Bringing Back the Funk: An Interview with Joe Hunter of the Funk Brothers


By Jordan Kessler

Joe Hunter—not to be confused with Ivory Joe Hunter of “Since I Met You Baby” fame—was an early pianist in the Funk Brothers, Motown’s fabled session band, from 1959 until the time he resigned in 1963. During these years, Hunter played on classics including Barrett Strong’s “Money”, The Miracles’ “Shop Around”, The Contours’ “Do You Love Me”, and Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave”. Before Motown, Hunter played with the ‘50s R&B powerhouse Hank Ballard & the Midnighters. He has also worked with Jackie Wilson, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and Junior Parker. Hunter was recently featured in the film Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the soundtrack to which won two Grammys last year. He has recently been touring with the rejuvenated Funk Brothers.

PopMatters: A lot of the people who listen to Motown think of it as being music from the North. I had heard that you were born in Tennessee. What did it mean for you to be in Detroit and play on Motown records having come from the South?

Joe Hunter: Coming from the South, I’ve been around practically the whole United States. With Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, we were playing his kind of stuff, if you ever knew what Hank Ballard and the Midnighters were playing. Motown didn’t mean any different. It was just the creative ability that we musicians had to go along with what Berry Gordy wanted. And we were interpreting, just like we would be interpreting anything else. Interpreting what he wanted, and we had the ability to do that. So it didn’t mean nothing coming from the South, the North, the West, the East or anyplace else. It just was that the talent within us.

PM: You mentioned your work with Hank Ballard—a lot of those songs were very sexually-charged, very adult. Do you see a difference between that kind of music and the music you were working on at Motown?

JH: No. I didn’t see no difference between music, period. I listened to everything. I used to listen to classics. My mother played piano. I listened to all types of music. Standards music. What the big bands was playing, Glenn Miller and everyone else was playing. Music is music. My definition of music is what is pleasing to the ear. Everything that’s not pleasing to the ear is noise.

PM: You worked on a lot of the early Motown hits. What was it like in Motown in the early days, when the label was just starting out?

JH: A lot of different people came in with different ideas. The music to me, it was good, because I heard worse. I think everything to me was beautiful, really. Guys came in with ideas. And you put your ability to it, arranging and whatnot. When I first went there, we didn’t have too many arrangers or anything. It was just arranging mostly by the musicians, by ear. There was Miss Ray, who became one of Berry’s wives. She had more musical knowledge, to me, than anybody else in the place. She had ideas about the way things would go. But it was mostly left up to the musicians and for Berry to say “yes” or “no” to this. He would sit there in a chair, biting his tongue, or whatever. His conceptions of what he liked, or whatever, he would agree with it or not agree with it. He would maybe say, “Try something else.” This was the way things were formulated to begin with. Later on, when the music came, they started putting it down on paper, note-for-note, notation-wise, to read notes.

PM: When did the music start to be written down?

JH: ‘Round about 1961. Berry took me there, he came where I was working and asked me to be a part of it, in 1958. We recorded first with Marv Johnson. When we started writing, really writing, we were writing chords to begin with. Something to put up there. Once we come into agreement with what Berry decided was good, we put this chord up there. This is what we called chord sheets. Later on, they started writing the notations down, about 1961. That’s when we had to get other musicians to start coming in. I had a lot of friends that I knew that were playing good music, or they would be in agreement with what Berry’s ideas were. These were the kind of musicians we were picking. They could formulate what Berry wanted. Then other producers started coming in, like Holland and Dozier, Smokey Robinson. In fact, Smokey was first, one of the first ones there. They didn’t write their music down, but they all could play two or three chords, and we would go further with the musicians who had studied a little more, the musicians themselves, as the Funk Brothers.

PM: You mentioned the musicians you knew whom you brought to work with Berry Gordy. One of those was James Jamerson, was it not?

JH: James Jamerson, Hank Crosby, George Bohannon. There were quite a few, but Jamerson was one of them. However, Jamerson wasn’t the first. There was a fellow called “Professor” Joe Williams playing bass on the first hits with Marvin Johnson. But Jamerson came in about a year later. Jamerson was the best.

PM: Tell me about the first time you ever met or heard Jamerson.

JH: When I first saw him or heard him play, it was with a group called Washboard Willie. This cat used to play a washboard, like drums. Jamerson was playing with him. I think Jamerson developed his style playing with Washboard Willie. Later on, he came over to Motown. They heard Jamerson play, they knew that was something else. It was exactly what we needed.

PM: You brought many of these musicians on some of the early Motown tours, where you were a bandleader.

