The Funk Brothers Keep Motown Alive

By Ken Clarke

If you’ve ever listened to a radio, you’ve heard the Funk Brothers, the most prolific hit machine in music history.

In 1959, music producer Berry Gordy amassed the most talented blues and jazz musicians in Detroit for his now-famous label Motown Records, which quickly became known as “Hitsville U.S.A.” The Funk Brothers were the label’s unheralded house band of 13 musicians until 1972, when Motown closed its doors and relocated to Los Angeles.

While in Detroit, Motown’s roster of legendary performers included Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Diana Ross, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles to name a few.

From inside the walls of Motown’s basement Studio A (known affectionately as “The Snake Pit,”) they laid down hundreds of mega hits, including “What’s Going On,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “My Girl,” “Heat Wave,” “Stop in the Name of Love,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Dancing in the Street,” “Baby Love” and “The Way You Do the Things You Do.”

In 2002, the release of the Grammy-winning documentary film Standing in the Shadows of Motown finally garnered the Funk Brothers their long-overdue credit. As the film’s opening titles proudly proclaim, “They played on more number one records than the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley combined.” In 2010, Funk Brothers guitarist Eddie “Chank” Willis and bassist Bob Babbitt both played on Phil Collins’s CD and DVD “Going Back,” a tribute collection of 1960s Motown and soul covers.

Today, the Funk Brothers are touring with only two original members remaining. Willis and Babbitt continue to spread the music with a number of musicians and singers whom they’ve known and worked with for many years.

Here in Calgary, Willis’ long time friend Gary Martin, a local R&B performer, convinced the guitar player to bring the Funk Brothers to the Jack Singer Concert Hall on June 15 for a charity concert for the Youville Recovery Residence for Women.

Recently, the Gauntlet had an opportunity to speak with Willis from his hometown in Mississippi.

Gauntlet: How long have you known Gary?

Eric Willis: Oh man, quite a while. you know, he used to play with Choker Campbell, a Motown roadman. That was a while back, yeah. I can’t say what year it was.

G: He refers to you as his mentor.

EW: He sure does, oh man. He makes you feel good, that’s what that does. He’s a champion man, ’cause he’s shown me all his love. You ain’t gonna beat that nowhere, no place. He’s a good guy man, I’ll tell ya. He’s gonna play when we get up there. The guitar player that we have, he had already promised a job for somebody else, and won’t be able to make it. Therefore, I told him, “Don’t worry about it, I got somebody already up there.”

G: That worked out well.

EW: Yeah, didn’t it. [laughs] We lookin’ forward to it man. When we get there, I’m going to be spending Father’s Day with Gary. I will be 75 on June 3.

G: Congratulations.

EW: Thank you. I have truly been blessed. To witness your own legacy, man, while you’re still alive, is massive. It’s been a lot of years for me.

G: What was your first guitar?

EW: We had built a one-string guitar on the side of the house. We took the wire out of a broom. Way back you’d have real wire in brooms that you’d sweep up with. We’d put nails on staples at the top and bottom of the wire. The string was probably about four feet long, maybe a little more. That had to be tight so it would not pop off. We would take a Coca-Cola bottle and sink it underneath of the wire and pluck it. We played blues, mister.

G: That sounds like real blues.

EW: We picked some blues on that, it truly was something to come up with that. [laughs] It wasn’t the first one. All through Mississippi it was kind of like that in the early days.

G: A real guitar was too expensive?

EW: Yes, we didn’t have no guitar, all we knew was how it looked. [laughs] We had a step-uncle who was married to our auntie who raised about 11 cousins. Once she got married, he bought the family a guitar. That was for us and his family. To remember something like this is pretty heavy. He was the best man in the world, I swear. She hit the jackpot for herself and her nieces and nephews.

G: He sounds like a pretty cool guy, buying you guys a real guitar.

EW: Yeah, he did that, man. He bought the family a brand new one. He didn’t go to no pawn shop or something like that, it was brand new. We couldn’t always get at the darn guitar because his family and kids had it. They were older so we had to go with that. When we got the chance, we picked it up.

G: You eventually moved to Detroit, right?

EW: My mother had already moved there and was working for Chrysler. I was still in Mississippi while she was taking care of business.

G: Did you stay with her when you moved there?

EW: Oh yes, I had to go there because my aunt died. After that we were in the bars first, playing jazz, blues ­­­– we played everything. We didn’t know about music, really. I’ve been back in Mississippi now, since ’91. I was born in Mississippi. The thing about it was, I was playing guitar before I left Mississippi, but not professionally. We would listen to the radio, to every musician that was on there. When a record came on, we would listen to it, myself and a couple of the family members. I would listen to anybody that played a guitar. Man, Chet Atkins was cold-blooded as far as I was concerned, believe me. The black section would come on and we were listening to B.B. King, Albert King and all the rest. We were listening to all the blues guys man. You also heard jazz, that was before I left Mississippi at 14.

