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The Funk Brothers

The Funk Brothers

The Funk Brothers was the nickname 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 "(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave".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."Notable membersEarly members included bandleader Joe Hunter and Earl Van Dyke (piano & organ); Clarence Isabell (double bass); James Jamerson (bass guitar); 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 featured guitarist on Soupy Sales's nighttime jazz TV show in the 1950s), Brokensha (originally from Australia), Coffey, and Pittsburgh-born Babbitt.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 identified by both NARAS for the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and recognized by the recent Star on the Hollywood Walk of fame.Fame and Funk Brothers nameUnlike 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) 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.Legacy and techniquesThe 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 & 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 electric instrument in 1962, and played both acoustic and electric bass on many Motown recordings. Jamerson would usually play the acoustic bass for the ensemble take and then dub the same part on electric bass afterward. He was praised for being so precise a player that listeners cannot tell right away that two basses are on the recording. And 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.The Funk Brothers often moonlighted for other labels, recording in Detroit and elsewhwere, 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 "Cool Jerk" (The Capitols), "Agent Double-O Soul" (Edwin Starr, before that singer joined Motown itself), "(I Just Wanna) Testify" by The Parliaments, 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 Golden World label that 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 historiographers 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 eventual favourites among Northern soul and "beach music" fans.Dissolution and later yearsDuring 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 including drummer Earl Palmer, bassist Carol Kaye, guitar virtuoso Tommy Tedesco, and keyboard genius Larry Knechtel—joined the team at Motown.In March 2006, some remaining Funk Brothers were invited to perform on Philadelphia writer/producer/singer Phil Hurtt's unique and interesting 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 renown 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 2007, The Funk Brothers were inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, TN. 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, and Rob Pipho where they appeared on the Carl Dixon Bandtraxs project that featured a Dennis Coffey/Carl Dixon production of four new songs. In addition vocal performances from Spyder Turner, Pree and Gayle Butts provided lead and backing for the session. The session was also 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 with luck, met some of them on the web site It was via this web site that he and Dennis Coffey hooked up and then eventually collaborated to make the session work.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.Awards and recognitionThe Funk Brothers have received three Grammy awards:Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004Best Traditional R&B Performance for "What's Going On" with Chaka Khan, 2002Best 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.[1\]On March 21, 2013, the Funk Brothers were honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.


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