[9 July 2008]
In January 1959, Eddie Willis, a 22-year-old guitarist from Mississippi, stepped into a Detroit recording studio for the first time in his life. Berry Gordy, Jr. was overseeing the session for his fledging label, Tamla Records, and that day’s recording, Marv Johnson’s “Come to Me”, would become Tamla’s inaugural release. Later that year, Gordy created Motown, his pop-soul hybrid musical factory that, with the Detroit automotive industry as its model, brought black music to the forefront of mainstream America.
Willis quickly became a member of the group that would come to be known as the Funk Brothers, a collection of black and white musicians who served as Motown’s house band throughout the ‘60s and early ‘70s. Willis, along with guitarists Joe Messina and Robert White, created a six-string triple threat so intricate and intertwined that many listeners continue to this day to mistake them for one person. Collectively, the Funk Brothers played on countless number one hits and stone-cold classics by the likes of Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, the Miracles, the Four Tops, and Mary Wells. Willis’ resume, like any Funk Brother’s, is the stuff of fantasy, of legend; his many credits include songs like the Temptations’ “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and “(I Know) I’m Losing You”, Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” and “I Was Made to Love Her”, Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness”, and Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “Freedom Train”, on which he unleashes psych-swamp licks that nod to his Southern upbringing in country and blues.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Funk Brothers was their anonymity. Unlike Booker T. & the MG’s, the house band for Memphis’ Stax Records, the Funk Brothers didn’t release their own records, nor did Motown encourage them to cultivate their own identity outside the records they played on. A group of multiple guitarists, bassists, drummers, keyboardists, and percussionists, the Funk Brothers were tasteful and restrained players, always tailoring their sound to the needs of the song—quite an anomaly in an industry driven by egos and grandstanders. As a result, their seminal sound became familiar to every radio-listening household, but their names did not. Even as recently as the turn of the century, the Funk Brothers remained something of a ghostly presence in the consciousness of the average fan. That changed in 2002 with the release of the documentary/concert film Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which focused entirely on the Funk Brothers’ music, impact, and long-standing status as the unsung heroes of one of America’s greatest musical legacies.
Today, Willis, bassist Bob Babbitt, and drummer Uriel Jones still perform intermittently as the Funk Brothers (they are, along with Messina and percussionist Jack Ashford, the last surviving members of the group), and have just released Live in Orlando, a CD/DVD set that documents their live show on New Year’s Eve in 2005. PopMatters spoke with Willis from his home in Mississippi about his experiences behind the scenes at Motown. Still in a state of shock over the “unbelievable” course of his life, Willis, at 71, remains as modest, grateful, and humble as ever.
How old were you when you moved to Detroit?
Fifteen. I left Mississippi in ‘52 or ‘53. I’d had enough of it down here [Mississippi] at the time, and my mother was in Detroit, so I shot up there to go to high school.
Did you start playing in bands right away when you got there?
Not right away, no. I was in school for a couple of years before I got into the school band. I was so happy to know that they had a band at the school, ‘cause we had never had anything like that back home. I had learned quite a bit down here in Mississippi, listening to lots of country and western and blues—I wasn’t into jazz at that time, cause there wasn’t any jazz being played down here. I got into jazz later on ‘cause of the guys at Motown. I also played with a few guys in Detroit as an organ trio with drums. They were a little older than me, and taught me those old jazz tunes on stage, man.
Your first session at Motown was with Marv Johnson. How did you get hooked up with him?
We had a vocal group of five guys, and I was the guitar player. We were called the Playboys. We practiced in basements and some of the guys’ houses, played streetcorner doo-wop outside. Marv Johnson was in that group. Well, Marv left—we didn’t know where he had gone—and before we knew anything, he was back with a record out on a label with Berry Gordy. Marv asked me if I wanted to come play on his next record, which was “Come to Me”. [Released as Tamla 101 in January 1959 and nationally distributed by United Artists, “Come to Me” was a Top 30 hit on the Billboard charts.] I had never played on a record in my life! He went and asked Berry, and Berry said, “Hey, if he think he can do it.” I wasn’t sure, but I had confidence in myself and I went—shaking like a leaf on a tree! Now, Berry didn’t have a studio then; we went someplace else and rented a studio [United Sound Systems]. When we started working on the tune with the rhythm section, I fell right in there. I really was amazed at myself, how I just fell in there. When I heard the song played back, I don’t know what happened ... I guess I was in heaven or someplace. I couldn’t believe I had done that, but I did it, and that’s because Marv Johnson took me there. About two weeks later, they called me back and said, “You ready to do another session?”