G: How old were you when you started working at Motown?

EW: My first recording session was in 1959 [at 23 years old]. Gordy didn’t have a studio then so he rented United Sound in Detroit. That was my first session.

G: Back then, did you have the slightest notion how legendary the Motown sound you guys were generating would become?

EW: No, man, you had no idea. You were just glad they called your name and said, “Be here tomorrow.” That’s what you were looking forward to only, with no thoughts about something else whatsoever. It was like, “We’re gonna do this new record tomorrow.” That’s what that was about.

G: Were you ever intimidated by the Motown operation?

EW: Well, it being my first stuff I was scared, you know, the thought of not being accepted. That was the type of thing a guy was afraid of. Gettin’ up the next day and going to a recording session and do as many tunes as you could, that was something to look forward to. And knowing you were going to get paid, whatever the scale was, that’s what you’d look forward to. You couldn’t have foreseen whatever it was to become.

G: You couldn’t predict the future.

EW: Believe it, man. [laughs] I was scared. I’ll never forget my first session with Motown. The guy that I did it with was in the group we all had together. His name was Marv Johnson, and we didn’t hear from him for two or three months after that. When we did hear from him, we were hearing his record and we weren’t on it. Talk about some pissed-off guys, man. [laughs] We did his record here and when I finally got a hold of him, he was surprised. We were pissed off we weren’t on the record.

G: Did you ever record with him after that?

EW: Yeah. After that first record he had done, we met up and he asked me if I wanted to be on his next record, because he was ready to do another. I could have slapped him, really. [laughs] Would I like to? Yes, I would like to. I would love to! Those were my beginnings in the studio. He asked Berry, because he had to, and Berry said yeah, go ahead and do it. He knew we had been practicing all over Detroit.

G: Was there any artist you worked with in particular who blew you away?

EW: No, I can’t say that. Motown was just a family, an unbelievable love between musicians, unbelievable. That’s why so many great things went down. It was 13 guys and there was so much going on at the time it’s blowing your mind. We had never experienced anything as such. In the beginning we were doing something like five or six tunes a day. It got being so heavy, the company didn’t want anybody to go home to eat dinner or nothin’ like that. They started giving us hot dogs and beans in the basement. They wanted us to be there as long as possible. By being there all that time, so much went on and so many things went down, it was really unbelievable, man. We would end up at the end of our day having a shower and hitting the nightclubs.

G: You guys were in the studio all day and then playing in the clubs at night? That’s a full day.

EW: Oh yes, a full day, definitely so. We had plenty of energy when we got to the clubs, though. We were so glad to get to the clubs and change up our pace a bit. When we got there, we were fresh. It was wonderful. I have had a wonderful life at Motown, I’ll tell you. I couldn’t expect anything better. The Funk Brothers won two Grammys apiece, including a lifetime achievement award. I’m gonna bring one of them when I come up. Gary’s wife wants me to bring one, because she’s never seen one.

G: Not a lot of people have.

EW: You’re so right. I won it and I deserved it and I got two of them. I’m happy and couldn’t be more pleased with my life. The good Lord has let me be around still for some reason. I’m here to witness my own legacy. When you’re dead, it’s too late for you to know anything about it. I have no complaints whatsoever. Well, there is one complaint I have with one of the guys. This jackass guy who came from Philly or something. He tried to take over the group and caused a lot of problems.

G: What can you tell us about the film, Standing in the Shadows of Motown?

EW: It’s flabbergasting and such a lesson. It’s unbelievable.

G: You guys finally got some long-overdue credit for all your session work. Did it bother you at the time that the band was working in virtual anonymity?

EW: Not really, because it seemed as though it was kept from us so we would not know what was goin’ on. It was a very rotten thing, but it was a show business thing. I don’t have anything against “the Führer,” as they used to call Berry. Not one guy can say anything against him that was wrong. We all stood up to our contracts, so we were happy with that. He did what he said he was going to do.

G: What would you consider to be the secret of the successful Motown sound? Is there anything you can put your finger on in particular?

EW: Yeah, I guess I can put my finger on this. I wanted to do this so bad, I was fired up when I got to know what was going on with the music. It built a fire under me, and I was blessed with being able to let it out at the right time and place. They said, “Eddie, you came from Mississippi and brought that blues up to Detroit.” I had kind of spread it out, man, not just blues, but jazz, like some of the other guys. They told me, “You bring in this blues to Detroit and add your thing to what’s going on here.” I was called back to do many, many, many, many records. I was adding my stuff to the bands in Detroit. Detroit’s a big city, but the musicians all knew each other. It was the type of love that was going around. It had something to do with faith, where you believe in something. You got to get in there and do your thing, you know, and that’s just what I did. Then they’d ask me back the next day. Shucks, that was the biggest thing that could have ever happened to me.

