The Funk Brothers

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.

The Funk Brothers
OriginDetroit, Michigan, United States
GenresSoul, funk, R&B
Years active1959–1972
Associated actsThe Miracles, the Temptations, the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, the Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, the Contours, the Jackson 5, the Four Tops, the Spinners, the Originals, the Andantes, Jackie Wilson
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

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 and 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 both 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 nameEdit

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 not widely 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 states that the name "The Funk Brothers" came from Benny Benjamin. Hunter states 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 (most famously "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 giant 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.

Motown historians have noted that the Funk Brothers—some of whom had begun their careers as jazzmen and missed that kind of informality—itched to be able to record on their own, but Gordy limited them formally to cutting sides under the name Earl Van Dyke and the Soul Brothers—and mostly limited them to recording new versions (with the familiar arrangements, however) of the Motown repertoire, with Van Dyke, the featured musician, playing electric organ. Some of the Funk Brothers' recordings in that vein—"Soul Stomp," "Six by Six"—became favourites among Northern soul and "beach music" fans.


During the mid- to late-1960s, one-fifth of Motown records began utilizing session musicians based in Los Angeles, usually covers and tributes of mainstream pop songs and showtunes. By 1970, an increasing number of Motown sessions were in Los Angeles instead of Detroit, notably all 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—the prominent group of session musicians that included drummer Earl Palmer, bassist Carol Kaye, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, and keyboardist Larry Knechtel—joined the team at Motown.

Later yearsEdit

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 L.A. 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 Uriel Jones, Ray Monette, Dennis Coffey, Robert Jones and Bob Babbitt accompanied other notable Detroit session musicians, including Larry Fratangelo, Dennis Sheridan, Edward Gooch, John Trudell, saxophonist George Benson, Mark Burger, David Jennings, Spider Webb, George Katsakis, Gil Bridges and Rob Pipho, on the Carl Dixon Bandtraxs project, which featured a Dennis Coffey–Carl Dixon production of four new songs. Vocal performances by Spyder Turner, Pree and Gayle Butts provided lead and backing for the session. The session was arranged by ex-Motown arranger David J. Van De Pitte. The session was also at Studio A, Dearborn Heights, Detroit, and was the dream of a 19-year-old Dixon, back in 1974, to pay homage to musicians, particularly The Funk Brothers, producers and those who influenced him with their music. It took Dixon almost 33 years to find the musicians and meet via the web site It was via this web site that he and Dennis Coffey hooked up and then eventually collaborated to make the session work. On Dennis Coffey's suggestion there were two drummers on this session, Uriel Jones and Spider Webb, who shared responsibility for the groove throughout the recordings, along with Bob's pounding bass lines. Robert Jones played on the studios’ over 100 year old Steinway grand piano.

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]

Legacy and techniquesEdit

Not unlike such producers as George Martin, Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, the band used many techniques that are rarely used in recorded music. For example, many Motown recordings (including Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "That's the Way Love Is") feature two drummers, playing together or overdubbing one another. A number of songs utilized unusual instrumentation. The Temptations' "It's Growing" features Earl Van Dyke playing a toy piano for the song's introduction, snow chains were used as percussion on Martha and the Vandellas' "Nowhere to Run", and a test oscillator was built to create the electronic timbres heard on many of the later records such as the Supremes' "Reflections" and "Forever Came Today", and the Temptations' "Runaway Child, Running Wild". A tire iron was used on the Martha and the Vandellas song "Dancing in the Street".

James Jamerson, who began his career playing upright bass (which he played on such hits as the Miracles' "Shop Around", Mary Wells' "My Guy" and Martha and the Vandellas' "Heat Wave") adopted the Fender Precision Bass, an electric instrument, in 1962, and overdubbed on both an upright and an electric bass on some Motown recordings.

Awards and recognitionEdit

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. In fact, the "Funk Brothers" name wasn't used until Benny Benjamin referred to his fellow musicians by that name while leaving a studio session in the 1960s.[citation needed]

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.

Membership lists based upon research by Allan Slutsky, with some minor corrections.[7]

Detroit musiciansEdit

  • Saxophones:
  • Trombones:
    • McKinley Jackson
    • Bob Cousar
    • George Bohanon
    • Paul Riser
    • Jimmy Wilkens
    • Don White
    • Carl Raetz
    • Patrick Lanier
    • Bill Johnson
    • Ed Gooch
  • Flute:
    • Dayna Hartwick
    • Thomas "Beans" Bowles
  • Piccolo:
    • Dayna Hartwick
  • Strings:
    • Gordon Staples and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra string section
      • Violins
        • Zinovi Bistritzky
        • Beatriz Budinsky
        • Lillian Downs
        • Virginia Halfmann
        • Richard Margitza
        • Felix Resnick
        • Alvin Score
        • Linda Sneeden Smith
        • James Waring
      • Violas
        • Nathan Gordon
        • David Ireland
        • Eduard Kesner
        • Anne Mischakoff
        • Meyer Shapiro
      • Cellos
        • Italo Babini
        • Edward Korkigian
        • Thaddeus Markiewicz
        • Marcy Scwheickhardt

Los Angeles musiciansEdit

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 conductorsEdit

Selected list of hit songs on which the Funk Brothers playedEdit

(Tamla) Motown
Other labels

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "All Of Motown's No. 1 Hits In One Box Set For The First Time: Celebrate Motown's 50th Anniversary With The 10-CD MOTOWN: THE COMPLETE NO. 1'S". Retrieved 2019-09-18.
  2. ^ Ryan, Jack (2016). Recollections, the Detroit Years: The Motown Sound by the People who Made it. Glendower Media. p. 102. ISBN 978-0914303190.
  3. ^ Lewis, Pete (May 22, 2009). "Raphael Saadiq: This Years Vintage". Blues & Soul. London (1020). Archived from the original on September 21, 2012. Retrieved March 27, 2012.
  4. ^ "Michigan Rock and Roll Legends - FUNK BROTHERS". Retrieved 23 August 2018.
  5. ^ "Educational CyberPlayGround: Funk Brothers honored by President Bush during Black History Month". 2003-06-25. Retrieved 2015-12-14.
  6. ^ Calvin Gilbert, "Unsung Heroes Honored at Musicians Hall of Fame Induction", CMY News, November 27, 2007.
  7. ^ Slutsky, Allan. "The Musicians". Hitsville USA: The Motown Singles Collection [CD Box Set]. New York: Motown Record Co., L.P.

External linksEdit