We remember The Funk Brothers — the astounding musicians who made the Motown record label what it was: a hit-making machine and the highest-earning African-American-run US business for many years.
In the mid-’50s, Berry Gordy, a Detroit, MI native, had turned his passion for music into a growing business, having written a string of popular songs for soul singer-songwriter Jackie Wilson. Not long after he discovered The Miracles in 1957 (featuring Smokey Robinson on lead vocals), Gordy signed them as the first act on his newly-created Tamla Records. In 1959, Gordy established the Motown Record Corporation and launched the Motown label.
A stable of artists were soon issuing records on the Motown label, backed by a team of musicians Gordy had assembled who formed the backbone of every recording issued by Motown between 1959 and 1972. The Funk Brothers, as they were soon known, are the musicians who collectively recorded more number one hit songs than The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Elvis, and The Beatles combined. But as the book and documentary Standing In The Shadows of Motown point out, the names of The Funk Brothers were (and remain) largely unknown by the music lovers who voraciously consumed the Motown Sound – and were uncredited on almost all the releases on which they played and contributed to.
Made up mostly of African Americans who were either native to Detroit or who were lured there by the burgeoning auto industry (just as Gordy’s father had been when he relocated from Georgia in 1922), the musicians who made up the Motown house band cranked out music that helped bridge the racial divide, certainly in terms of crossover music that brought black artists to a “mainstream” (read white) audience.
These players recorded for hours day-to-day in the dirt-floor basement of a modest home Gordy purchased in 1958 located at 2648 W Grand Blvd, Detroit. The studio was known as Hitsville, U.S.A. by most, though the musicians who practically lived there knew it as “the snake pit.”
When not recording in the snake pit, these players were playing jazz clubs like The Flame, The Apex, and The 20 Grand in Detroit, and would often bring the jazz, blues, Latin, and afro-rhythmic beats and changes they learned on the scene to the studio for the next day’s sessions. While historically much of the Motown Sound has been attributed to the great producers, singers, writers, and vibe of the studio, the role of the musicians has been grossly marginalized. These players gave life to the arrangements and added a funky rhythmic quality to create pop R&B that continues to speak to and inspire generations of music lovers and performers.
As Joe Hunter, one of the Funk Brothers keyboardists, says in the film: “You play them hit records – the juke boxes and radios playing and somebody says, ‘Oh boy, that’s Motown!’ But they never know us. They never mention too much about us. Finally, when the dust clears it was all over and we realized we were being left out of a dream. As the years go by, we wonder, will anyone ever know who we are and what we did?”
In alphabetical order, The Funk Brothers, who were inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville in 2007 are:
Richard “Pistol” Allen (drums) – played drums on “Heat Wave,” “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” “Baby Love,” “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” and “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” among many others. Born in Memphis, TN on August 13, 1932, he died in 2002.
Jack “Black Jack” Ashford (percussion) – played on “War,” “Nowhere to Run,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” and “Ooh Baby Baby,” among many others. Born in Philadelphia, PA on May 18, 1934, he’s 82 years old.
Bob Babbitt (bass) – played on “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” “War,” “The Tears of a Clown,” “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” “Inner City Blues,” “Band Of Gold,” “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),” and “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me),” among many others. Born in Pittsburgh, PA on November 26, 1937, he died in 2012.
Benny “Pap Zita” Benjamin (drums) – played on “Money (That’s What I Want),” “Do You Love Me,” Get Ready,” “My Girl,” “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (by Gladys Knight & the Pips),” and “Going to a Go-Go,” among many others. Born in Mobile, AL on July 25, 1925, he was the first Funk Brother to die, passing in in 1969.
Eddie “Bongo” Brown (congas, percussion) – played on “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” “I Second That Emotion,” and “If I Were Your Woman,” among many others. Born in Clarksdale, MI on September 13, 1932, he died in 1984.
Johnny Griffith (keyboards) – played on “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” and “Stop! In the Name of Love,” among many others. Born July 10, 1936 in Detroit, MI, he died in 2002.
Joe Hunter (keyboards) – played on “Shop Around,” “Do You Love Me,” “Heat Wave,” “Come and Get These Memories,” among many others. Born in Jackson, TN on November 19, 1927, he died in 2007.
