The Funk Brothers Biography

For many the greatest group of session musicians to ever grace a recording studio, the Funk Brothers played on more number 1 singles than any other band in history, racking up more hits than the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones combined. Sadly, their status as sidemen for Berry Gordy’s Motown Records operation largely consigned these unsung pioneers to the dusty corners of the annals of popular music, although a 2002 documentary Standing In The Shadows Of Motown went some way to redressing the balance.

The dozen or so players who featured in the Funk Brothers were drawn from the local jazz and blues clubs. The personnel included: guitarists Robert White (19 November 1936, Billmyre, Pennsylvania, USA, d. 1994, Los Angeles, California, USA), Joe Messina (b. 1928, Detroit, Michigan, USA) and Eddie Willis (b. 1936, Grenada, Mississippi, USA), bass players James Jamerson (b. James Lee Jamerson, 29 January 1936, Charleston, South Carolina, USA, d. 2 August 1983, Los Angeles, California, USA) and Bob Babbitt (b. Robert Kreinar, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA), drummers Benny ‘Papa Zita’ Benjamin (b. William Benjamin, 25 July 1925, Birmingham, Alabama, USA, d. 20 April 1969, USA), Richard ‘Pistol’ Allen (b. 12 August 1932, Memphis, Tennessee, USA, d. 30 June 2002, Royal Oak, Michigan, USA) and Uriel Jones (b. 1934, Detroit, Michigan, USA), percussionists Jack Ashford (b. 1934, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA) and Eddie ‘Bongo’ Brown (b. 1932, Clarksdale, Mississippi, USA, d. 28 December 1984, Los Angeles, California, USA), and keyboard players Joe Hunter (b. Joseph Hunter, 19 November 1927, Jackson, Tennessee, USA, d. 2 February 2007, Detroit, Michigan, USA), Earl Van Dyke (b. 8 July 1930, Detroit, Michigan, USA, d. 18 September 1992, Detroit, Michigan, USA) and Johnny Griffith (b. 10 July 1936, Detroit, Michigan, USA, d. 10 November 2002, Detroit, Michigan, USA). Hunter was the original band leader, a position he relinquished in 1964 to Van Dyke.

Based at Hitsville USA, the Motown recording studios in Detroit, Michigan, the Funk Brothers worked with all the leading stars of America’s premier black music label, a role call including such giants as the Miracles, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and the Supremes. Sequestered in the tiny Studio A (the ‘Snakepit’), the musicians spent all day recording the instrumental backing for releases by Motown artists, who they rarely ever saw because vocals were added at different sessions. Paid at the rate of $10 a song, the Funk Brothers were given no credit on album covers (save Gaye’s 1971 masterpiece What’s Going On) and rarely toured with the big stars. Nevertheless, they were instrumental in fashioning the trademark Motown sound, a fact the astute Gordy realised by keeping most of the musicians under contract for the period between 1959 and 1972 when the company was based in Detroit.

When Motown relocated from Detroit to Los Angeles the Funk Brothers were left behind by the now waning company. Several members found work on the local club circuit while others gave up music and settled into an altogether different routine of day jobs and raising families. The revival of the Funk Brothers began in the 80s when Allan Slutsky aka Dr. Licks wrote a book about the recently deceased Jamerson. Slutsky’s work helped elevate the unsung musician to the status his extraordinary bass work deserved (he was later posthumously inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame). A project about the rest of the session crew was a natural follow-up, and Slutsky began work on the documentary Standing In The Shadows Of Motown in the 90s. The surviving Funk Brothers (casualties included Jamerson, Van Dyke, Brown and White; original drummer Benjamin had suffered a fatal stroke in 1969) reunited at the insistence of Slutsky to shoot new footage for the documentary, with guest vocalists including Joan Osborne, Ben Harper and Chaka Khan. The film was finally completed in 2002 and was released the same year to rapturous applause, winning the Best Film Of The Year Award (non-fiction) from the National Society of Film Critics.

The reunited Funk Brothers embarked on a US tour with guest vocalists including Osborne, Bootsy Collins and Maxi Priest. The soundtrack from the film later won two Grammy Awards, for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album and Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance (for a cover version of ‘What’s Going On’ with Chaka Khan). Sadly, in the ensuing period two further members of the Funk Brothers died, keyboard player Johnny Griffith and drummer Richard ‘Pistol’ Allen. Even sadder, after all the various members had been through, was the announcement at the start of 2005 that the Funk Brothers had split into two camps due to personal and legal reasons.

At the Grammy Awards in 2004, the Funk Brothers were presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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