11/13/02

Funk Brother Johnny Griffith Dies

Keyboardist Johnny Griffith, who backed up many Motown hit-makers as a member of the Funk Brothers, died of a heart attack on Nov. 10. He was 68.

Griffith, who had been in bad health recently, was found dead in his Detroit hotel room a few hours before the area premiere of a film about the Funk Brothers, Standing In The Shadows Of Motown. As the film recalls, the Funk Brothers were a group of jazz musicians called on by Motown label owner Berry Gordy to play behind singers like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The band, which included bassist James Jamerson and drummer Benny Benjamin among others, went without credit in album notes until Gaye’s What’s Going On was released in 1971.

Griffith had worked with Sarah Vaughan and was already recording for Motown’s Workshop Jazz label in the early ‘60s when he began playing with the parent label’s future R&B stars. His R&B and pop work is of course well known—hits Griffith played on, like Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is” and the Supremes’ “Stop in the Name of Love,” still enjoy airtime on oldies stations around the country. Griffith’s Workshop Jazz output is harder to find, but he can be heard on a leader recording, Jazz (1963), saxophonist Lefty Edwards’ The Right Side of Lefty Edwards (1964) and Detroit Jazz (1963), which features singer Paula Greer with Griffith’s trio.

Griffith is survived by his wife, Delma Reid Griffith, three children, two step sons, and two grandchildren.

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