How strange it is, and unfortunate, when the people who put in the hours and do the bulk of the work aren’t given the credit or the glory for what they’ve contributed.
In pop music, this has happened fairly often. The superstar singer basks in the spotlight while the session musicians or touring band work their wonders largely in the background.
In the 1960s, there was a loose confederation of hip studio musicians in Los Angeles who came to be known as The Wrecking Crew because they were “wrecking the industry” for the button-down guys who came before them. I’ve already written about The Wrecking Crew in Hack’s Back Pages, most recently when drummer Hal Blaine passed away last year. He and players like Larry Knechtel, Tommy Tedesco, Carol Kane and others worked in anonymity while laying down the amazing bass, drums, keyboards and guitars on hundreds of hit singles by dozens of famous artists from The Fifth Dimension and Frank Sinatra to The Beach Boys and Neil Diamond.
Over in Detroit, where Berry Gordy established his Motown Records “Hitsville U.S.A.” juggernaut, the same thing happened, only more so.
The hundreds of hit records that millions of us danced to — back then and still today — were sung by widely known stars like The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations. But who played the bass, drums, keyboards and guitars that were the crucial foundation bubbling along under the singers?
Most people, even most fans of Motown music, have no idea.
These 13 men (give or take) liked to call themselves The Funk Brothers. Why, you ask? Legend goes, at the end of one enthusiastic all-night recording session, drummer Benny Benjamin paused as he was heading out, turned and said to his colleagues, “You all are The Funk Brothers!” The moniker stuck, even if it was unknown to the public at large.
Whereas some of The Wrecking Crew went on to fame (Glen Campbell, Leon Russell), none of The Funk Brothers achieved any kind of celebrity status, either during or after Motown’s glory years (1961-1972), at least until recently.
“It was bigger than we thought it was gonna be,” recalls keyboardist Joe Hunter, one of the early stalwarts of The Funk Brothers. “We didn’t know it was gonna be that big. At first, we didn’t notice what was going on because we were too busy creating the music and the magic. Finally, you know you’ve played on all those hit records, on jukeboxes and radios everywhere, and everyone says, ‘Oh, that’s Motown.’ But they never knew us. Nobody ever mentioned too much about us. After a long time goes by, finally it gets to you. When the dust cleared, we realized we were being left out of the legacy. We wondered, will anyone ever know who we are and what we did?”
The Funk Brothers can thank Allan Slutsky, a musician/arranger and music historian, for his efforts to increase awareness about The Funk Brothers and their monumental contributions to popular music. In 1989, he wrote “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” an award-winning best seller that told the fascinating yet tragic story of the late James Jamerson, The Funk Brothers’ influential giant on bass guitar. The book doubled as a bass instruction book, detailing Jamerson’s game-changing bass lines on iconic tracks like “I Was Made to Love Her,” “My Girl,” “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “Nowhere to Run” and “What’s Going On.”
Then, in 2002, Slutsky produced the Grammy-winning documentary of the same name, which broadened its scope to tell the story of all The Funk Brothers, offering first-person accounts of their backgrounds and their recollections of the many sessions where their legendary music was created. Slutsky’s narrative put it this way: “The Funk Brothers were an overpowering lineup of veteran groove masters and trailblazing virtuosos… An irresistible tapestry of instrumental hooks and counterrhythms that defined the Motown sound. The dance floors of the world didn’t stand a chance.”
It’s a compelling narrative, and I urge you to check it out on DVD or various streaming sources.
In 1959, when Gordy was just getting started, he knew he needed really great musicians to work in his recording studio, and he knew where to find them. He went to the various night clubs around Detroit and scouted the jazz musicians performing there.
“Berry came in to the club — I think it was Chappy’s, or Baker’s Keyboard Lounge — and said he wanted to set up a record company and needed good musicians,” said Hunter. “He knew (drummer) Benny, and he got a bunch of us to come over for a rehearsal at Smokey Robinson’s house.”
Guitarist Robert White and keyboard great Earl “Chunk of Funk” Van Dyke were among the early recruits, as were percussionist Eddie Brown and guitarists Eddie Willis and Joe Messina. This original gang of players added a few more names over the next couple of years: Uriel Jones and Robert Allen on drums, Johnny Griffith on keyboards, Bob Babbitt on bass and Jack Ashford on percussion.
Gordy bought a small house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, and while he and his wife lived in second-floor quarters, the lower level was converted for use as Studio A, lovingly known as “The Snake Pit” because of all the cables running down from the ceiling. It was in this relatively cramped yet mystical place the Funk Brothers called home where all those hundreds of Motown songs were created, sometimes in an hour or less.
Numerous tracks by various aspiring artists were recorded in the first year or two but without much success on the Billboard Top 40 chart, although several records like Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” did well on the lesser R&B charts.
The musicians who made up The Funk Brothers still did gigs in their old haunts around Detroit, and that camaraderie and time spent together jamming on various jazz tunes hatched new ideas, new riffs, new techniques that eventually made their way into The Snake Pit and onto pop records.
