The Funk Brothers
The Funk Brothers were a group of Detroit-based session musicians who performed the backing to most Motown recordings from 1959 until the company moved to Los Angeles in 1972.
They are considered one of the most successful groups of studio musicians in music history. The Funk Brothers played on Motown hits such as "My Girl", "I Heard It Through the Grapevine", "Baby Love", "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours", "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone", "The Tears of a Clown", "Ain't No Mountain High Enough", and "Heat Wave".
There have been many articles written that identify members of the Funk Brothers, some of which claim that virtually every musician who ever played on a Motown track was a "Funk Brother". There are 13 Funk Brothers identified in the film Standing in the Shadows of Motown. The same 13 members were identified by both NARAS for the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and were recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The role of the Funk Brothers is described in Paul Justman's 2002 documentary film Standing in the Shadows of Motown, based on Allan Slutsky's book of the same name. The opening titles claim that the Funk Brothers have "played on more number-one hits than the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys combined."
Early members included bandleader Joe Hunter and Earl Van Dyke (piano and organ); Clarence Isabell (double bass); James Jamerson (bass guitar and double bass); Benny "Papa Zita" Benjamin and Richard "Pistol" Allen (drums); Paul Riser (trombone); Robert White, Eddie Willis, and Joe Messina (guitar); Jack Ashford (tambourine, percussion, vibraphone, marimba); Jack Brokensha (vibraphone, marimba); and Eddie "Bongo" Brown (percussion). Hunter left in 1964, replaced on keyboards by Johnny Griffith and as bandleader by Van Dyke. Uriel Jones joined the band as a third drummer. Late-era bassist Bob Babbitt and guitarist Dennis Coffey both joined the ensemble in 1967.
While most of Motown's backing musicians were African American, and many originally from Detroit, the Funk Brothers included white players as well, such as Messina (who was the featured guitarist on Soupy Sales's nighttime jazz TV show in the 1950s), Brokensha (originally from Australia), Coffey, and Pittsburgh-born Babbitt.
Fame and Funk Brothers name
Unlike their Stax Records backing-band contemporaries Booker T. and the M.G.'s in Memphis, until the release of the Standing in the Shadows of Motown documentary, the members of the Funk Brothers were not widely known. Studio musicians were not credited by Motown until Marvin Gaye's What's Going On in 1971, although Motown released a handful of singles and LPs by Earl Van Dyke. The Funk Brothers shared billing with Van Dyke on some recordings, although they were billed as "Earl Van Dyke & the Soul Brothers", since Motown CEO Berry Gordy, Jr. disliked the word "funk".
Alternatively, the name "Funk Brothers" could have been given to the band ex post facto; the term "funky" as an adjective came to be associated with uptempo and backbeat, Southern-styled soul music in the second half of the 1960s; the term "funk" as a noun is typically associated with uptempo soul music from the 1970s onwards. In the Standing in the Shadows of Motown documentary, Joe Hunter states that the name "The Funk Brothers" came from Benny Benjamin. Hunter states that Benjamin was leaving the studio (known as the "Snake Pit", due to all the cable runs out of the ceiling) after session work, paused on the stairs, turned and said to his fellow musicians, "You all are the Funk Brothers." The band was then informally named.
The Funk Brothers often moonlighted 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 quite by accident—the Funk Brothers migrated to do the Wilson session, in an interesting reference to Motown's early history: Berry Gordy, Jr got his first music break by getting Wilson to record some of his songs (most famously "Reet Petite") in the 1950s. Various Funk Brothers also appeared on such non-Motown hits as The San Remo Golden Strings "Hungry For Love", "Cool Jerk" (the Capitols), "Agent Double-O Soul" (Edwin Starr, before that singer joined Motown itself), "(I Just Wanna) Testify" by the Parliaments, "Band Of Gold" (Freda Payne), "Give Me Just A Little More Time" (Chairmen of the Board), and blues giant John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom". After he found out about the Edwin Starr session, Gordy fined members of the Funk Brothers band for moonlighting for another label; Eddie Wingate, owner of the Ric-Tic and Golden World labels, which released Starr's "Agent Double-O Soul", subsequently attended that year's Motown staff Christmas party and personally gave each of the fined session players double the amount of the fine in cash, on the spot. Gordy eventually bought out Wingate's label and his entire artist roster.