James “Igor” Jamerson (bass) – reportedly played on 95 percent of Motown recordings between 1962-1968 (again, mostly all uncredited) performing on nearly 30 No. 1 pop hits (a record commonly, and mistakenly, attributed to The Beatles). Nearly 70 of his performances went to the top of the R&B charts. He played on “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “My Girl,” “Shotgun,” “For Once in My Life,” “I Was Made To Love Her,” “Going to a Go-Go,” “Dancing in the Street,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” and “Bernadette,” among many others. As the story is told in the documentary, Marvin Gaye wanted an MIA Jamerson to play on “What’s Going On,” and combed the regular bars he frequented to track him down. When he found him, he was apparently too drunk to stand, so he performed the part lying flat on his back. Born in Edisto, SC on January 29, 1936, he died in 1983.
Uriel Jones (drums) – played on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “Cloud Nine,” “Home Cookin’,” “I Second That Emotion,” and “For Once In My Life,” among many others. He tells the story in the documentary that his first bass drum was an old cardboard beer case, and he could never get a drum to sound as good. Born in Detroit, MI on June 13, 1934, he died in 2009.
Joe Messina (guitar) – the cream filling in what was called the “Oreo Cookie Guitar Section” (he was flanked by Robert White and Eddie Willis), he says in the documentary regarding the tight-knit quality of the Funk Brothers’ playing: “We listened to each other, and we liked each other. There was a friendship. I think that helped.” Dubbed the “white brother with soul,” Messina played on records by Diana Ross & the Supremes, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, and Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. Among his notable performances are “Dancing in the Street,” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” and “Your Precious Love.” Born in Detroit, MI on December 13, 1928, he is 88 years old.
Earl “Chunk of Funk” Van Dyke (keyboards) – his Funk Brothers associates were awed by his presence and power when he played, saying they needed to tune the piano after he finished a session because he banged it out of tune. He played on “Bernadette,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” and “Run Away Child, Running Wild,” among many others. Born in Detroit, MI July 8, 1930, he died in 1992.
Robert White (guitar) – played on “My Girl,” “Can I Get a Witness,” You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Something About You,” and “It’s a Shame,” among many others. Born in Harrisburg, PA on November 19, 1936, he died in 1994.
Eddie “Chank” Willis (guitar) – played on “Please Mr. Postman,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “You Keep Me Hanging On,” and “I Was Made to Love Her,” among many others. Born in Grenada, Mississippi on June 3, 1936, he is 80 years old.
Without the Funk Brothers, there wouldn’t be the Motown Sound. Without the Motown sound, there wouldn’t be:
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing
Ain’t That Peculiar
Ain’t Too Proud To Beg
Back In My Arms Again
Ball Of Confusion
Can I Get A Witness
Come See About Me
Dancing In The Street
Devil With A Blue Dress
Do You Love Me
Don’t Mess With Bill
First I Look At The Purse
Function At The Junction
Going To A Go-Go
Heaven Must Have Sent You
Here Comes The Judge
How Sweet It Is
I Can’t Get Next To You
I Can’t Help Myself
I Hear A Symphony
I Heard It Through The Grapevine
I Second That Emotion
I Was Made To Love Her
I Wish It Would Rain
I’ll Be Doggone
If I Were Your Woman
It Takes Two
It’s The Same Old Song
Just A Little Misunderstanding
Just My Imagination
Mercy Mercy Me
My Cherie Amour
My World Is Empty Without You
Nowhere To Run
Ooo Baby Baby
Please Mr. Postman
Pride And Joy
Shake Me, Wake Me
Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours
Since I Lost My Baby
Standing In The Shadows Of Love
Stop! In the Name of Love
Stubborn Kind Of Fellow
The One Who Really Loves You
The Tears Of A Clown
The Tracks Of My Tears
The Way You Do The Things You Do
This Old Heart
What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted
What’s Going On
What’s So Good About Good-Bye
Where Did Our Love Go
You Beat Me To The Punch
You Keep Me Hangin’ On
You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me
On a June day in 1972, members of the Funk Brothers showed up to Hitsville U.S.A. to play a session to find a note on the door announcing Motown had moved its operation to Los Angeles. Some of the Funk Brothers gave L.A. a try, but many found it impossible to navigate, and the move spelled an unromantic end of the Detroit Motown era.
For more, check out the book Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson and the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
A musician, writer, and marketer, Andre Calilhanna manages and edits the Disc Makers and BookBaby Blogs. Follow Andre on Twitter @dre_cal. Email him at email@example.com.
