The Funk Brothers: The Sound Of Motown Revisted
The Funk Brothers was the nickname of Detroit, Michigan, session musicians who performed the backing to most Motown Records recordings from 1959 until 1972. 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 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 Diana Ross & the Supremes’ “Reflections” A tire iron was used in the Martha & the Vandellas “Dancing in the Streets
The Funk Brothers were the brilliant but 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. 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.
Motown head Berry Gordy Jr. first assembled a studio band in 1959, culling its members from Detroit’s fertile club scene. Most of the players came from a jazz background, although some had more experience with blues or R&B, and there was a great deal of crossover among working musicians of the time. Among the early members were pianist/bandleader Joe Hunter (not to be confused with blues balladeer Ivory Joe Hunter) and the rhythm section of bassist James Jamerson and drummer William “Benny” Benjamin, who would go on to become the backbone of the Motown beat. Most of the players came from a jazz background, although some had more experience with blues or R&B, and there was a great deal of crossover among working musicians of the time.
By the end of their phenomenal run, this unheralded group of musicians had played on more number ones hits than the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Elvis and the Beatles combined – which makes them the greatest hit machine in the history of popular music. They called themselves the Funk Brothers.