In 1960, Robinson and his vocal group, The Miracles, became Motown’s first crossover chart success with the #2 hit, “Shop Around.” They scored big again in 1962 with “You Really Got a Hold On Me,” as did The Contours with the timeless “Do You Love Me” and The Marvelettes with Motown’s first chart topper, “Please Mr. Postman.” Playing the instrumental foundation on these records? The Funk Brothers, of course.
From 1964 to 1969, Motown ruled the airwaves as The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey and The Miracles, Mary Wells, Martha and The Vandellas, The Contours, Kim Weston, Junior Walker and The All-Stars, Gladys Knight and The Pips and Brenda Holloway took turns dominating the pop charts with records that are all still enormously popular 50 years later. Accompanying them on every one of their records was one combination or another of The Funk Brothers.
By the late ’60s, the psychedelic soul of Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone made its mark, and Motown took notice. Producers like Norman Whitfield lobbied to bring in additional guitarists like Dennis Coffey to perform the wah-wah on tracks like The Temptations’ “Cloud Nine.”
But no musician credits were ever listed on Motown releases, at least not until Gaye insisted on it on his trailblazing 1970 LP, “What’s Going On.” From then on, The Funk Brothers’ individual names started appearing in the liner notes.
The Funk Brothers often moonlighted on the sly for other labels, recording in Detroit and elsewhere, in bids to augment their Motown salaries. It became a worst-kept secret that Jackie Wilson’s 1967 hit “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” did not have a Motown influence by accident; the Funk Brothers migrated to do the Wilson session. Various Funk Brothers also appeared on such non-Motown hits as “Cool Jerk” by the Capitols), “Agent Double-O Soul” by Edwin Starr, “(I Just Wanna) Testify” by the Parliaments, “Band Of Gold” by Freda Payne and “Give Me Just A Little More Time” by Chairmen of the Board.
“They were just really, really good jazz musicians,” noted Don Was, bass player and influential producer in the ’80s and ’90s. “They could swing like crazy, and that’s not something that’s always present in pop music. When there’s a groove like that, the subliminal effects, everybody just feels good.”
“No disrespect to any of the great artists who sang on them, but truthfully, anybody could’ve sung on them,” claimed producer/drummer Steve Jordan, “because the
instrumental tracks underneath were just so incredible. They were musical entities unto themselves.”
Many observers singled out Jamerson for his bass playing. “He represented the height of creative freedom and experimentation on bass,” said multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter Ben Harper. “West Coast, East Coast, any coast you name, the man absolutely changed the course of the bass, not just holding down a steady bottom, but adding countermelody and riffs. No one else knew, but savvy musicians knew. Paul McCartney kept asking Beatles producer George Martin, ‘I want my bass lines to sound like the ones we hear on the Motown tracks.'”
It’s almost criminal that it wasn’t until decades later that these guys received any kind of industry recognition. Jamerson was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 2000, and Benjamin in 2003. The Funk Brothers received a collective Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2004 Grammys and were inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville in 2007. A star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was instilled in 2013.
Martha Reeves recalled a session that was hastily called together, and a few faces were missing. “Where’s James? He’s out of town? Call the other guy. Get ’em in here. Ain’t no one recording nothing without The Funk Brothers!”
Drummer Asher said, “For years and years, players and producers tried to find that magic Motown sound, as if it was some sort of a formula or something. It wasn’t the artist, or the producers, or the way the building was constructed, the covering on the walls, the wood on the floor. It was the musicians, plain and simple. Without them, you’re nowhere. As Marvin sang, ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.”
Claims Paul Riser, Motown arranger/producer, “Without The Funk Brothers, there really wouldn’t be a Motown. They were the sound, the essence of Motown.”
Shall we recap? Here it is, a comprehensive but incomplete list of classic songs on which The Funk Brothers played their anonymous (until now) role:
“Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Do You Love Me,” “The Tracks of My Tears,” “Ooh Baby Baby,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Can I Get a Witness,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “My World is Empty Without You,” “I Was Made to Love Her,” “My Girl,” “Shotgun,” “Mercy Mercy Me,” “Hitch Hike,” “Cloud Nine,” “Dancing in the Street,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Don’t Mess With Bill,” “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “My Guy,” “Get Ready,” “Baby Love,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “Nowhere to Run,” “Love Child,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Uptight (Everything’s All Right),” “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” “It Takes Two,” “I Hear a Symphony,” “Bernadette,” “Going to A Go-Go,” “I Wish It Would Rain,” “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave,” “Tears of a Clown,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” “Someday We’ll Be Together,” “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love),” “This Old Heart of Mine,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” “Where Did Our Love Go,” “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You),” “Roadrunner,” “Reflections,” “Just My Imagination,” “Pride and Joy,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “I Can’t Help Myself,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “I Second That Emotion,” “For Once In My Life.”
Good Lord, can I hear an “amen” for the wondrous talent of The Funk Brothers??!!