The name Funk Brothers might not be widely known, but as the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown points out, they played on more number-one records than the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Elvis Presley combined. And there’s a reason for their anonymity: At Motown Records, where the Funks were the studio band from 1958 through the early 1970s, owner Berry Gordy, Jr., never gave them credit on the records. By contrast, at Stax Records, Motown’s Memphis rival, the house band Booker T. and the MGs were pushed aggressively towards stardom—they even had their own hit singles.
Standing in the Shadows, based on Allan Slutsky’s award-winning biography of the late Motown bassist James Jamerson, goes a long way toward giving these important musicians full recognition for their contributions. Motown thrived because of superstar groups and singers such as the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and the Marvelettes, of course, but just as crucial were drummer Benny Benjamin’s perfect fills, Jamerson’s one-finger heartbeat bass, Robert White’s chiming electric guitars and their shiny-and-dirty-at-the-same-time soul. “Even as a teenager I always wondered what made the Motown sound,” singer Rick James told Rolling Stone in 2002, during a Shadows
Members include Richard “Pistol” Allen (born in 1932 in Memphis, TN; died in June 2002 in Detroit, MI; group member, 1962-early 1970s), drums; Jack Ashford (born in 1934 in Philadelphia, PA; group member, 1963-early 1970s), percussion; Bob Babbitt (born in Pittsburgh, PA; group member, 1967-72), bass; William “Benny” Benjamin (born in the 1930s in Birmingham, AL; died in 1968; group member, 1958-68), drums; Eddie “Bongo” Brown (born in 1932 in Memphis, TN; died in 1983 in Los Angeles, CA), percussion; Johnny Griffith (born in 1936 in Detroit, MI; died on November 10, 2002; group member, 1961-1970s), keyboards; Joe Hunter (born in 1927 in Jackson, TN; group member, 1958-63), keyboards; James Jamerson (born in 1936 in Edisto Island, SC; died on August 2, 1983, in Los Angeles, CA; group member, 1959-early 1970s), bass; Uriel Jones (born in 1934 in Detroit, MI; group member, 1964-early 1970s), drums; Joe Messina (born in 1928 in Detroit, MI; group member, 1959-72), guitar; Robert White (born in 1936 in Billmyre, PA; died in 1994 in Los Angeles, CA; group member 1960-early 1970s), guitar; Eddie Willis (born in Grenada, MS; group member, 1959-72), guitars; Earl Van Dyke (born in the early 1930s in Detroit, MI; died in 1992; group member, 1962-early 1970s), keyboards.
Awards: Funk Brothers: Grammy Award, Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance (with Chaka Khan) for “What’s Going On,” 2003; James Jamerson: Induction, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2000; William “Benny” Benjamin: Induction, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2002.
Addresses: Record company—Hip-O Records/Universal Music Group, 2220 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404.
soundtrack release party. “Was it the wood? Was it the food they ate in there? Was it the liquor they drank? Was it the women in their lives? What made the Motown sound was those Funk Brothers, those human beings. Like my man said, you could throw a frog in that studio and see it come out with a hit. Those guys were the sound.”
The studio in question was Studio A, a converted garage at 2648 West Grand Blvd. in Detroit, where an unprecedented cadre of local singers recorded one massive hit after another. Although the Funks’ membership rotated frequently due to contract issues, illness and (in the case of the notoriously unreliable Benjamin) tardiness, they built the “Snakepit” as the heart of Hitsville U.S.A. At the Motown Museum, in the original building, there’s a worn spot in the controlroom floor where Gordy tapped his foot.
The Funk Brothers’ heart was Jamerson, who moved from Charleston, South Carolina, to Detroit in 1953. Before joining Motown, he sat in on upright bass with a wide cross-section of night-clubbing musicians, from bluesman John Lee Hooker to jazz reed player Yusef Lateef. Because Jamerson had a wife and the first of four children to support, he waived a Wayne State University scholarship and accepted an offer from Gordy—the Motown chief paid session players union scale, about $52.50 per three-hour session. By the early 1960s, Gordy had built the “Sound of Young America” on Jamerson’s thick electric-bass grooves.
Although the Funks never received songwriting credit, it’s hard to imagine, say, the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hanging On” without its opening urgent, staccato guitar chords, the Temptations’ “My Girl” without its up-and-down bassline or Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown” without the precise, rattling drums between the choruses. The Funks weren’t actually brothers, but they were friends who jammed with each other in Detroit-area jazz and blues clubs, partied together at night (infamously hiding from Gordy’s wrath at a local funeral home, according to the movie) and flung ideas at each other for hours on end in the studio.
Among the group’s most famous members: William “Benny” Benjamin, a big band-trained drummer whose rolls and fills defined the Motown sound and who suffered with heroin and alcohol addiction before dying in 1968; classically trained jazz pianist Johnny Griffith, who died in 2002; the influential guitar trio of country-and-blues-influenced Eddie Willis, rock-solid jazzman Joe Messina, Detroit nightclub fixture Robert White; and accomplished vibesman Jack Ashford, whose tambourine fills are instantly recognizable.
Several Funks were legendary for their anti-authority hijinks, which often confounded Gordy (who, like most major Motown musicians, didn’t contribute to Standing in the Shadows, although coproducer Allan Slutsky says the former mogul licensed Motown music to the film for a very low price. He also released a statement in the Houston Chronicle praising the Funks’ “indispensable role” in the Motown sound.) At one point, when Gordy was showing the studio to some important European distributors, Benjamin asked his boss if he could “bum a fin.” Gordy, whom Benjamin had nicknamed “the Führer,” was not amused.
