Who Are the Funk Brothers?

If you like Motown, then the answer is yes! In fact, if you are a baby boomer, you have loved them for literally decades. In what may be the best-kept musical secret on the planet, they were the band behind more number-one records than Elvis, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones combined. You may be asking yourself why you don’t recognize the band name. That’s because beginning way back in the early 50s, most hit records were made by singing groups and they all needed a backup band. Oddly, they all found one. This was the Funk Brothers.

The Funk Brothers were studio musicians. What you may not know is that studio musicians work within the structure of the musicians union and rarely break away to form their own bands. That is unless you are the famously unknown Funk Brothers. There was one other outstanding group of studio musicians to break out into their own band and this, of course, was the fabulous Toto. (Story to follow)

The story of The Funk Brothers begins with Berry Gordy. Born in 1929, Berry Gordy Jr. was the seventh of Berry Gordy Sr. and Bertha Fuller Gordy’s eight children. He tried many careers such as boxing, record store ownership, assembly line work, and even a tour in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. As his story goes, he then found his niche in the ostentatious world of entertainment.

With a tenacity that reflects his former training as a boxer, Berry Gordy possessed a drive to succeed that matched the lessons he learned from his parents. With his attention to detail, quality, and uniqueness of every element of the Motown experience, Berry built the growing Motown empire on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit called Motown Records.

After Berry purchased the two-family flat on West Grand, he moved his wife and young son into the upper unit and began to build his record company on the first floor. His energy and drive to reach his goal were infectious to the ever-expanding Motown Records family. Hit after hit emerged from his Studio A, housed in a converted photography studio at the back of the house he soon dubbed Hitsville USA!

Motown Records Corporation was established in April of 1960, a year that produced Barret Strong’s biggest hit, “Money,” for which Barry shared writing credits with Janie Bradford. The Miracles’ hit “Shop Around,” written by lead singer Smokey Robinson, was also released that year and reached #1 and 2 respectively, on the R&B national and Billboard pop charts.

Berry Gordy had a very keen eye for talent and a list of his earliest discoveries reads like a who’s who of the golden age of rhythm & blues. Beginning with The Matadors (soon to become The Miracles), Mary Wells, The Marvelettes, and the Primes and Primettes, later to be known as The Temptations and The Supremes, respectively, to name only a few.

Here is a timeline of Berry Gordy’s marvelous achievements:

  • In 1958, Berry Gordy recruits James Jamerson, whose bass is widely hailed as the heartbeat of the Motown sound. The musician’s extraordinary flame is burned onto disc throughout the company’s Detroit era, with “My Girl,” “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” and “What’s Going On” among his many achievements. “When they give me that chord sheet,” Jamerson tells author Nelson George, “I look at it, but then start going with what I feel and what would fit.”
  • William “Benny” Benjamin, nicknamed “Papa Zita,” is Motown’s first drummer, and their rhythmic foundation, with Jamerson. Like the bass player, Benjamin has roots in jazz. His pounding beats are the fuel of “Money (That’s What I Want),” “Dancing In The Street,” “Going To A Go-Go” and many, many more.
  • Keyboardist Earl Van Dyke is the Funks’ frontman, joining in 1963 after time on the road with Aretha Franklin and Lloyd Price. In addition to playing on scores of Motown hits, his leadership role is “just keeping up,” he says. Such modesty. Earl adds, “I had a band that worked nights, so I was the one who usually knew where they were.”
  • These three are the most recognized of the many players of the music shaped and taped in Hitsville U.S.A. from 1959-1972. But take note, too, of guitarists Eddie “Chank” Willis, Robert White, and Joe Messina; keyboardists Joe Hunter, and Johnny Griffith; drummers Richard “Pistol” Allen, and Uriel Jones; percussionists Jack Ashford and Eddie “Bongo” Brown; and bassist Bob Babbitt. Sax solos flow from Norris Patterson, Mike Terry, and Eli Fontaine, among others. Later, guitarists Dennis Coffey and Wah Wah Watson modernize the house.
  • The Funk Brothers record prolifically in Studio A, otherwise known as the Snake Pit. Some of them go on the road with the artists, but not all. Earl Van Dyke takes several players to the U.K. in 1964 (with Kim Weston) and ’65 (the Tamla Motown Revue), where his own “Soul Stomp” and “All For You” are dance-floor staples. Van Dyke is also top-billed on two instrumental albums by the band, 1965’s That Motown Sound and 1970s The Earl of Funk.
  • The musicians are not publicly credited for their work until 1971 when Marvin Gaye lists their names on the cover of his album, What’s Going On. But Motown’s 1972 move to Los Angeles breaks up the Funks as a unit. Several go west, but their Motor City heyday is history.
  • In the wider world, the Funks’ contributions are unsung until 2002s Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, the movie brought to fruition by James Jamerson’s biographer, Allan Slutsky. Thereafter, some of the original musicians tour in the U.S. and abroad, and their stories are finally told.
  • James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin are posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 and 2003, respectively. At the 45th annual Grammy® ceremonies, all the Funks’ names are read aloud as the Standing In The Shadows Of Motown soundtrack album takes two prizes. The following year, they are honored with the Grammy® Lifetime Achievement award.
  • In 2013, the Funk Brothers are further recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Stevie Wonder and former Motown A&R director Mickey Stevenson are present to pay tribute. “These guys were just magic,” says Stevenson. “The gifts came from upstairs but the touch, they formed together.”
  • Alongside the Funks, the Andantes are an essential part of the classic Motown sound. They sing background on thousands of the company’s Detroit recordings, behind all the major artists. They have one single release in their own right, 1964s “(Like A) Nightmare.”
  • The Andantes are Louvain Demps, Jackie Hicks, and Marlene Barrow, later joined by Pat Lewis. Louvain makes her Motown connection in 1959 as part of the Rayber Voices, Berry Gordy’s first singers in back. When she is joined by Jackie and Marlene, they become his principal background sirens from 1962 on. “Definitely we loved the Four Tops,” says Louvain of the group on which the Andantes’ sound is so distinctive. “They could sing anything.”

The Funk Brothers are the Motown Sound helping to create, “The Sound of Young America,” in the basement of Hitsville U.S.A. They are the unsung heroes until the 21st. century.

High Points of the Funk Brothers:

  • First hit: “Come To Me” by Marv Johnson
  • Biggest hit: “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye
  • Top album: That Motown Sound
  • Career highlight: Grammy® Lifetime Achievement award

In the end, The Funk Brothers are eternal and the Berry Gordy empire known as Motown endured forever because everyone loves nostalgia and everyone loves to dance.

Refs: 1. https://www.motownmuseum.org/legacy/berry-gordy/   2. https://classic.motown.com/artist/the-funk-brothers/

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