The Funk Brothers - The Motown Backing Band Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Funk Brothers - The Motown Backing Band

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I, like some of the other producers, would not do a session unless at least two of the Funk Brothers were present - namely, Benny Benjamin and Igor Jamerson.
- Berry Gordy Jr, Motown founder.

Fire and Soul

The Funk Brothers were the Motown in-house band, putting the fire and soul into Motown's greatest hits. They were responsible for the continuing recognisable sound. The Funk Brothers' 14-year stint at Motown, playing on almost every track, makes them the most successful band in the history of popular music.

The Funk Brothers were unlisted on original recordings because Gordy didn't like their name. Marvin Gaye brought Jack Ashford and Uriel Jones into Motown's fold, and they joined the Funk Brothers. Motown session musicans were not paid very well and were often tempted away for the occasional session at other, rival labels1.

The major musicians included:

William 'Benny' Benjamin (1925 - 1969)

Main drummer William 'Benny' (Papa Zita) Benjamin was lauded for his talent by the likes of The Beatles. He was also a nice guy, his nickname reflecting the respect he earned. He was 'the most beloved musician at Hitsville'. Reportedly, his last performance was on the Isley Brothers hit 'Behind A Painted Smile'. Benjamin's death from a stroke in 1969 shattered the close-knit family unit at Motown and Gordy had to employ two drummers to replace him.

He was so good on the drums and had a feel no-one could match. He had a distinctive knack for executing various rhythms all at the same time. He had a pulse, a steadiness, that kept the tempo better than a metronome. Benny was my man.
- Berry Gordy Jr

James 'Igor' Jamerson (1938 - 1983)

A bass guitar player who was a huge influence on many bassists, including Paul McCartney. His hits include 'Bernadette' and 'I Was Made To Love Her'. Jamerson was a heavy drinker, once so drunk that he couldn't sit upright during a recording session and played the demanding bass line on Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On' lying flat on his back.

Earl 'Big Funk' Van Dyke (1930 - 1992)

Van Dyke was the only member of the Funk Brothers who was under contract as an artist to the Motown label. A multi-talented organist and pianist, his distinctive sound can be heard on 'Ain't Too Proud To Beg', 'My Guy' and 'For Once In My Life'. Motown's management viewed Van Dyke as an unofficial nanny because he always knew where to find2 the other Funk Brothers and get them into the studio for a recording session. This was no mean feat when dealing with colourful personalities like 'Igor' Jamerson and Benny Benjamin.

Eddie 'Bongo' Brown (1932 - 1983)

Brown's previous job was as a valet to Marvin Gaye, one of the biggest stars of Motown. A talented percussionist, backing such hits as 'Cloud Nine' and 'What's Going On', Brown was also a comedian, an essential quality in the tense confined atmosphere of the 'Snakepit'. His favourite target for jokes was Jamerson's mother and everyone else's mother-in-law.

Robert White (1936 - 94)

White was one of the more serious-minded members of the band. He was described by the others as 'the glue that held everything together'. He was so shy he couldn't admit to strangers that he was the guitarist on 'My Girl', 'My Cherie Amour' and 'You Keep Me Hanging On'.

Richard 'Pistol' Allen (1932 - 2002)

Allen was the drummer on most of Holland-Dozier-Holland's hit productions of the 1960s. He most memorably played on the tracks 'Heat Wave', 'Baby Love' and 'How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)'.

Jack Ashford (born 1934)

Ashford was a favourite backing musician of Marvin Gaye and Motown songwriter and producer Norman Whitfield (1940 - 2008). He could play just about anything: bells, chimes, bell tree, hotel sheet3, triangle, finger cymbals and the kazoo. Ashford had great imagination and wasn't afraid to try out new techniques. He saw an object as a potential instrument and was always experimenting. Ashford, who used to provide foot-stomps and hand-claps, frequently got teased for having 'the largest tambourine on the planet'. You can hear his skills on 'What's Going On' and 'Where Did Our Love Go'.

Adulation is never too late ... never! We probably seem a bit laid back about it all but that's just because we're a pretty old bunch of guys. But no, it's nice. We saw this type of life before ... we just never lived it.
- Jack Ashford speaking about The Funk Brothers' belated fame in Manchester in 2004.

Other Funk Brothers included:

  • Bob Babbitt - bass guitar - played on the album 'What's Going On' and the singles 'Mercy Mercy Me', 'Signed, Sealed, Delivered' and 'War'.

  • Dennis Coffey - classical guitar - (joined 1967).

  • Johnny Griffith (1936 - 2002) - keyboardist. A classically trained jazz musician, Griffith worked his way round Hammond organ, Wurlitzer electric piano and acoustic piano, his gentle touch perfectly complimenting Earl Van Dyke's 'gorilla piano' style.

  • Joe Hunter. A self-described 'boogie-woogie' piano player and organist, he was Motown's first bandleader and played on hits such as 'Heat Wave' and 'Come And Get These Memories' before leaving Motown at the end of 1963.

  • Uriel 'Possum' Jones (1934 - 2009) - drummer. Hits include 'Ain't Too Proud To Beg', 'Cloud Nine', 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough' and 'Heard it Through the Grapevine'. Being the drummer on this mega-hit looks good on your CV!

  • Joe Messina - jazz guitar and harmonica player on 'Dancing In The Street' and 'I Can't Help Myself'. According to Earl Van Dyke, 'Joe never blew a backbeat on one session during the entire 14 years he was at Motown'.

  • Melvin 'Wah-Wah Watson' Ragin - guitar (joined 1967). Responsible for the wah-wah sound on the 'psychedelic' tracks.

  • Eddie 'Chank' Willis - guitar - toured with The Marvelettes. His favourite instruments were the Gibson Firebird and the Coral Sitar. His music can be heard on 'I Was Made To Love Her'.

The unheralded group finally achieved recognition thanks to a film documentary called Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, which won Best Non-Fiction Film at the 2002 National Society of Film Critics in New York. Gordy released Motown's back catalogue for the film-makers, an unprecedented move in Motown's history. The Funk Brothers and Chaka Khan won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance with their compilation 'What's Going On' in 2003. The Funk Brothers themselves won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2004 Grammy Awards. When the surviving Funk Brothers were inducted at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they claimed to feel Benny Benjamin's spirit with them as they took their seven-minute standing ovation.

English fans are different from the ones at home because they got more interest in the musicians. I remember being here with Freda Payne and seeing this crowd coming towards us outside the gig. They didn't want her though ... they were from the James Jamerson Appreciation Society. Man, we couldn't believe it!
- Funk Brother Uriel Jones, speaking in Manchester in 2004
1On one John Lee Hooker recording, the backing band is mostly Motown musicians.2A favourite hangout was a local undertaker's.3His own invention, which was a plastic sheet that he wobbled to great effect.

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