Unseen — but not unheard — as the faceless backing group on hit records by the Temptations, the Supremes and Marvin Gaye, the Funk Brothers served as the house band at Motown Records during the Detroit label’s 1960s heyday.
The outfit, which coalesced around a handful of players in 1959, never had a cemented lineup — the natural outcome, perhaps, of not being credited as studio musicians are today. But key members included guitarists Joe Messina and Eddie Willis and percussionist Jack Ashford, whose expert (if sometimes unconventional) playing can be heard in such pop classics as “My Girl,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
The Funk Brothers dissolved after Motown relocated to Los Angeles in the early ’70s. However, most of the musicians stayed busy recording with other singers, and in 2002 the group reunited for an acclaimed documentary, “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.” It features the Funk Brothers accompanying guest stars such as Chaka Khan and Joan Osborne in new performances of signature Motown tunes. Later, Phil Collins recruited Willis and bassist Bob Babbitt (who died in 2012) to play on his 2010 album of Motown covers, “Going Back.”
“We didn’t make hit records for white people, we didn’t make hit records for black people,” Ashford has said. “We made hit records for everybody on the planet, and that’s the excellence we strived for.”
– Mikael Wood for the Los Angeles Times