Saturday, 30 July 2011


The Funk Brothers were the brilliant but largely anonymous studio band responsible for the instrumental backing on countless Motown records from 1959 up to the company's move to Los Angeles in 1972. Indeed, The Funk Brothers were dismissed in 1972, when Berry Gordy Jr. moved the entire Motown label to Los Angeles — an arrangement some of the musicians discovered only from a notice on the studio door. A few members, including James Jamerson (bass 1959-72), followed to the West Coast, but found the environment uncomfortable. Woefully underappreciated as architects of the fabled "Motown sound," the individual musicians were rarely credited on the records that relied upon their performances, which downplayed their importance to the label. Motown's sophisticated, urbane brand of R&B certainly would have been difficult to achieve without the extensive jazz training that many of the Funk Brothers brought to the table. In order to keep that sound a distinctive brand name, Motown signed most of the group to exclusive, highly restrictive contracts during their tenure, although a few peripheral members were able to moonlight on sessions for other companies from time to time. In more recent years, the Funk Brothers' legacy has begun to receive proper attention and belated recognition, most notably in Allen Slutsky's 1989 book Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which focused on bass genius James Jamerson and the 2002 documentary film of the same name, which covered the group as a whole.

In addition to the songwriting prowess of the writers and producers, one of the major factors in the widespread appeal of Motown's music was Gordy's practice of using a highly select and tight-knit group of studio musicians, to record the instrumental or "band" tracks of a majority of Motown recordings. Among the studio musicians responsible for the "Motown Sound" were keyboardists Earl Van Dyke, Johnny Griffith, and Joe Hunter; guitarists Joe Messina, Robert White, and Eddie Willis; percussionists Eddie "Bongo" Brown and Jack Ashford; drummers Benny Benjamin, Uriel Jones, and Richard "Pistol" Allen; and bassists James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt. When the band's career and work was chronicled in the 2002 documentary film it publicised the fact that these musicians "played on more number-one records than The Beatles, Elvis, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys combined."

Much of the Motown Sound came from the use of overdubbed and duplicated instrumentation. Motown songs regularly featured two drummers instead of one (either overdubbed or in unison), as well as three or four guitar lines. Bassist James Jamerson often played his instrument with only his index finger, and created many of the basslines apparent on Motown songs such as "You Can't Hurry Love" by The Supremes.

Of the recognized members, Benny Benjamin died in 1969, Jamerson in 1983, Eddie “Bongo”Brown in 1984, Earl Van Dyke in 1992, Robert White in 1994, Richard “Pistol”Allen and Johnny Griffith in 2002, Joe Hunter in 2007 and Uriel Jones in 2009. Eddie Willis, Joe Messina, Jack Ashford and Bob Babbitt are still with us, thankfully. - Joan Osborne performs in the film Standing in the Shadows of Motown

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