Motown historians have noted that the Funk Brothers—some of whom had begun their careers as jazzmen and missed that kind of informality—itched to be able to record on their own, but Gordy limited them formally to cutting sides under the name Earl Van Dyke and the Soul Brothers—and mostly limited them to recording new versions (with the familiar arrangements, however) of the Motown repertoire, with Van Dyke, the featured musician, playing electric organ. Some of the Funk Brothers' recordings in that vein—"Soul Stomp," "Six by Six"—became favourites among Northern soul and "beach music" fans.
During the mid- to late-1960s, one-fifth of Motown records began utilizing session musicians based in Los Angeles, usually covers and tributes of mainstream pop songs and showtunes. By 1970, an increasing number of Motown sessions were in Los Angeles instead of Detroit, notably all the Jackson 5's hit recordings. Nevertheless, Motown producers such as Norman Whitfield, Frank Wilson, Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson steadfastly continued to record in Detroit.
The Funk Brothers were dismissed in 1972, when Berry Gordy moved the entire Motown label to Los Angeles—a development some of the musicians discovered only from a notice on the studio door. A few members, including Jamerson, followed to the West Coast, but found the environment uncomfortable. For many of the L.A. recordings, members of The Wrecking Crew—the prominent group of session musicians that included drummer Earl Palmer, bassist Carol Kaye, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, and keyboardist Larry Knechtel—joined the team at Motown.
In February 2004, surviving members of the Funk Brothers were presented the Grammy Legend Award at the 46th Annual Grammy Awards at the Staples Center in L.A. In March 2006, some remaining Funk Brothers were invited to perform on Philadelphia writer-producer-singer Phil Hurtt's recording session at Studio A, Dearborn Heights, Detroit, where they contributed their performances to "The Soulful Tale of Two Cities" project. The double-album sleeve notes read: "Motown's legendary Funk Brothers and members of Philadelphia's world renowned MFSB take you 'back in the day' with an album filled with classic Philly and Motown hits." Bob Babbitt, Joe Hunter, Uriel Jones, and Eddie Willis performed alongside other notable Detroit session musicians, like Ray Monette, Robert Jones, Spider Webb, and Treaty Womack. The musicians played on the Philly hits, giving their unique Detroit interpretations of the songs under the leadership of Phil Hurtt, Bobby Eli, Clay McMurray and Lamont Dozier. Many other ex-Motown and Detroit artists performed vocals on the session, including the Velvelettes, Carolyn Crawford, Lamont Dozier, Bobby Taylor, Kim Weston, Freda Payne, and George Clinton.
In 2008 Uriel Jones, Ray Monette, Dennis Coffey, Robert Jones and Bob Babbitt accompanied other notable Detroit session musicians, including Larry Fratangelo, Dennis Sheridan, Edward Gooch, John Trudell, saxophonist George Benson, Mark Burger, David Jennings, Spider Webb, George Katsakis, Gil Bridges and Rob Pipho, on the Carl Dixon Bandtraxs project, which featured a Dennis Coffey–Carl Dixon production of four new songs. Vocal performances by Spyder Turner, Pree and Gayle Butts provided lead and backing for the session. The session was arranged by ex-Motown arranger David J. Van De Pitte. The session was also at Studio A, Dearborn Heights, Detroit, and was the dream of a 19-year-old Dixon, back in 1974, to pay homage to musicians, particularly The Funk Brothers, producers and those who influenced him with their music. It took Dixon almost 33 years to find the musicians and meet via the web site soulfuldetroit.com. It was via this web site that he and Dennis Coffey hooked up and then eventually collaborated to make the session work. On Dennis Coffey’s suggestion there were two drummers on this session, Uriel Jones and Spider Webb, who shared responsibility for the groove throughout the recordings, along with Bob's pounding bass lines. Robert Jones played on the studios’ over 100 year old Steinway grand piano.
In 2008 surviving members recorded Live in Orlando, an album and video.
In 2010, surviving members of the Funk Brothers accompanied Phil Collins on his Motown covers album, Going Back, and appear in the live Going Back concert DVD.
In 2010, the Funk Brothers were voted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame.
