The Men Behind Motown

A few years ago I ran a workshop in which I was given the music of Motown to work with. I initially thought that it was going to be very easy to choose songs with my Beatles’ obsession leading me straight to Please Mr Postman, You really got a hold on me and Money (That’s what I want). I’d settled on these before sitting down to listen to some Motown playlists – Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Jackson 5, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson – I soon realised that it was going to be impossible just to settle on these three songs alone. The problem was it also started to become impossible knowing what to pick as once I had settled on one, I then listened to the next and thought that that would be better.

I then came across the amazing BBC 4 documentary, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, exploring the work and music of the original Motown backing band, The Funk Brothers. This film is based on the book of the same name by Ralph.J.Gleason, and the trailer begins by asking the question “What was the Motown Sound?”, the answer being the “musicians”. There is even a quote in the documentary saying that these musicians could have been given a middle of the road song and still made it sound alive and fresh. Thankfully, they also happened to be provided with great songs. The Funk Brothers played on more number 1 hits than The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones and Elvis – Stop in the Name of LoveAin’t no mountain high enoughI heard it through the GrapevineReach out I’ll be thereMy Girl, I was made to love her, Do you love me, the list goes on (and on and on…).

The “Funk Brothers” are generally considered to be the musicians from the Detroit era of Motown:

  • 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 (guitar)

  • Eddie Willis (guitar)

  • Joe Messina (guitar)

  • Jack Ashford (tambourine, percussion, vibraphone, marimba)

  • Jack Brokensha (vibraphone, marimba)

  • Eddie “Bongo” Brown (percussion)

  • Johnny Griffith (Keyboards)

  • Van Dyke (band leader)

  • Uriel Jones (drummer)

  • Bob Babbitt (bass)

  • Dennis Coffey (guitar)

The most complete and fair list of the Funk Brothers lineup can be found at the official documentary website page

Techniques developed by the Funk Brothers include using two drummers (later seen in with bands including Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers and Genesis), doubling instrumental lines (piano, bass and vibes lines were often doubled) and the use of experimental instruments or objects such as toy pianos, chains, synthesisers .

Of these names, I would say that only two or three could even be loosely considered as names recognised in their own right, and for me that tends to be the bass players, most likely down to my own bass playing. These early Motown records influenced The Beatles’ hugely and I remember reading how Paul McCartney said that he took so much influence from these early Motown records but never knew the name of the bass player he had been listening to all of these years: James Jameson (or perhaps Carol Kaye from her claims that she actually played a lot of the L.A. Motown bass lines in which Jameson only followed for a short stint). Over the years this, of course, worked both ways with many Motown renditions of Beatles’ songs.

Only recently have the Funk Brothers started to receive the recognition they never received at the time of their work, previously having been hidden behind the huge artists that they backed and tied into Berry Gordy’s contracts. They received the Grammy Legend award in 2004, entered the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville in 2008 and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2014.

Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On was the final Funk Brothers recording in the Detroit Hitsville USA Studio A before Motown moved to L.A.. In 2008 the Funk Brothers re-united for a performance and recording in Orlando. The following clips are taken from this concert, first with Ben Harper singing Gaye’s I heard it through the Grapevine, and then Joan Osbourne singing Martha and the the Vandella’s Heatwave. Both are perfect examples of the arrangement that went into these amazing songs – every player has a purpose (being a line or a texture), the backing vocals either fill out the sound or punctuate the lead vocal line, the bass adds not only depth and rhythm but often counter-melody without being overly busy, and the guitars aren’t flashy but provide little pieces of ear candy that sit tightly in between all the rhythms and textures around them.

And one more as a good will gesture, Joan Osbourne’s version of Martha and the Vandella’s Heatwave (not the most flattering headshot).