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The Funk Brothers and Motown Jazz

When we think about the great Motown records of the ’60s, we usually think of the singers. But it wasn’t the Temptations who created the stair-climbing guitar intro to “My Girl.” It was Robert White. It wasn’t Marvin Gaye who came up with the voodoo bass line for “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” It was James Jamerson.

It wasn’t Smokey Robinson who played the staggering drum intro for “Going to a Go-Go.” It was Benny Benjamin. It wasn’t Edwin Starr who added those explosive tambourine accents to “War.” It was Jack Ashford. It wasn’t Stevie Wonder who provided the stabbing piano chords on “For Once in My Life.” It was Earl Van Dyke.

Who were these guys?

They were the Funk Brothers (pictured), the Motown house band who played on every hit and yet went uncredited until Gaye’s 1971 album, What’s Going On. Now they are getting some long overdue attention, thanks to a new documentary film that opens November 15, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, an accompanying soundtrack album and, hopefully, a tour this winter. The movie and soundtrack feature guest vocals by Joan Osborne, Chaka Khan, Bootsy Collins, MeShell NdegéOcello and others, but the focus is on the band, where it belongs.

What made the Funk Brothers different from the other R&B house bands of the day? They were jazz musicians first and soul musicians second. Most of them came out of the fertile Detroit jazz scene that produced Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Burrell and Elvin Jones. Guitarist Joe Messina played TV dates with Miles Davis and Charlie Parker; pianist Johnny Griffith toured with Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington. All the Funk Brothers would play jazz clubs at night and return each morning to the studio basement at 2648 West Grand Boulevard with their heads full of chord extensions and swing.

“We would warm up for the sessions by playing jazz tunes,” percussionist Jack Ashford says. “We’d play ‘Well, You Needn’t,’ ‘A Night in Tunisia’ or ‘Softly as a Morning Sunrise,’ and we’d go right from there into the count-off for ‘Heat Wave’ or ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On.’ It was a release to go from one to the other.”

“One day they had finished everything on ‘My Guy’ but the intro,” says the film’s producer, Alan Slutsky, the author of the Dr. Licks instructional books. “Earl Van Dyke said, ‘You know, those chords are the same as the ones on ‘Canadian Sunset,” which they had played at a jazz club the night before. Earl told George Bohanon, the trombonist, to play ‘Canadian Sunset’ while Earl played Eddie Heywood’s version of ‘Begin the Beguine’ on piano. That was the intro, and two weeks later it was a million-seller.”

Berry Gordy’s genius was he instinctively knew if he put young singers off the street together with veteran jazz musicians, he’d have the best of both worlds: the racing hormones and urgent energy of young love over crisp swing and sophisticated harmonies.

“Berry knew what he had,” Ashford says. “He had musicians who could read, who could come up with quick arrangements and who could deliver time after time after time. But the singers got all the credit. The only reason we were unsung heroes is because no one sung about us. We should have said, ‘Have Marvin Gaye sing a cappella and see if it’s a hit.'”

Originally Published