Legacy and techniques
The band used innovative techniques. For example, most Motown records feature two drummers, playing together or overdubbing one another—Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" used three drummers. A number of songs utilized instrumentation and percussion unusual in soul music. The Temptations' "It's Growing" features Earl Van Dyke playing a toy piano for the song's introduction, snow chains are used as percussion on Martha and the Vandellas' "Nowhere to Run", and a custom oscillator was built to create the synthesizer sounds used to accent several Holland-Dozier-Holland compositions and productions, such as Diana Ross & the Supremes' "The Happening" and "Reflections." A tire iron was used in the Martha & the Vandellas song "Dancing in the Street".
James Jamerson, who began his career playing upright bass, adopted the Fender Precision Bass, an electric instrument, in 1962, and played both acoustic and electric bass on some Motown recordings. Like such producers as Brian Wilson, George Martin, and Phil Spector, it wasn't uncommon for Motown composers or the Funk Brothers musicians to seek unique instrument combinations for certain lines; doubling piano, bass, and vibraphone (such as on some of the Four Tops's hits) was practically a Motown trademark, too.
Awards and recognition
The Funk Brothers have received three Grammy awards:
- Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004
- Best Traditional R&B Performance for "What's Going On" with Chaka Khan, 2002
- Best Compilation Soundtrack Album For A Motion Picture, Television Or Other Visual Media for Standing in the Shadows of Motown, 2002.
Bassist James Jamerson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, and drummer Benny Benjamin in 2003. In 2003, surviving members were invited to the White House to meet President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, in an event tied to Black History Month.
In 2007, the Funk Brothers were inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. On March 21, 2013, the Funk Brothers were honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In August 2014--The Funk Brothers were inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Hall Of Fame at the Induction ceremony which was held in Canton, Ohio that year
As discussed above, the name "The Funk Brothers" was a loosely applied designation. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences recognizes 13 musicians as official "Funk Brothers", but the name is often casually used as a catch-all designation to cover any musician who played on a Motown record. In fact, the "Funk Brothers" name wasn't used until Benny Benjamin referred to his fellow musicians by that name while leaving a studio session in the 1960s.
The following list covers the musicians most frequently used on Motown recordings from 1959 through 1972; it is not an exhaustive list of every musician ever used. The 13 Funk Brothers recognized as official band members by NARAS are marked with an asterisk.
Membership lists based upon research by Allan Slutsky, with some minor corrections.
Los Angeles musicians
Los Angeles was an alternate recording center for Motown artists beginning in the mid-1960s, utilizing a different set of musicians. Hit tracks recorded in L.A. include the Miracles' "More Love", many of Brenda Holloway's songs, and all the early hits of the Jackson 5.
Many of the Los Angeles players were members of the Wrecking Crew, a loose-knit group of studio musicians.
Arrangers and conductors
- Detroit: Paul Riser, Willie Shorter, David Van DePitte, Wade Marcus, Johnny Allen, Gil Askey, Ernie Wilkins, Jerry Long, Henry "Hank" Cosby, Slide Hampton, and H. B. Barnum
- Los Angeles: Gene Page, James Carmichael, Arthur Wright, Michael Lovesmith
Selected list of hit songs on which the Funk Brothers played
- (Tamla) Motown
- "Please Mr. Postman" – The Marvelettes
- "Fingertips Pt. 2" – Stevie Wonder
- "The Girl's Alright With Me" - The Temptations
- "My Guy" – Mary Wells
- "Where Did Our Love Go" – The Supremes
- "Baby I Need Your Lovin'" - The Four Tops
- "Baby Love" – The Supremes
- "Come See About Me" – The Supremes
- "My Girl" – The Temptations
- "Stop! In the Name of Love" – The Supremes
- "Back in My Arms Again" – The Supremes
- "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)" – The Four Tops
- "I Hear a Symphony" – The Supremes
- ”Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart - The Supremes
- "You Can't Hurry Love" – The Supremes
- "Reach Out I'll Be There" – The Four Tops
- "You Keep Me Hangin' On" – The Supremes
