Have you ever listened to one of many ’60s Motown songs and thought to yourself, “Hmm, I wonder who that is playing the guitar/piano/saxophone (e.t.c.)…I guess I’ll never know…”?
The Funk Brothers were a group of session musicians who performed the backing instrumentation to most Motown recordings from the company’s birth in 1959 until its relocation to Los Angeles in 1972. “The Funk Brothers” is a loosely applied term; the name is sometimes even used as a catch-all designation to cover any musician who played on any Motown record. (So it could be said that every single Motown song until 1972 features the so-called Funk Brothers.) There are many notable musicians that formed part of the group, 13 of which have been recognised as official “Funk Brothers”:
- Joe Hunter (band leader, keyboard, 1959–1964)
- Earl Van Dyke (band leader, keyboard, 1964–1972)
- Johnny Griffith (keyboard, 1963–1972)
- Robert White (guitar, 1959–1972)
- Eddie “Chank” Willis (guitar, 1959–1972)
- Joe Messina (guitar, 1959–1972)
- James Jamerson (bass, 1959–1972)
- Bob Babbitt (bass, 1967–1972)
- William “Benny” Benjamin (drums, 1959–1969)
- Richard “Pistol” Allen (drums, 1959–1972)
- Uriel Jones (drums, 1963–1972)
- Jack Ashford (tambourine, 1959–1972)
- Eddie “Bongo” Brown (percussion, 1959–1972)
Also notable are the Los Angeles Studios Musicians. Los Angeles was an alternate recording centre for Motown artists beginning in the mid-1960s, utilizing a different set of musicians. Many of these were from The Wrecking Crew, a group of studio musicians that backed many artists recording in L.A. in the 1960s and early 1970s. Many songs by both Brenda Holloway and The Jackson Five were recorded in Los Angeles.
The Detroit Symphony Orchestra is also noteworthy. Members of the orchestra provided recorded string accompaniments on many of Motown’s classic 1960s hits. They were lead by Gordon Staples. They even recorded enough material themselves, backed by The Funk Brothers, for two albums, released in the late 1960s. The combined ensemble was known as the San Remo Golden Strings.