late James Jamerson and drummer Uriel Jones during a rare moment in the public spotlight while playing a 1964 club date.From left, Joe Messina, Johnny Griffith, Joe Hunter, Bob Babbitt and Richard "Pistol" Allen during the filming of "Standing in the Shadows of Motown." Allen died soon after the project was finished.Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. discounted the licensing fees for the Motown songs used in the film.