- "The Happening" – The Supremes
- "Love Child" – Diana Ross and the Supremes
- "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" – Marvin Gaye
- "I Can't Get Next to You" – The Temptations
- "Someday We'll Be Together" – Diana Ross and the Supremes
- "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" – Diana Ross
- "The Tears of a Clown" – Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
- "Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)" – The Temptations
- "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" – The Temptations
- "Let's Get It On" – Marvin Gaye
- "Just a Little Misunderstanding" – The Contours
- "Shop Around" – The Miracles
- "Shotgun" – Junior Walker & the All Stars
- "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)" – Marvin Gaye
- "The One Who Really Loves You" – Mary Wells
- "The Way You Do the Things You Do" – The Temptations
- "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" – Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell
- "(I'm a) Road Runner" – Junior Walker & the All Stars
- "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" – The Temptations
- "I Wish It Would Rain" – The Temptations
- "Reflections" – Diana Ross & the Supremes
- "(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave" – Martha & the Vandellas
- "Hitch Hike" – Marvin Gaye
- "What's So Good About Goodbye" – The Miracles
- "I Was Made to Love Her" – Stevie Wonder
- "It's the Same Old Song" – The Four Tops
- "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" – The Miracles
- "Standing in the Shadows of Love" – The Four Tops
- "If I Were Your Woman" – Gladys Knight and the Pips
- "Going to a Go-Go" – The Miracles
- "Heaven Must Have Sent You" – The Elgins
- "Dancing in the Street" – Martha & the Vandellas
- "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" – Marvin Gaye
- "Cloud Nine" – The Temptations
- "What's Goin' On" – Marvin Gaye
- "Do You Love Me" – The Contours
- "Get Ready" – The Temptations
- "Function at the Junction" – Shorty Long
- "My World Is Empty Without You" – The Supremes
- "The Tracks of My Tears" – The Miracles
- "Can I Get a Witness" – Marvin Gaye
- "Nowhere to Run" – Martha & the Vandellas
- "Here Comes the Judge" – Shorty Long
- "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)" – Stevie Wonder
- "Beachwood 4-5789" – The Marvelettes
- "Bernadette" – The Four Tops
- "Two Lovers" – Mary Wells
- "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" – Jimmy Ruffin
- "My Cherie Amour" – Stevie Wonder
- "I Second That Emotion" – Smokey Robinson & the Miracles
- "(I Know) I'm Losing You" – The Temptations
- "First I Look at the Purse" – The Contours
- "Ooo Baby Baby" – The Miracles
- "25 Miles" – Edwin Starr
- "I'll Be Doggone" – Marvin Gaye
- "Pride and Joy" – Marvin Gaye
- "Ball of Confusion (That's What the World Is Today)" – The Temptations
- "It Takes Two" – Marvin Gaye & Kim Weston
- "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)" – The Isley Brothers
- "Uptight" – Stevie Wonder
- "Devil with a Blue Dress On" – Shorty Long
- "Jimmy Mack" – Martha & the Vandellas
- "Since I Lost My Baby" – The Temptations
- "War" – Edwin Starr
- "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" – Marvin Gaye
- "Don't Mess with Bill" – The Marvelettes
- "You Beat Me to the Punch" – Mary Wells
- "Shake Me, Wake Me (When It's Over)" – The Four Tops
- "Walk Away Renee" – The Four Tops
- "Mickey's Monkey" – The Miracles
- "Ain't That Peculiar" – Marvin Gaye
- "Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day" – Stevie Wonder
- Other labels
- "Cool Jerk" – The Capitols (Atlantic)
- "Whispers (Gettin' Louder)" – Jackie Wilson (Brunswick)
- "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" – Jackie Wilson (Brunswick)
- "Band of Gold" – Freda Payne (Invictus)
- "Crumbs off the Table" – Glass House (Invictus)
- "Give Me Just a Little More Time" – Chairmen of the Board (Invictus)
- "Someone's Been Sleeping in My Bed" – 100 Proof (Aged in Soul) (Hot Wax)
- "Boom Boom" – John Lee Hooker (Vee-Jay)
- The Andantes
- Booker T. & the M.G.'s
- The Wrecking Crew (music)
- Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section
- Salsoul Orchestra
- The J.B.'s
- Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra
- The Memphis Boys
- Tower of Power horn section
- Compass Point All Stars
- Justman, Paul (2002). Standing in the Shadows of Motown (Motion picture). New York: Artisan Entertainment.
- Ryan, Jack (2016). Recollections, the Detroit Years: The Motown Sound by the People who Made it. Glendower Media. p. 102. ISBN 978-0914303190.