Uriel Jones: One of the Funk Brothers and the last of the great Motown drummers

Uriel Jones was the last surviving member of the "Motown three", the triumvirate of drummers who put the backbeat to the hundreds of recordings coming out of Hitsville USA in Detroit in the Sixties and early Seventies. He proved a more than able deputy and eventual replacement for the dynamic but troublesome Benny Benjamin, who died in 1969, and alternated with Richard "Pistol" Allen, the drummer favoured by the producers and songwriters Lamont Dozier and Brian and Eddie Holland, who died in 2002.

Jones's muscular drumming drove such classics as "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" by The Temptations in 1966, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell in 1967 and its 1970 remake by Diana Ross, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" by Marvin Gaye in 1968 and "For Once in My Life" by Stevie Wonder in the same year. But he could also play in a more laidback style, and excelled on the ballads "The Tracks of My Tears" by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles in 1965 and "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" by Jimmy Ruffin in 1966.

Born in Detroit, Jones was a troubled teenager who ended up at Moore School for Boys, an institution which tried to instil some discipline into youngsters. He took up boxing and the trombone but the two didn't quite go together. "I used to love boxing but I had a real problem playing trombone out of the side of my mouth with a bust lip," he recalled. "I thought: this ain't gonna work. That's when I started playing drums."

Like his fellow Motown session-players, Jones was a jazz musician, "a bebop fanatic" and a big admirer of Art Blakey. He entered the Motown orbit via a jam session at the Chit Chat club featuring the band leader Earl Van Dyke. "He came in one day to play organ," " Jones explained. "We clicked. Between Earl and Marvin Gaye, that's how I came into Motown."

A drummer himself, Gaye was notoriously demanding and Jones earned his respect while backing him on tour in 1964. The following year, he played on Gaye's "Ain't That Peculiar" and became part of the set-up inside the Snakepit, the studio in the converted garage at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, the original home of Motown in Detroit. "Another thing that inspired me so much was when I first met Benny Benjamin and heard him play," stressed Jones. "It turned my whole thing around, my playing. I tried to clone myself after Benny Benjamin."

This proved very convenient as Benjamin was often late and developed a drug and alcohol dependency. Jones could indeed play like him and hit the drums really hard – his nickname was "possum" – but he could be more subtle and also excelled at the funkier stuff. In fact, he became Norman Whitfield's drummer of choice as the producer began stretching creatively and taking the Temptations into a psychedelic-soul direction on "Cloud Nine" and "I Can't Get Next to You" in the late Sixties.

"He came into the studio one day and said: 'I wanna do something fresh, something different," Jones said about his work with Whitfield. "'Cloud Nine' began as a beat on the cymbal. Norman would have you sit and play that two or three minutes by itself, and he'd tell you to add a certain beat on the foot. Then he turned the whole band down on this tune. He had in mind what he wanted but the tune really materialised once we started playing it. We'd have as many as 12 or 13 guys in there just grooving on the rhythm. We could play and not even look at one another."

In 1965, Jones travelled to the UK with the Motortown Revue, featuring Van Dyke, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, "Little" Stevie Wonder, the Supremes and the Miracles, with Brit Georgie Fame as special guest. The drummer had fond memories of his trip, despite a mishap in Manchester. "We went for a ride in Georgie Fame's car and he nearly killed us," he remembered. "British fans are different from the ones at home because they got more interest in the musicians. Man, we couldn't believe it!"

For many years, the Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jnr. paid his session musicians, known as the Funk Brothers, a weekly wage and resisted giving them credit on the albums. He even fined them if they moonlighted for another Detroit label. Jones recalled a particular session for Wingate which cost the Funk Brothers dear after Gordy's A&R chief Mickey Stevenson confronted them. "He pulled out some pictures of me with my drum cases and the rest of us leaving," Jones explained. "They had detectives watching us, and we had to pay a $300 fine if caught. We couldn't deny the allegations, and paid up without any further conversation."

Worshipped by soul aficionados the world over, players like Jones were left in the lurch when Gordy moved the company lock, stock and barrel from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972. Thirty years later, the Funk Brothers finally achieved some recognition when the writer turned producer Allan Slutsky and the director Paul Justman made the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown about them.

In 2004, they were awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for collectively taking part in "more No 1s than the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones combined." The Funk Brothers finally got top billing, and played memorable concerts in the UK in early 2004, with guest vocalists of the calibre of Billy Preston and Steve Winwood, and the likes of Paul McCartney in attendance.

While Benjamin, Van Dyke, bass-player James Jamerson, percussionist Eddie "Bongo" Brown and guitarist Robert White had died long before Standing in the Shadows of Motown was even conceived, the documentary managed to capture Jones and Allen as well as the pianists Joe Hunter and Johnny Griffith before they passed away. Guitarists Joe Messina and Eddie Willis, percussionist Jack Ashford and bassist Bob Babbitt are now the only surviving Funk Brothers who appeared in the film.

Jones experienced heart problems in recent years, and had been in hospital since suffering a heart attack last month. "I feel blessed to have worked with him," said Babbitt. "As a musician, he was incredible."

Pierre Perrone

Uriel Jones, drummer: born Detroit 13 June 1934; married (three children); died Dearborn, Michigan 24 March 2009.

Suggested Topics
News
i100
News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
News
peopleHis band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and DiCaprio, at an awards show in 2010
filmsAll just to promote a new casino
News
i100
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
News
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
science
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
News
i100
Sport
Tom Cleverley
footballLoan move comes 17 hours after close of transfer window
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
News
Boris Johnson may be manoeuvring to succeed David Cameron
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Nursery Nurse Level 3

£8 per hour: Randstad Education Leeds: The Job Nursery Nurse Leeds We are now ...

Web Developer/UI Developer (HTML5, CSS3,Jquery) London

£55000 - £65000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A Global Financial Service Organi...

Data Scientist (SQL, PHP, RSPSS, CPLEX, SARS, AI) - London

£60000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A prestigious leading professiona...

C# Web Developer (C#, MS Dynamics CRM, SQL, SQl Server) London

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A Global Financial Service Organi...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering