“Who?” is the many painful remark an accomplished artist may hear. The Funk Brothers, the Motown studio band whose dazzling, recognizable rhythms and riffs frenzied millions of fans before a single note was sung, heard that refrain for 40 years.
I was 1 of those unknowing fans. As much as I love hearing to Martha as well as the Vandellas or the Tempts, as much as the stories of Tammi Terrell and Paul Williams sadden me, it was the Funk Brothers story that inspired me many.
Before Motown’s incredible achievement left them behind, they were happy merely playing music.
In the 1950s, Detroit clubs spilled over with skill. Some performers swung with a refined jazz beat. Some had more countrified R&B and blues backgrounds. Many excelled in both designs. But merely a limited interested Mickey Stevenson, the Artists and Repertoire director looking for musicians to bring back to Hitsville.
In 1959, the Motown studio band took its initial shape. Bluesy pianist Joe Hunter (not singer-songwriter Ivory Joe Hunter) led the group. Big band drummer William “Benny” Benjamin and adventurous bassist James Jamerson equally finalized up. That pair alone might seismically influence the music scene, and the Motown Sound.
The Funk Brothers’ different key members shortly arrived. Guitarist Eddie Willis, with his southern-fried rhythms. His comrade Joe Messina of the atomic-clock timing. Their cohort Robert White, the dependably melodic strummer.
Those 3 weren’t truly the only ones who ended up with couples. Richard “Pistol” Allen had the talent to twirl his drumsticks in destination of–or alongside–Benjamin.
In the keyboard corner, Johnny Griffith plied his craft with jazzy pizzazz. While Griffith tickled the ivories, Earl Van Dyke slammed them–with love, naturally.
Less conventional touches enriched the Motown Sound, too. Eddie “Bongo” Brown added exoticism with instruments like–can you guess?–bongos, congas, and gourds. Jack Ashford may create fresh job names from his résumé: vibraphonist, tambourine player, lumber blockist, plywood smacker, could tapper, hand clapper, etc.
The Funk family hadn’t all congregated by 1962. But among the brass, reed, string, and more rhythm players who crammed into Studio A, the initially 11 of 13 Brothers were creating their marks on keyboards, drums, bass, guitars, and percussion. (Almost virtually in Van Dyke’s case!)
When Hunter left Motown in 1963, Van Dyke became bandleader. Meanwhile, the drum section might rock even harder with Uriel Jones joining the group.
From that converted basement nicknamed the Snake Pit, the Motown Sound continued to erupt.
A track frequently started as really a general arrangement from composers. Various Funk Brothers, like the guitar trio or the drums-bass team, might huddle together. The musicians might bandy about tips for fills and rhythms and just how those particular textures might communicate.
Once the recording gear and singers were willing, the band might play. Together. In 1 live take.
This was required at minimum initially because, with just 3 recording tracks, studio designers couldn’t overdub individual components. So unless Berry Gordy liked a mistake for the spontaneity, it meant a do-over for everyone.
But apparently, “mistakes” and “Funk Brothers” seldom went together.
Other occasions, at Motown’s behest, they might improvise some rhythms, set those to a track, and wait for composers to create a track from that!
In various methods, this band was the Motown hit machine.
Yet its sound was anything but mechanical. The drummers shuffled, swung, or machine-gunned the music forward, ever forward. Jamerson ran circles and zigzags around traditional bass lines. The guitarists’ licks wound around each additional while their significant backbeats propped up their Brothers.
On acoustic or electrical piano, organ, and harpsichord, the keyboardists sauntered, glided, and thunked along effortlessly. Next there was clearly the mellow rush of Brown’s bongos and Ashford’s imaginative, remarkably prominent percussion.
When you heard all that plus many players found on the same instrument or different instruments found on the same lines, you knew that which was the Motown Sound.
The business desired it accessible 24/7. In its prime from 1963 to 1967, the musicians had to record on need. No matter that they weren’t usually aware when the calls came! Jamerson and Benjamin were particularly useful.
Moreover, Motown was extremely safety of its Sound. Exclusive contracts prevented the musicians from functioning at alternative labels–in print. Though they were generating a lot late that decade, their pay was nevertheless low by union specifications. Companies like Ric-Tic and songwriters like Burt Bacharach and Hal Davis welcomed Motown band members in secret.
The Funk Brothers managed to escape not only the studio. Tours with Jackie Wilson and recordings in Chicago and as far south as Atlanta took them from state.
Still, Detroit offered their many comfortable gigs. Sessions at the Chit Chat Club, the Twenty Grand, and Phelps’ Lounge returned those to their jazz and R&B origins.
Back at Motown, Norman Whitfield’s “psychedelic soul” pulled them into the pop future. New technologies produced their music more sumptuous and extreme. Guitarists Dennis Coffey and Melvin “Wah Wah Watson” Ragin added spacey spice to the blend.
Fans ate it up. And liked the singers for it.
At minimum British listeners knew the studio band. As did musicians who admired Jamerson’s innovations. And, naturally, British musicians, like the Rolling Stones as well as the Beatles.
Even at its peak, Motown continued to exclude the musicians’ names from records. Between that, the underwhelming wages, as well as the stricter musical plans, the Funk Brothers were not satisfied.
Then came a much worse blow. After years of alcohol and heroin misuse, Benny Benjamin’s body gave out in 1968. He was just in his 30s.
Meanwhile, his dear friend Jamerson had been battling mental and bodily demons that produced him flakier than before. So drummer Uriel Jones wasn’t truly the only 1 who had to substitute a legend by the decade’s end. In 1967, Bob Babbitt had become the 13th Funk Brother and capable 2nd bassist.
The up-to-date lineup kept plugging away. Motown finally indexed musician names in Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On in 1971.
Fame at last? Not very. The upcoming year, with small see, Motown Records moved to Los Angeles. Again, the Funk Brothers got left behind.
The members eventually spread across clubs in Detroit or sessions in L.A. And which was basically that.
Fast forward to 1983. To the anniversary event Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever. To its musings found on the Motown Sound and praise for the singers, songwriters, and Berry Gordy. To the TV audience who loved the unique and returned to their lives without hearing 1 word about the musicians.
Months after attending the show and viewing Motown disregard him more blatantly than ever, James Jamerson, 45, died from a mixture of pneumonia and cirrhosis of the liver.
Eddie Brown passed later that same year.
How more Funk Brothers might not receive their due in lifetime?
Guitarist Allan Slutsky spearheaded the 2002 documentary, Standing in the Shadows of Motown. That ode to the Funk Brothers, as well as the James Jamerson book that created its basis, took over 16 years to fund and launch.
It came too late for Earl Van Dyke and Robert White, who’d died in 1992 and 1994.
Pistol Allen got far enough to appear in and view the completed movie before succumbing to cancer in 2002.
Johnny Griffith basked in the publicity blitz before his abrupt passing that November, days after the globe premiere.
Fortunately, their fame has spread beyond 1 film. From Motown 40 and Rock’s Hall of Fame (which inducted Jamerson and Benjamin) to Grammy-dom and shows that they headline on tour, the band members are finally getting industry and enthusiast appreciation.
Joe Hunter and Uriel Jones were 2 of those fortunate musicians up until their deaths on February 2, 2007 and March 24, 2009, respectively. So went the last of the Brothers’ keyboardists and drummers.