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Here’s a question for you. What do the Temptations, the Four Tops, Al Green, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross & the Supremes all have in common? If you said Motown, you’d be correct. I mean the Motown located in Detroit. The iconic blue and white building on West Grand Boulevard. The 1960s Motown. The one before they moved to Los Angeles.
Here’s another question. What do Earl Van Dyke, James Jamerson, Benny Benjamin, Richard Allen, Eddie Willis and Joe Messina have in common? Not so familiar? Here’s a hint, they were part of a musical group responsible for more number one hits than Elvis, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and The Beatles … combined. They are the most prolific musical group in the history of recorded music. Still not ringing any bells? Does the name the Funk Brothers sound familiar? If not, you are not alone. Despite the achievements of the Funk Brothers they spent the majority of their careers in complete anonymity.
The Funk Brothers were the house band that recorded all of Motown’s acts in the “snake pit,” the name given to the basement studio at Motown. They played all of the music for all of the iconic groups that recorded for Motown. They did little else than play the music on hit after number-one hit. They were each, in their own right, supremely talented musicians and could certainly have had stellar individual recording careers. They chose, however, to work for Berry Gordy and Motown Records.
The dance floors the world over hardly even stood a chance.
Earl “Chunk of Funk” Van Dyke, one of the early bandleaders, played the piano with such ferocity that after nearly each recording session the piano had to be tuned. The Motown arrangers and producers used Van Dyke to pass along their ideas to the other musicians.
Then there was James “Igor” Jamerson, arguably one of the greatest electric bass players of all time. Jamerson was a converted stand-up bass player, and when he switched to electric he used only the index finger of his right hand to pluck the strings. With this one finger he laid down bass lines so technically advanced that bass players today often have difficulty playing them with two fingers. On March 6, 2000 James Jamerson was finally given the recognition he so highly deserved. That day, he was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Benny “Pappa Zita” Benjamin was one of the early drummers and started with Berry Gordy in 1958. Benny’s drum style was rather explosive and from the beginning defined the Motown sound. His influences were R&B, big band and blues.
Joe Messina was a local Detroit jazz guitarist who joined Motown in 1959. His timing was so precise that that Earl Van Dyke once said, “Joe never blew a backbeat on one session in the 14 years he was at Motown.”
Joe Hunter was another early bandleader. He was a self-described boogie-woogie pianist. He helped set the style for the early Motown sound which generations of people all around the world so widely recognize.
There were others as well. Bob Babbitt, who had the difficult task of playing bass in James Jamerson’s shadow. Uriel Jones on drums, Jack Ashford on percussion, Richard “Pistol” Allen on drums, Eddie Willis on guitar, Johnny Griffith on keyboards and Eddie “Bongo” Brown on percussion.
They did much more than play notes on a page. They inserted their own interpretations on the music. Take for example the guitar into on “My Girl.” With one of the greatest guitar licks ever played, most anyone who hears this intro immediately recognizes this classic hit. Often, they would play after hours at local jazz clubs. Many of the improvisations played at night found their way on future hit recordings the next day.
For a thoroughly entertaining hour and a half, and for all Motown fans, check out Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, a documentary outlining the Funk Brothers and their influence on bands of almost any genre performing today. If you like classic Motown, this is one DVD you should not pass up. This DVD has been out for several years now but is still interesting to watch, particularly if you are a Motown fan. It is available through Amazon and probably your local record store.
Most of the Funk Brothers have passed away; the remaining ones are pretty old men. But the profound body of work they left, the timeless classics they performed and their collective talents have permanently imbedded them in music history. Their style, their musical contributions and the way they created the Motown sound will continue to influence musicians for many years to come. They were, simply, the greatest hit-making musical group of all time.