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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
peopleGerman paper published pictures of 18-month-old daughter
Arts and Entertainment
'A voice untroubled by time': Kate Bush
musicKate Bush set to re-enter album charts after first conerts in 35 years
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams' life story will be told in a biography written by a New York Times reporter
arts + ents
Life and Style
food + drink
Life and Style
Roger Federer is greeted by Michael Jordan following his victory over Marinko Matosevic
tennisRoger Federer gets Michael Jordan's applause following tweener shot in win over Marinko Matosevic
peopleJustin Bieber accuses paparazzi of acting 'recklessly' after car crash
Arts and Entertainment
Oppressive atmosphere: the cast of 'Tyrant'
tvIntroducing Tyrant, one of the most hotly anticipated dramas of the year
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Merger and Acquisition Project Manager

£500 - £550 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are currently...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£50 - £55 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN TAWe are looking to recrui...

Technical Manager – Heat Pumps

£40000 Per Annum dependent on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: They ...

Test Job

TBC: Test Recruiter for iJobs: Job London (Greater)

Day In a Page

Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

From strung out to playing strings

Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

A big fat surprise about nutrition?

The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

On the road to nowhere

A Routemaster trip to remember
Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

Hotel India

Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind
10 best pencil cases

Back to school: 10 best pencil cases

Whether it’s their first day at school, uni or a new project, treat the student in your life to some smart stationery
Arsenal vs Besiktas Champions League qualifier: Gunners know battle with Turks is a season-defining fixture

Arsenal know battle with Besiktas is a season-defining fixture

Arsene Wenger admits his below-strength side will have to improve on last week’s show to pass tough test
Pete Jenson: Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought

Pete Jenson: A Different League

Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought
This guitar riff has been voted greatest of all time

The Greatest Guitar Riff of all time

Whole Lotta Votes from Radio 2 listeners
Britain’s superstar ballerina

Britain’s superstar ballerina

Alicia Markova danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays
Berlin's Furrie invasion

Berlin's Furrie invasion

2000 fans attended Eurofeurence
‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

Driven to the edge by postpartum psychosis