JH: Uh-huh. Hank Crosby went to school with us. He later ended up with Jobete Publishing Company. He was still working with the company, but in the publishing department. He had a style somewhat similar to Jr. Walker. He was a good horn player, but he also had a business mind, so he went over to the publishing department and started to write some tunes. I think he wrote some tunes with Stevie Wonder. I’m sure he did. “Uptight”. So, he was one of the good musicians. “Beans” Bowles, he blowed baritone saxophone. They were good musicians. Paul Rison came as an arranger, but he also blowed a pretty good trombone. He did more arranging than blowing trombone.

PM: What was it like on those early tours, when you would all be together on the bus and go to so many cities to play this music?

JH: I went to about four of them, really. Then I stopped going. I think “Popcorn” Wally came after I did. I went to Saginaw, Michigan with the band, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Buffalo, New York. Cincinnati, Ohio was very successful. All of them were very successful. That was the time of Mary Wells, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Sammy Ward, and some people that didn’t continue making it all the way. But never were Marvin Gaye or any of those newcomers [on the tours I was on]. Earl Van Dyke took over after I resigned.

PM: When did you first hear about the Standing in the Shadows of Motown project?

JH: Back there, when Allen Slutsky mentioned that, it had to be over 13 or 14 years ago. He said he started the project really 16 years ago when he wrote the book, before he decided to try to do a picture with the Funk Brothers. His book was a success, and he decided to go further than just writing a book. He decided to try to make it into a motion picture after he got information about the people James [Jamerson] was surrounded by, the other musicians at Motown.

PM: What did you think about it when you first heard about it?

JH: I thought it was a very good idea. It would work if he could get the backing, the investment. I know Allen didn’t have the money to go into a motion picture type of thing. He did hustle, he got the artists, and Universal, and so forth, and so on. They ended up doing a business, a pretty good business. I was keeping my fingers crossed and praying. That’s what I thought about it. Very positive.

PM: How do you feel about the final product, the movie and the CD?

JH: I think it’s pretty good. I think it’s very good considering the time period there was to do it, the idea of the producer and the stepping stones he had to cross to make it successful. I think it was very, very good. Very positive.

PM: You are now again on tour with the Funk Brothers.

JH: We just got through touring about 16 places in the United States. I know they are planning something else, another tour, perhaps we’ll end up over there in Europe, maybe in France, England, Germany, Amsterdam, different places.

PM: How has it been playing this music again in front of a live crowd?

JH: I’ve played live crowds before. With Hank Ballard, I think we had more people on Virginia Beach than I think I’ve seen with the Funk Brothers. This was before Berry Gordy, in 1957 and 1958, before I even met Berry. Large crowds don’t excite me any. I was in the Army. I performed in the military, even though I was a general’s house orderly. I played clarinet. I’m used to crowds of people. I’m used to playing places where nobody shows. From nothing to something.

PM: Is there a favorite song that you worked on at Motown?

JH: All of them for me were favorites. I can’t pick one from the other. I played on “Heat Wave”. I thought that was excellent. I did a thing for Marvin Gaye called “Pride and Joy”, which is not on the A-side. I enjoyed playing on those things because I had the freedom of expression, to do what I wanted to do. It wasn’t written for me. I added my own writing to them, for the arrangements.

PM: How do you feel about the Funk Brothers, as they say, standing “in the shadows?” In other words, not being the stars of the Motown label, not releasing records on their own, under their own name. How does that strike you?

JH: It strikes me as it did then, it strikes me now. We were musicians backgrounding people. I wrote a little book, and I stated that I was proud to background people. At least I’m in history for doing something, accomplishing something. A lot of us are asked, “Are you bitter?” No. I just accepted myself at that time as a musician. It was a lot of experience, it was fun, there wasn’t anything negative about it. That’s the way I feel, but I never knew this day would come, when we would get two Grammys for doing what we did back there then. I’m proud to know I’ve lived long enough to receive that. However, a lot of them who really wanted something, who felt like they should have had something, they are deceased now. I just wish they could have been here to see this. We mention their names wherever we play: Earl Van Dyke, Robert White, “Bongo” Eddie, Benny Benjamin, “Pistol” Allen—he made the picture, but he didn’t live too long after the picture was successful. Johnny Griffith, the piano player, he died just as soon as we were ready to premiere it. I feel as if whatever happened 30 years ago was good because I kept on working anyway, besides the Motown stuff. I was versatile enough to continue working. I never missed a day’s work that I wanted to work. I fed my family and made more money than I made at Motown back in them days. However, I’m not bitter about anything now.

PM: Is it true that you’re 75?

JH: Yes.

PM: That’s really wonderful that you’re still on tour and playing and bringing the music to people. Congratulations on that.

JH: Thank you.

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