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The Funk Brothers

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The Funk Brothers
Funk Brothers in early 1960s. Left to right: Benny Benjamin, James Jamerson, Joe Hunter, Larry Veeder, Hank Cosby, Mike Terry
Funk Brothers in early 1960s. Left to right: Benny Benjamin, James Jamerson, Joe Hunter, Larry Veeder, Hank Cosby, Mike Terry
Background information
OriginDetroit, Michigan, United States
GenresSoul, funk, R&B
Years active1959–1972
MembersNARAS membership
Richard "Pistol" Allen
Jack Ashford
Bob Babbitt
Benny Benjamin
Eddie "Bongo" Brown
Johnny Griffith
Joe Hunter
James Jamerson
Uriel Jones
Joe Messina
Earl Van Dyke
Robert White
Eddie Willis

The Funk Brothers were a group of Detroit-based session musicians who performed the backing to most Motown recordings from 1959 until the company moved to Los Angeles in 1972.

Its members are considered among the most successful groups of studio musicians in music history. Among their hits are "My Girl", "I Heard It Through the Grapevine", "Baby Love", " I Was Made to Love Her", "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone", "The Tears of a Clown", "Ain't No Mountain High Enough", and "Heat Wave". Some combination of the members played on each of Motown's 100-plus U.S. R&B number one singles[1] and 50-plus U.S. Pop number ones released from 1961 to 1972.

There is no undisputed list of the members of the group. Some writers have claimed that virtually every musician who ever played on a Motown track was a "Funk Brother". There are 13 Funk Brothers identified in Paul Justman's 2002 documentary film Standing in the Shadows of Motown, based on Allan Slutsky's book of the same name. These 13 members were identified by NARAS for the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and were recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

In 2007, the Funk Brothers were inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum.


Early members included bandleader Joe Hunter and Earl Van Dyke (piano and organ); Clarence Isabell (double bass); James Jamerson (bass guitar and double bass); Benny "Papa Zita" Benjamin and Richard "Pistol" Allen (drums); Mike Terry (baritone saxophone); 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 1966.

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 the featured guitarist on Soupy Sales's nighttime jazz TV show in the 1950s), Brokensha (originally from Australia), Coffey, and Pittsburgh-born Babbitt.

Fame and Funk Brothers name[edit]

Unlike their Stax Records backing-band contemporaries Booker T. & 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 little 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 stated that the name "The Funk Brothers" came from Benny Benjamin. Hunter said that Benjamin was leaving the studio (known as the "Snake Pit", due to all the cable runs out of the ceiling) 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.

The Funk Brothers often moonlighted for other labels, recording in Detroit and elsewhere, 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 (including "Reet Petite") in the 1950s. Various Funk Brothers also appeared on such non-Motown hits as The San Remo Golden Strings "Hungry For Love", "Cool Jerk" (the Capitols), "Agent Double-O Soul" (Edwin Starr, before that singer joined Motown itself), "(I Just Wanna) Testify" by the Parliaments, "Band Of Gold" (Freda Payne), "Give Me Just a Little More Time" (The Chairmen of the Board), and blues musician John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom".[2] 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 Ric-Tic and Golden World labels, which 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.


During the mid- to late-1960s, one-fifth of Motown records began using session musicians based in Los Angeles, usually covers and tributes of mainstream pop songs and showtunes.[citation needed] By 1970, Motown sessions were increasingly scheduled in Los Angeles instead of Detroit, including all of those for 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 worked for Motown, including drummer Earl Palmer, percussionist Gary Coleman, bassist Carol Kaye, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, and keyboardist Larry Knechtel.

Later years[edit]

The Funk Brothers as reincarnated in 2006. The lineup includes three of the original members: Bob Babbitt (2nd from left), Joe Hunter (4th from left), Uriel Jones (8th from left).

In February 2004, surviving members of the Funk Brothers were presented the Grammy Legend Award at the 46th Annual Grammy Awards at the Staples Center in Los Angeles in March 2006, some remaining Funk Brothers were invited to perform on Philadelphia writer-producer-singer Phil Hurtt's 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 renowned 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 2008, Ashford and Riser played on Raphael Saadiq's album The Way I See It, recorded in the style of the Motown Sound.[3] That same year, the Funk Brothers' surviving members recorded Live in Orlando, an album and video.

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.

In 2010, the Funk Brothers were voted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame.[4]

Awards and recognition[edit]

The Funk Brothers have received three Grammy awards:

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.[5]

In 2007, the Funk Brothers were inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.[6] On March 21, 2013, the Funk Brothers were honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In August 2014, the Funk Brothers were inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Hall Of Fame at the induction ceremony, which was held in Canton, Ohio that year.


As discussed above, the name "The Funk Brothers" was a loosely applied designation. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences recognizes 13 musicians as official "Funk Brothers", but the name is often casually used as a catch-all designation to cover any musician who played on a Motown record.

The following list covers the musicians most frequently used on Motown recordings from 1959 through 1972; it is not an exhaustive list of every musician ever used. The 13 Funk Brothers recognized as official band members by NARAS are marked with an asterisk. Some also count backing vocalist trio the Andantes (Jackie Hicks, Marlene Barrow, and Louvain Demps) as notable contributors to the Funk Brothers and Motown's sound.[7]

Membership lists based upon research by Allan Slutsky, with some minor corrections.[8]

Detroit musicians[edit]

Los Angeles musicians[edit]

Los Angeles was an alternate recording center for Motown artists beginning in the mid-1960s, utilizing a different set of musicians. Hit tracks recorded in L.A. include the Miracles' "More Love", many of Brenda Holloway's songs, and all the early hits of the Jackson 5.

Many of the Los Angeles players were members of the Wrecking Crew, a loose-knit group of studio musicians.

Arrangers and conductors[edit]

Selected list of hit songs on which the Funk Brothers played[edit]

(Tamla) Motown
Other labels

See also[edit]


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