The Funk Brothers: The Best Band You’ve Never Heard Of…

David Hoffman

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The Beatles, Elvis, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys: these are the big names that come to mind when we think of classic bands. There is one group, however, that recorded more hit singles than all of the previously mentioned groups combined. You know some of their tunes inside and out, but their name is probably a complete mystery to you. I speak of the talented, revolutionary group: The Funk Brothers.

Who are The Funk Brothers? What is their music?

The Funk Brothers are everywhere. Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Supremes, Diana Ross, The Marvelettes and many others: The Funk Brothers tracked the instrumental music for all of these artists. From the memorable bass intro and guitar lick of the Temptations’ “My Girl,” to the mesmerizing groove of the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” to the classic guitar-wah intro of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” the Funk Brothers were the masterminds behind all the classic R&B hits we know and love.

Where did they come from?

These young, talented musicians found their way to Detroit, in the first place, because of the post-WWII auto boom of Detroit. Many Black American families from the South moved to Detroit looking for economic opportunity and a better future. Guitarist Eddie Willis, who grew up in the small, poor town Grenada, Mississippi, recounts, “I built my first guitar out of broom wire, and I attached it to the house.” Other Funk Brothers hailed from South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and some were even born and raised in Detroit.

Rooted in the jazz and R&B nightclub scene of Detroit, each Funk Brother developed his own path of musicianship and talent, eventually finding himself in the inception of this unexpectedly legendary super group.

The actual assemblage of the Funk Brothers began in the late 1950s. From 1957 to 1958, a young music producer and recruiter Berry Gordy worked furiously to establish a network of talented artists, and at the beginning of 1959, he started up his own R&B label Tamia Records. In 1960, Tamia evolved into the famous Motown Records label. The Funk Brothers essentially functioned as Motown’s band.  

Though, when we look back at Motown’s success, the typical list of all the successful artists we recall is a drastically incomplete picture. For however talented singers and performers like Gladys Knight, the Temptations and the Supremes were –and they were immensely talented– it was the Funk Brothers who ultimately put it all together. Motown’s best hits often blossomed from a bassline James Jamerson threw down, a flashy beat drummer Benny “Papa Zita” Benjamin fleshed out, or a fresh, new idea pianist and arranger Earl Van Dyke imagined.

In the words of modern-day producer and drummer Steve Jordan, “When these cats cut tracks, no offense to any of the great artists who sang on them, but anybody could have sang on them…because the tracks were just so incredible. They were musical entities unto themselves.”

Starting in 1959, the studio artists Joe Hunter (keys), Robert White, Eddie Willis, Joe Messina (guitar), James Jamerson (bass), William “Benny” Benjamin, Richard “Pistol Allen (drums), Eddie “Bongo” Brown (percussion), among many others, began their musical journey. From 1959 to 1972, the Detroit-based super group of powerhouse musicians tracked for a myriad of artists and changed the scene of music.

Why didn’t they achieve fame?

Inhibiting the fame of the Funk Brothers was the fact that Motown only advertised the names of the vocal artists. Berry Gordy’s primary motivation with Motown was to put Black American music on the map, and he sought to achieve this by presenting and branding the vocalists as classy, professional performers. For the most part, except for a very limited number of touring gigs, the Funk Brothers were largely restricted to studio recording. In fact, many members, such as James Jamerson, were contractually fixed into recording exclusively for Motown. This made individual success among the Funk Brothers a near impossibility.

Furthermore, leading up to 1972, Berry Gordy moved Motown’s focus and operations to Los Angeles, where music was more easily branded and produced. By 1972, most of the Funk Brothers either made Detroit their home or simply could not afford to make the trip to LA and redefine themselves within a completely new music scene.

Los Angeles’ music scene was a stark contrast compared to the R&B, soul niche in Detroit. More importantly, the Funk Brothers were a family. After loving, respecting and making music with this family for over 10 years, they were the best versions of themselves, musically, when they played together. So, keeping up with the success of the Motown label was effectively a dead end for the few Funk Brothers who made it out to LA, such as James Jamerson and Pistol Allen.

Interestingly enough, the Funk Brothers had a considerable following in Great Britain. In 1965, the Funk Brothers actually landed a huge Motown tour through England. Before and after their performances, they often encountered fans a part of their self-title, “James Jamerson Club.”

At the same time the Funk Brothers toured in England, The Beatles made their way to the United States. During their 1965 tour, sure enough, The Beatles brought their own renditions of Motown hits to perform to American audiences. Likewise, The Rolling Stones, in subsequent years, introduced their own renditions of Motown songs.

The Funk Brothers’ music truly touched hearts and minds all around the world. Yet, recognition remained minimal at best.

Finally, in 1989, someone decided to bring the real heroes of Motown into the mainstream. Musician and writer Allan Slutsky wrote a book entitled Standing in the Shadows of Motown to honor the talent and legend of James Jamerson’s bass playing. Then, in 2002, a documentary film of the same title picked up where Slutsky left off by exploring the journey of the entire Funk Brothers group.

Slutsky’s inspiration to produce and actively promote documentary arose from a lunch he shared with Funk Brothers guitarist Robert White in 1992. Slutsky recalls that the restaurant radio played “My Girl,” a Motown song with one of the most memorable guitar riffs in modern music. Robert White himself wrote that guitar riff, yet nobody knew.

In that moment, Allan thought to himself, “Here’s a guy who’s lived for 30 years right next to his dream, and yet instead of being inside the dream looking out, he was outside the dream looking in.” This was the unfortunate reality all the Funk Brothers shared prior to 1989 and 2002.

        Not only does Standing in the Shadows of Motown (documentary) portray the thorough, genuine story of the Funk Brothers, but it also reunited the Brothers still alive in 2002 to play a few shows in Detroit. Among the surviving Funk Brothers featured in the documentary and in the 2002 reprisal performances were pianists Joe Hunter and Johnny Griffith, drummers Pistol Allen and Uriel Jones, bassist Bob Babbitt and percussionist Jack Ashford.

One of the Funk Brother’s earliest hit singles.

Today, three original Funk Brothers are still with us: guitarist Joe Messina, 86 years old, guitarist Eddie Willis, 79, and percussionist Jack Ashford, 81. As far as recognition, bassist James Jamerson was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 for his revolutionary bass guitar work. In years after the 2002 documentary, the Funk Brothers have received two Grammys, induction into the Musician’s Hall of Fame. In 2013, Hollywood memorialized the Funk Brothers with a Walk of Fame Star.

Looking back at the story of the Funk Brothers is testing. On the one hand, one cannot help but feel immensely sorry and disappointed that their legendary work remained largely invisible for so long. And even when they finally achieved recognition, only a few of them were alive to experience the long-deserved praise.

On the other hand, these bright human beings, these revolutionary musicians, these Funk Brothers created something magical and everlasting. The Funk Brothers will arguably never receive the extent of recognition they truly deserve. Their work, however, their music, in all of its non-recognition, preserves the true essence of music: love and life. And the grand scope their music encompasses is ultimately a reflection of their truly exceptional personalities.

If I may be allowed a small pun, there ain’t no mountain high enough (Marvin Gaye song that Funk Brothers recorded in 1973) to illustrate the talent, the legend, the beauty that was The Funk Brothers: the sweetest treasure in modern music.

Funk Brothers perform “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (originally by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell) with guest singers Montell Jordan and Chaka Khan. (2002)

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