G: That must have felt great.

EW: Oh yes, I was good enough [that] they didn’t say no. They said, “You’ll be back,” and I went back for some years. I have a pretty dog-gone good track record out there. I think I have spread my oats with the music bit. I have spread it way out. I’m not pushing myself on nothin,’ but I’ve helped a lot of musicians out there, man. A lot of them. I felt like that’s what I should do. I was “doin’ the do,” as they say, and that was everything for a musician and his plan. I’m thankful I’ve worked with some hell of a people, man, in my lifetime, and that’s all of the Motown sound and artists. We were late getting our due, the musicians, you know. We struggled and finally got this Standing in the Shadows of Motown. That was the only way the audience and our fans came to know who the heck we really were. They had no idea, because your name was never brought up or mentioned. There was an understanding that if someone asked who played the music on Smokey Robinson’s so-and-so record, they would say it was the Pips. No, it wasn’t the Pips, they didn’t play no instruments, but the public didn’t know that. They only knew the music, and if you weren’t mentioned, it was the Pips. [laughs] With every artist it was the same thing, that was about the size of it.

G: People may not have known your name, but anyone who has listened to a radio has heard you play guitar. How does that make you feel?

EW: Oh, that’s a killer right there, man. That was something that blew my mind. While making Standing in the Shadows of Motown, we met a lot of street people. They’d proclaim that they knew a lot about music but it was just talk, they knew nothin.’ We didn’t want to hurt nobody’s feelings, so we just had to go with their flow. That was a wonderful thing doing that, man, ’cause we met a lot of people since then, and I tell you, that little movie meant a lot of good things for some people. We have encountered people with cancer, like this one lady who lost all of her hair. We met her at a gig and the drummer Uriel Jones and I had our hair cut off too and we had a lot of fun. It goes deep. This other lady called me one day and she was cryin’ her heart out. Her father had a disease and hadn’t moved in five years. She said there was a Motown record playing and he started tappin’ his foot! We’ve been hearing all types of stuff like this ever since we did the movie, it’s unbelievable. It seems like the Motown music is some kind of medicine for some people. They enjoy it and we enjoy it. There’s no one out there who enjoys it better than I do. I play a lot of it right now. I love Motown music, I truly do.

G: Well, you were there from the start.

EW: Very true. You never forget, there’s something in the record that you played on. When you hear it you think, “I did that.” But you don’t go around saying, “I did that,” because they wouldn’t believe it anyway. It’s a true fact. When we were making the movie, one of the producers was having dinner in California with Robert White, the other guitar player. Someone played the Motown record “My Girl” by the Temptations on the jukebox. He started to say, “That’s me. I did that” and then he stopped right there. The producer said, “But that was you, man. That’s one of the biggest guitar licks that ever was.” Robert said, “No, I’m not gonna do that ’cause they ain’t gonna believe me anyway.” We didn’t get any credit for it, but people wouldn’t believe it if you did something. That’s the whole shot right there. They’d say, “That old dude over there? He ain’t no musician.” That’s the attitude that some of it was. Some of it, not all of it. I gotta say this here to you and that school up there. You guys keep on having those kids, man. They gonna have to be shown and know who did this and that or whatever. We have a thing goin’ on now that’s keeping it alive. Motown and the music. But I’m gonna retire now. I’m lookin’ forward to this as being one of the last big meetings I’m going to do before I retire. I wouldn’t stop goin’ to big projects, I keep up on those. That keeps happening.

G: You’ve certainly done your share.

EW: Believe me, yes. [laughs] Yeah, I have done my share, I really have. We have another gig up in Canada in October, and that will be the last gig I’m gonna do for us. It’s already booked. Come that time I’m gonna hang it up and try to help the young generation if I can. The band in Detroit that works with us are going to be the new generation of the Funk Brothers. They’re guys we’ve worked with for many years, they’re not babies, but they’re not as old as I am.

G: They don’t have your history either.

EW: No, they don’t. Whatever happens, if anything, I’ll try to help them out. If something comes up that they don’t understand, they’re gonna call on me and I’ll be there as long as I can get around. I have polio, but I can get anywhere on my scooter. I don’t know what I’m gonna do next, but whatever comes out of here, it’s gonna be good. You tell Gary I said that I’m looking forward to seeing him and that I don’t want to have to pull my bull whip out if there’s a wrong chord there that makes me look bad. [laughs] Naturally, I’m kidding. I’m looking forward to working with Gary and I know he can play.

G: I’ve seen him lots of times and I enjoy his playing.

EW: He came down here and we did a recording session for him. We did two tunes and they are two hell-of-a-good tunes.

Leave a comment