Performance

The Funk Brothers

The Funk Brothers were Motown Records’ house band that played behind the Motown stars from 1959 to 1972. Though known in the jazz clubs of Detroit they were anonymous on Motown recordings until the 1970s when the studio acknowledged backing musicians. Over the years more than 50 musicians cycled through Studio A’s “snake pit” providing the driving rhythm that distinguished the “Motown Sound.”

According to Berry Gordy in his autobiography, To Be Loved, bassist James Jamerson, along with drummer Benny Benjamin, were key members of the Funk Brothers, a name credited to Benjamin. Other original members were pianist and band leader Joe Hunter, drummers and percussionist Uriel Jones, Pistol Allen, and Eddie “Bongo” Brown. Guitar players included Robert White, Joe Messina, and Eddie Willis. Johnny Griffith played the organ while Earl Van Dyke played the piano and Jack Ashford the tambourine. Later, Jack Brokensha and Dave Hamilton were both on percussion, Bob Babbitt came on as another bassist, and Dennis Coffey and Wah Wah Watson joined as rock guitarists. Hank Cosby often played the saxophone on Motown hits.

Stevie Wonder performs with the Funk Brothers, Motown Records’ famous backup band.

The Funk Brothers sometimes moonlighted on other record labels, though were penalized by Gordy if caught. They backed the Capitols on “Cool Jerk” and Jackie Wilson on “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.”

The group, instrumental in the creation of the famous Motown sound, was almost completely unknown to the public. When Motown acts went on tour they were usually accompanied by other musicians. A 2002 film documentary, Standing in the Shadows of Motown brought attention to the over-looked Motown band. The film focuses on 13 core members of the Funk Brothers, and the film trailer credits them with having more number-one hits than the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, and Elvis combined. At the 2004 Grammy Award ceremonies they received a Lifetime Achievement Award, and have received numerous awards since.

NEW YORK – FEBRUARY 23: Winner for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture ‘Standing in the Shadows of Motown”, The Funk Brothers, various artists, and producers pose backstage at the 45th Annual Grammy Awards Pre-Telecast at Madison Square Garden on February 23, 2003, in New York City.

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