Jamerson was at the heart of this colorful crew. The documentary is filled with Jamerson anecdotes, like the time he rode in the back seat of a cramped car and insisted on eating smelly pig’s feet while his touring-band colleagues tried to sleep. He was also, unfortunately, a heavy drinker and when Gordy transferred Motown from Detroit to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, Jamerson took it especially hard. According to the movie he had to scalp a balcony ticket to attend Motown’s twenty-fifth anniversary television special in 1983. He died of cirrhosis of the liver a few months later, prompting his widow, Annie, to tell rocker Marshall Crenshaw in Rolling Stone: “When people clamor after you, and then forget you when you become ill… That really hurt him.” Jamerson was, however, inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.
“The key to my approach was that I wanted to lay down the bottom for the whole recording. I didn’t want to solo and I didn’t want to draw too much attention to myself,” he told Bass Player interviewer “Dr. Licks,” a.k.a. Slutsky, who would eventually publish Jamerson’s award-winning biography and turn it into Standing in the Shadows of Motown. “I just wanted to make the rhythm section kick a** so that people would get up and dance. My bass was set up to do just that. There was one time I did solo for Motown. That was on a cut called ‘Mutiny’ by Junior Walker. I really took it out, but that was rare for me.”
The rest of Motown’s studio musicians had similar role-player mentalities. They didn’t receive credit on a record until Marvin Gaye’s 1971 classic What’s Going On, and even then their fame was short-lived. (To this day, many Motown CD anthologies, such as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ 2002 Ooo Baby Baby: The Anthology make no mention of the Funk Brothers in liner notes.) When Gordy moved the company to Los Angeles in 1972, Hitsville as a Detroit institution was brought to an end. The musicians didn’t find out until they reported to the studio and found a “Session canceled: will reschedule” sign.
Some of the Funks, including Jamerson, attempted to follow Motown to the West Coast, but became frustrated with the company’s confused new direction. Eventually most returned, unknown and not particularly well off, to Detroit. Some became reputable session musicians, others went into retirement. “I was on the road with the Four Tops for 15 years, but I’d quit in 1990,” Willis told the Washington Post in 2002. “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.” In the same Post article, Ashford said he stopped playing his vibraphone in 1975: “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?”
Standing in the Shadows of Motown almost single-handedly revived the Funks’ career and returned them to the spotlight. Despite Slutsky’s aggressive script-marketing efforts, movie studios were completely uninterested for almost a decade. It took a completely unrelated film, Artisan’s Buena Vista Social Club, a documentary about legendary Cuban musicians, to give studios a reference point. Slutsky finally landed an Artisan deal, and in 2000 he reunited the Funks—with contemporary stars like Joan Osborne, Chaka Khan and Ben Harper taking lead vocals on Motown classics.
The film was critically acclaimed, and nominated for several prestigious critics’ awards (although not an Oscar), but it arrived with a sad postscript. A few days after viewing a screening, drummer Richard “Pistol” Allen died of cancer in June of 2002; just months later, keyboardist Johnny Griffith died of a heart attack. “Pistol and Uriel [Jones] had no business doing this film—they risked their lives” during the live performances, Slutsky told the Washington Post. “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.’”
(With Stevie Wonder) Greatest Hits, Vol. 1, Motown, 1968.
(With Marvin Gaye) What’s Going On, Motown, 1971.
(With Stevie Wonder) Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, Motown, 1971.
(With the Temptations) Anthology, Motown, 1986.
(With others) Hitsville USA: The Motown Singles Collection 1959-1971, Motown, 1992.
(With Marvin Gaye) The Master: 1961-1984, Motown, 1995.
(With Diana Ross and the Supremes) The Ultimate Collection, Motown, 1997.
(With the Marvelettes) The Ultimate Collection, Motown, 1998.
(With others) Standing In the Shadows of Motown (soundtrack), Hip-O, 2002.
(With Smokey Robinson and the Miracles) Ooo Baby Baby: The Anthology, Motown, 2002.
Early, Gerald, One Nation under a Groove: Motown and American Culture, Ecco Press, 1995.
Posner, Gerald, Motown: Music, Money, Sex, and Power, Random House, 2002.
Slutsky, Allan (“Dr. Licks”), Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson, Hal Leonard Publishing, 1988.
Bass Player, Spring 1990.
Detroit Free Press, July 31, 1983; August 4, 1983; February 27, 2000.
Houston Chronicle, November 28, 2002.
Los Angeles Times, March 6, 2000; November 3, 2002
New York Times, November 10, 2002; November 15, 2002.
San Francisco Chronicle, March 4, 1990.
Rolling Stone, September 29, 1983.
Wall Street Journal, November 26, 2002.
Washington Post, July 19, 1989; November 17, 2002.
“The Funk Brothers,” Standing in the Shadows of Motown http://www.standingintheshadowsofmotown.com/funks.htm (February 12, 2003).
“Motown’s Lost Heroes Emerge,” Rolling Stone,http://www.rollingstone.com/news/newsarticle.asp?nid=17232 (December 19, 2002).
"Funk Brothers." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/funk-brothers
"Funk Brothers." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved March 18, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/funk-brothers
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