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

Thursday 26 March 2009 01:00

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.

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