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13 thoughts on “The Funk Brothers and their Motown legacy”
The Funk Brothers sound like the biggest best-kept secret in musical history. It wasn’t until I saw Standing in the shadows of motown did I know anything about this tight knit group of guys that made history in the basement of Hitsville USA and never got credit for anything, except for the fact THEY knew what was what, and hopefully their own perfection of craft and the camaraderie they had made up for it. The secret is out! The Funk Brothers Rule!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Hello. My name is Ed Bailer. I am a nephew of Robert White. The picture in the article is not my uncle Bobby. I can get you a picture of what uncle Bobby actually looks like but that is not uncle Bobby. Thank you for featuring the Funk Brothers. I actually have some of uncle Bobby’s handwritten lead sheets for some of the tunes they played – he had impeccable musical penmanship. Uncle Bobby still has family – four sisters and one brother are still alive, as well as three children and an ex-wife. Uncle Bobby is featured in the first part of the movie but unfortunately he did die during its production. He suffered a stroke and never regained consciousness. He passed away at Kaiser Hospital in Hollywood. What’s the real shame as he was just getting back into his music again. When Motown left Detroit they left him behind too. He did move here to Los Angeles and sold insurance for a living. Our family gatherings were often jam sessions. Uncle Bobby would bring his guitar and I’d bring my keyboard with Uncle Melvin playing bass. Well that’s all for now. My mom has the best picture of uncle Bob playing his guitar…. If I can get a copy of it I’ll send it along.
Ed, thanks so much for correcting that mistake — my apologies. And thanks especially for the new photo and personal details. I am grateful to you and appreciate you reading and contributing to the Disc Makers Blog!
I’ve got a few more notes… Uncle Bobby was actually a co-writer on “My Girl.” And of course, the opening guitar lick is known around the world by everyone — he wrote and played that. Another little known fact, Uncle Bobby didn’t use a guitar pick but rather his thumb nail to strum his guitar. And on the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Holding On,” it is Uncle Bobby playing that strident chordal guitar riff that repeats throughout the song. He also told me, if memory is correct, that on Marvin Gaye’s (best man at Uncle Bobby’s wedding) “What’s Going On?” the side without track breaks was recorded in one take. Amazing. Feel free to use any of this information, and fact check it if want to. I’d want to know the true story. We really miss him.
Ed: Greetings from Motown Historical Museum. I read your posted on your uncle Robert White. I love his musicianship and believe he’s played some of the most memorable melodies in music history. You mentioned you have some of his original lead sheets in your possession. The Museum would love to discuss with you how we could exhibit them. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. My name is Allen Rawls and I am a Board of Trustees member in charge of Museum Preservation and Development. Looking forward to hearing from you. – Allen
I was working with Esther Phillips in 1973. Esther took me on the road to play some gigs. I flew to Detroit to meet her and play a club for two nights. My flight was delayed. I hailed a cab and showed the driver the address, “You ain’t going’ there pal”…he said. “Well thats where i need to go’, I replied. He dropped me and sped off. There was a line around the club amnd I pushed my way through a sea of fans. The room was downstairs and after I managed to convince the door people I was playing woth Esther (who was just finishing her first set) i mange’s to get to the backstage. “Ah, Timmy my little piano player from London, England. Have you met the band?” She asked. “No” I replied. “This is James, bass player, Eddie, Guitar player and Pistol our drummer’. I was gobsmacked, a 26 year old white boy from south london and I’m about to play two nights with the Funk Brothers. Tim Hinkley
That isn’t Robert White’s picture but it’s nice to see a solid list of the group. It seems only two are left of the guys mentioned in the film. I hope they continue to get the recognition they richly deserve.
I thought I had learned watching the film ‘Standing In The Shadows Of Motown’ that Marvin Gaye’s 1971 classic album ‘What’s Going On?’ was the first album to give us The Funk Brothers names and instruments they played on the liner notes. That fact isn’t mentioned in this article. Is it a fact or is it something I remembered incorrectly? Anyone?
Motown rocks my socks off. Chunk of funk really moves my junk.
No body else ever got that blended sound–and a lot tried. Part of it’s uniqueness was that this was real live musicians playing the emotions they felt–not a programmed computer with an auto tune vocal.