If the Funk Brothers come to mind when you think of the Motown sound, you really know your music history. For many people, The Supremes, The Four Tops, and Martha and the Vandellas are the first names they’ll mention.
But behind all of Motown’s biggest stars stood one of the most prolific groups of musicians in American history. These backing players, known as The Funk Brothers, were some of the greatest artists of their time.
We’re diving into musical vaults to discover why so few people know about the Funk Brothers.
The Story of The Funk Brothers
The Funk Brothers were a group of Detroit session musicians who played for Motown Records from roughly 1959 to 1972. Although over 50 people cycled in and out of the group over the years, 13 core members were the most consistent.
The first was bassist James Jamerson, recruited by Motown owner Berry Gordy in 1958. Next came drummer William “Benny” Benjamin. These two provided the steady, smooth heartbeat that would become the backbone of the Motown sound.
Although keyboard player Earl Van Dyke didn’t join until 1963, many people considered him as the leader of the group. And this group eventually became a family. The consistency of 13 musicians playing together for more than a decade, with over 30 musical cousins popping in, made Motown studios a magical place. If one member was on the road, another knew what was needed to take their place.
Each Funk Brothers member’s individual talent made this bundle of artists a bonafide supergroup. And every singer that walked into Studio A, also known as the snakepit, knew it. Most were students of jazz via sheet music or nightly visits to the local clubs.
But just at the peak of their time to shine, Berry Gordy made a strategic business choice in 1972 and moved his operation to California. Although some members from Detroit made the trek, Gordy’s decision eventually broke up the band. California session stars, known as the Wrecking Crew, gradually took their place. After that, Motown was never the same.
What Are the Funk Brothers Known For?
The Funk Brothers are known for creating some of the most memorable sounds of the 1960s. But they remained uncredited until later decades. Going back to the 1930s, session musicians became regular practice for all major music studios. The record executives saw no need to credit them. Instead, the aim was for a hit single with a talented face or two behind the mic.
But the musicians playing bass, guitar, drums, and other instruments were what grounded these individual singers into a sound. Motown was one of the best-known record labels of the 60s and 70s. Not only in the US but in the UK as well. The Funk Brothers provided a particular musical style that audiences loved.
That familiarity was so crucial to Motown’s success that most Funk Brothers were contractually obligated to only play with their record company. It wasn’t until 1971, with Marvin Gaye’s record What’s Going On, that the Funk Brothers received their first credit on an album.
What Is the Motown Sound?
The Motown sound is the well-known, sophisticated style of R&B produced and recorded primarily in Detroit in the 1960s. Entrepreneur Berry Gordy III founded the Motown record label in 1960 in honor of his hometown of Detroit, The Motor City. After World War II, thousands flocked to the city for jobs in the auto industry. Or to find work as a starving musician.
Motown grew to become the largest Black-owned company in the country. Gordy and fellow music businessmen produced songs with high caliber polish and precision under the Motown label.
String ensembles and horns were frequently used, along with doubled drum tracks and complex guitar chord arrangements. In addition, many Funk Brothers sang harmonizing backing tracks along with the featured artist as needed. Think of that steady, bright, four-beat sound of The Supremes and Smokey Robinson, and you’ll get the idea.
Motown reached its heyday in the ’60s and 70s, particularly in the U.S. and Great Britain. However, record enthusiasts still seek out those rare 45 vinyl singles released on Motown to this day.
The Funk Brothers’ Hit Songs
As Motown’s in-house session musicians, the Funk Brothers played on nearly every track released by Motown and its subsidiaries. Often accompanied by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Funk Brothers provided headlining singers and songwriters with impeccable backing scores and melodies.
I Heard It Through the Grapevine
Of the three 60s soul artists that recorded this Whitfield and Barret song, Marvin Gaye would be the one to usher it into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Gaye’s recording of I Heard it Through the Grapevine topped the 1968 charts for seven weeks. It remains Motown’s most popular single. It’s no wonder the Funk Brothers provided most of the music tracks.
The lyrics to I Heard it Through the Grapevine are an extension of the title. A jilted man learns from the gossip around town that his girl has plans to leave him. The rumor mill is a terrible way to learn about things like this.
My Girl’s opening lyrics, “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day,” are famous worldwide. This great tune by The Temptations topped the charts in 1965 and later earned certified platinum in U.S. sales. Songwriter Smokey Robinson wrote the lyrics about his wife, Claudette. They describe someone forever in love and happy because of the girl they love.
Funk Brothers guitar player Robert White wrote the signature guitar riff. The song gradually builds after the nice and easy lyrics come in. Although My Girl has a soft and easy feel, you can get lost in the rich string and horn arrangement. It’s such a sweet treat for the ears.
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
Writers Ashford and Simpson knew they had a great thing when they wrote Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. They shopped it to Motown’s Tamla label, who quickly had the Funk Brothers score the music. The 1967 version, sung by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrel, was an instant hit.
The lyrics deliver assuring words to a partner, stating that nothing can stand in the way of their loyalty. Although they may physically be apart, there’s no obstacle too big to overcome.
Diana Ross released a solo version and a recording as a duet with The Temptations. The Funk Brothers performed the instrumentation on all three tracks.
Is There a Documentary About the Funk Brothers?
The Funk Brothers remained widely unknown until the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown hit the silver screen. Director Paul Justman and producers made the film with the direct intention of giving credit and praise to The Funk Brothers. It was time they got their dues!
James Jamerson’s 1989 book with the same title provided the backbone for the movie. Using interviews, photos, and archival footage, Standing in the Shadows provides a great introduction to the story of the Funk Brothers. The film won several awards in competitions, including the 2002 Austin Film Festival and the National Society of Film Critics.
The Band Behind So Many Great Songs
The Funk Brothers’ impact on American soul music is slowly gaining traction. Thanks to artists like Marvin Gaye and movie director Paul Justman, their talent has been shared and awarded. However, we hope more and more music lovers will seek out their story.
Session musicians are easily overlooked, especially now. When 70s punks decided they could play their own instruments with next to nil training, the floodgates opened for many people. Before then, multitudes of modest yet incredibly talented musicians played for the stars who got the limelight.
Maybe today’s music listeners will better appreciate what these unknown artists gave us. What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.