Joe Hunter

First of Motown's Funk Brothers


Joseph Edward Hunter, pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader: born Jackson, Tennessee 19 November 1927; married 1957 Mabel Miller (one son, one daughter); died Detroit c 1February 2007.

In 2002, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the documentary directed by Paul Justman and based on the book by Allan Slutsky, rightly put the spotlight on the musicians who backed the Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, the Four Tops and dozens of other Motown artists on hundreds of sessions between 1959 and 1972. Nicknamed the Funk Brothers, the house band toiled away in Studio A, "the Snakepit", at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, Detroit, were originally paid a flat $5 or $10 a session and later drew a monthly salary, but received no credit or royalties - though they put their stamp on "The Sound of Young America" as much as the star vocalists and songwriters and producers.

However, when the Motown founder and owner Berry Gordy Jnr moved the company lock, stock and barrel from its original "Hitsville USA" home in Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972, the session players who had featured on more hits than Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined were left high and dry and went back to the jazz clubs they had first come from.

"When the dust cleared, we realised it was all over and we were being left out of the dream," said the keyboard-player Joe Hunter in the documentary:

Well, I was always aware it would happen. The first day I talked to Berry about playing in Hitsville, he said he wanted to make some hit records, and, after he made those records, he wanted to get in the movies. So I knew that it wasn't going to last forever.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown helped Hunter, the guitarists Eddie Willis and Joe Messina, drummer Uriel Jones, bassist Bob Babbitt and percussionist Jack Ashford get belated recognition for their work at Motown as they told their story and recreated some of their classic recordings behind Chaka Khan, Joan Osborne, Ben Harper and Bootsy Collins.

The Funk Brothers won two Grammys for the soundtrack album in 2003, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004, the year they played a triumphant concert at the Royal Festival Hall, where they were joined by Steve Winwood and Billy Preston.

Born in Jackson, Tennessee, in 1927, Hunter grew up in a musical environment and watched his mother give piano lessons until he picked up enough tips to play on his own. He retained an interest in classical music throughout his career, naming Rachmaninov as an influence alongside Nat King Cole.

He moved to Detroit with his parents in his early teens, retained his Southern accent and manner, and played clarinet in the school band. Between 1949 and 1951, he studied law at the University of Detroit before going into the army as a general's house orderly. There, he played in bands with the jazz drummer Elvin Jones and Earl Van Dyke (keyboards), who later joined him at Motown.

When Hunter went back to Detroit in the mid-Fifties, he could play jazz like Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson or New Orleans boogie-woogie in the style of Professor Longhair or Fats Domino, but he still turned up in church to play organ on Sundays. He backed acts such as Cab Calloway and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters and was spotted by Gordy at Little Sams, a Detroit club. Indeed, Turner was the first musician hired by Gordy and led the Motown studio band between 1958 and 1963, when he wasn't out on tour with Jackie Wilson, the artist his boss had written "Reet Petite" for before launching his own label.

At Motown, Hunter helped Gordy recruit local jazz musicians to the house band and rehearsed the singers before recording began. "When I first went there, we didn't have too many arrangers or anything. Guys came in with ideas and you put your ability to it, arranging and what not," said Hunter.

Playing a Steinway grand piano or a Hammond B-3 organ, Hunter made stellar contributions to early hits such as Marv Johnson's "Come to Me" (1959), "Way Over There" (1959) and "Shop Around" (1960) by the Miracles with Smokey Robinson, the much-covered "Money" by Barrett Strong (1960), the Contours' infectious million-seller "Do You Love Me" (1962), "Come and Get These Memories" and "Heatwave" by Martha and the Vandellas (1963) and "Pride and Joy" by Marvin Gaye (Hunter's bluesy intro is particularly memorable on the 1963 hit).

"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," he recalled.

Hunter resigned from Motown in 1963 and freelanced as an arranger, pianist and bandleader with Jimmy Ruffin, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Junior Parker, Edwin Starr, Big Maybelle and Aretha Franklin. But, by the late Eighties, he was playing for tips in the lounge of the Troy Marriott hotel in Detroit. Encouraged by Slutsky's efforts to set the record straight about the Funk Brothers' contribution to the Motown sound, Hunter published an autobiography, Musicians, Motown and Myself: the dawn of a new sound (1996).

In 2005, prompted by the success of the documentary, the Soul-Tay-Shus label released a CD of Hunter's archive recordings with the Funk Brothers entitled The Hawk: rare & unreleased transitional Detroit R&B 1960-1963.

A snappy dresser with an easy-going disposition, Hunter enjoyed reading Plato and quoting Shakespeare as much as talking about his days at the dawn of the Motown hit factory. "People who choose music as their profession are blessed, if they can obtain a decent wage. Fortune and fame was never the name of my game," he said: "We were musicians backing people. At least I'm in history for doing something, accomplishing something. It was a lot of experience, it was fun. I'm not bitter about anything now. I never knew this day would come when we would get two Grammys. I'm proud to know I've lived long enough to receive that."

Pierre Perrone

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