The 10 Best Backing Bands of All Time: No. 7 — The Funk Brothers

January 9th, 2013

By Damian Fanelli

This story is part of our ongoing series about the 10 best backing bands of all time. We kicked things off last week with band No. 10 — The Band. (Check out that story here.)

Note that we kept our choices to backing bands with actual “names.” These are groups we call “ampersand bands,” since their name, in most of these cases, follows an ampersand or an “and” in the act’s full name, such as John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers or Johnny and The Moondogs (neither of whom are included on this list).

So even though Bill Black and Scotty Moore kicked vintage ass as Elvis Presley’s backing duo, the duo never had a name. And the talented gents who backed Roger Waters or Paul McCartney at the 12-12-12 Concert for Sandy Relief? No name. You get the idea.

We also tried to focus on bands that kept a core group of members intact over the years. For example, we’d consider Elvis Costello’s Attractions (always the same three guys) over Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention (This Wikipedia page says it all).

On that note, here’s band No. 7, the Funk Brothers.

07. The Funk Brothers

Unlike the rest of the bands on this list, the Funk Brothers weren’t an “official” backing band; their nickname didn’t follow an “and” or an ampersand in a band name, and they didn’t make their living on the road backing a single artist.

The Funk Brothers were a crew of Detroit-based session musicians who played on most Motown recordings from 1959 to 1972.

As claimed in the opening titles to Paul Justman’s 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the Funk Brothers have “played on more No. 1 hits than The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys — combined.” And while you might want to head for your iPhone’s calculator and dive into Google land to verify that, there’s no denying they played on an impressive collection of Motown hits, including “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “My Girl,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Baby Love,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” “The Tears of a Clown” and “(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave.”

They can be heard on singles and/or albums by Marvin Gaye, The Miracles, The Temptations (Check out the video below), The Supremes, Martha & The Vandellas, The Marvelettes, The Contours, the Jackson 5, The Four Tops, The Spinners, The Originals and other acts.

Although the Funk Brothers weren’t quite as fluid an ensemble as Wings or the Mothers of Invention, many musicians have been members of the brotherhood. Core members included guitarists Robert White, Eddie Willis and Joe Messina, Joe Hunter (bandleader), Earl Van Dyke (piano), James Jamerson (bass); Benny “Papa Zita” Benjamin (drums), Richard “Pistol” Allen (drums), Paul Riser (trombone), Jack Ashford (tambourine, percussion, vibraphone, marimba), Jack Brokensha (vibraphone, marimba) and Eddie “Bongo” Brown (percussion).

Other notable members include guitarist Dennis Coffey and bassist Bob Babbitt.

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