Do you remember what they called you back for?
No, I really don’t. They were doing something like four songs in one session at that time, and sometimes we did even more than that. We were doing that five-dollars-a-side thing, and we’d cover six songs sometimes within a day. Some of that stuff never came out, you know, but the best of it did. We were there overtime, for sure. Five dollars a side added up back in the ‘60s! It was great, though—that was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I’m sayin’ right now: it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing that I never thought would happen.
Did Joe Messina and Robert White start around the same time as you?
Joe had played a session with Jackie Wilson before my session with Marv Johnson, and Robert came after me with Harvey Fuqua and the Moonglows [the group that brought Marvin Gaye to Motown].
How much time did you guys have to work out your guitar parts before recording a song?
We took our time and worked out what the three guitars were going to do, especially in the beginning. I did quite a bit of adlib, because I had more of a blues feel, and my head was full of everything. Robert was a good rhythm guy and Joe often went note-for-note with the bass. I would adlib in and out, never covering up anybody. We had to play according to the record, you know—you didn’t want to jam it up with a bunch of crap.
Was there a particular moment early on when you thought to yourself, “Wow, this Motown thing is gonna be huge”?
No, it never came off like that at all. I never thought it would blossom into what it became. We would do sessions and then go out and work the clubs at night, man. Though all of us never worked together in a club. Some guys would have their own bands with other players. I worked together a lot with [drummer] Benny Benjamin. We’d play some stuff in the clubs at night that we had just recorded that day, if you can believe that. Berry would have killed us if he had known! I don’t think he knows that to this day! (laughs) We would let the people in the club know, “We just recorded this today!” Sometimes the artists would follow us to the club, and they’d get up on the stage and sing that song before it came out.
Were there any artists or producers who you especially enjoyed working with?
It was such a pleasure to work with Eddie Kendricks by himself. Uriel and I worked with him when he [left the Temptations] and went on his own. He just let you do what you wanted to do, you know? One of the guys I worked with who was a lot of fun was [producer] Norman Whitfield ... he was a clown, really. The rest of the guys were clowns also, you know, so we’d all talk about each like dogs, man. (laughs) We really did, man, some bad words, but everyone knew that it didn’t mean nothin’. It just made the sessions fun, and that’s what made the songs come out so good—we were all at ease.
Does it blow your mind these days to think that you can go to any city in the country, or the world for that matter, turn on the radio and hear a song that you played on?
Yes, man, yes yes yes. It’s a wonderful thing and a wonderful feeling. You hear this music everywhere, and you have a tendency to say, “Wow, I played on that! That was me!” Many times we had to cut it off, you know, because people wouldn’t believe you if you told them. That happened many times, where people would say, “Yah right, you played on that song!” That’s what they’d say, “Yah right, I played on it, too! I heard Superman played on that song!”
But it’s unbelievable, man, it’s such a feeling and such a good thing that we’ve got going on right now with the audience. And when you hear what this music has done for their lives ... it really touches your heart.
What do you think it is about the Motown records that appeal to so many people, in your opinion?
Well, let me tell you: About four or five years ago when that [Standing in the Shadows of Motown] DVD came out, there was a woman here in Mississippi, a friend of ours, and she had a very ill father. He hadn’t said anything for a few years, man, he was just, you know, helpless. She called my wife and said that she had put that DVD on and her dad was tappin’ his foot to it. And this lady was cryin’ talking about it ... that killed me, man. That really took my heart. I’ve heard some other stuff, and it’s the same thing all down the line, how that music has touched people. The guys over in Vietnam said that when our records came on, they knew it was us, it was Motown. They said that hearing that really helped them get through the day. It really touches your heart when someone tells you that kind of stuff.
These kinds of things really trip me out. We were working this past weekend outside Riverside, and there were so many people there ... you could look way out in the distance, I don’t know how far, on each side of us and behind us. And they were there to see us! Man, that got me, truly it did. It makes you thankful to know that you touched someone’s heart with something. That makes us feel so darn good. The three of us keep goin’ on and trying to carry this thing on, the Funk Brothers, for the other guys who are gone. They wanted the same thing that we wanted. And we don’t fail to mention their names at every show we play, because they were a part of this, too. We just want to do somethin’ for the guys’ wives, you know—that’s what it’s all about. It’s not just about the three of us.
It’s incredible watching the three of you on the new DVD, because you guys are still so tight. It’s just a pleasure to watch you guys play.
It is fun, and I enjoy it now just as much as I used to. We all enjoy it. I couldn’t ask for anything better.