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

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014

Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
Arts and Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio talks during the press conference for the film

Film follows park rangers in the Congo

Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
Adel Taraabt in action for QPR against West Ham earlier this month
footballQPR boss says midfielder is 'not fit to play football'
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Teacher

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Group: English as an Additional Langua...

Nursery assistants required in Cambridgeshire

£10000 - £15000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Nursery assistants re...

History Teacher

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Seconda...

** Female PE Teacher Urgently Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album