The Funk Brothers
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10 Unsung Heroes Of Motown: The Funk Brothers, The Velvelettes & More
When we talk about the iconic Motown Records, there are a slew of legendary artists whose names come to mind: Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Supremes, The Four Tops. But—in addition to the superstars who helped cement the Detroit label's sound and launched black music into the U.S. mainstream pop landscape—there are plenty of unsung heroes who contributed to its vast legacy, many whom are at the foundation of the Motown sound.
Whether session musicians like The Funk Brothers and The Andantes, who played or sang on many of the best-known Motown hits, or The Velvelettes, who simply put out a few minor hits worthy of revisiting, the lesser-known artists associated with Berry Gordy and company are equally deserving of recognition. So to celebrate Motown's 60th anniversary ahead of Motown 60: A GRAMMY Celebration (which will air on CBS on April 21), we're highlighting 10 of the label's secret weapons.
The Funk Brothers
Motown's house band, hand-picked by Berry Gordy, played on many of the label's most iconic hits—including Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," The Temptations' "My Girl," The Supremes' "Baby Love," Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)," and Smokey Robinson's "The Tears of a Clown"—but the group of 13 session musicians didn't receive their due credit until much later. While at Motown, they would often moonlight for other labels to supplement their income (notably playing on Jackie Wilson's 1967 "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher," and when the label moved to Los Angeles in 1972, the Funk Brothers were relieved of their duties. Fortunately, a 2002 documentary, Standing In The Shadows of Motown, shined a light on their legacy and in 2004 they were awarded a GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award.
Like the Funk Brothers, you can hear The Andantes on many of your favorite Motown hits. The trio—composed of Jackie Hicks, Marlene Barrow and Louvain Demps—provided back-up vocals on five No. 1 singles for the label ("My Guy" by Mary Wells, "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)" and "Reach Out I'll Be There" by the Four Tops, "Love Child" by Diana Ross & The Supremes, and "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" by Marvin Gaye). But their tenure at Motown includes far more than just those tracks; they sang on 16 Four Tops songs, 12 Martha & The Vandellas singles, eight Supremes recordings, 14 Marvelettes songs, five Temptations recordings and 15 Marvin Gaye singles. They released a single of their own, "(Like A) Nightmare," in 1964; though it was credited to The Andantes, it featured lead vocals from Ann Bogan of the Marvelettes.
In 1959, Mable John became the first female artist signed to Motown's Tamla subsidiary. The blues vocalist released her first single for the label, "Who Wouldn't Love A Man Like That?," the following year, and unfortunately, it flopped around the same time more pop-influenced and radio-friendly Motown groups were beginning to take off. As a result, Berry Gordy decided to drop blues from the label, and he terminated her contract in 1962. She landed on her feet, however; after leaving Motown, she spent years as one of Ray Charles' Raelettes, and in 1966 she released Stay Out of the Kitchen on Stax Records and earned herself a hit with "Your Good Thing Is About To End," which peaked at No. 6 on the R&B chart.
Often referred to as "Motown's best-kept secret," The Originals, like the Andantes, spent much of their career singing background vocals for other artists. They can be heard on tracks like Stevie Wonder's "For Once In My Life," Jimmy Ruffin's "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted," Edwin Starr's "War," and Marvin Gaye's "Just to Keep You Satisfied." In fact, it was Gaye who helped them branch out on their own, co-writing and producing two of their biggest singles, "Baby, I'm For Real" and "The Bells." Later in the '70s, they started experimenting with disco, earning themselves a No. 1 dance chart hit with 1976's "Down to Love Town."
The Velvelettes began recording for Motown in 1963, and though they never reached the same levels of success as their fellow girl groups The Supremes or Martha and the Vandellas, they were responsible for a few moderate hits for the label. 1964's "Needle in a Haystack" peaked at No. 45 on the Billboard Hot 100, and its follow-up, "He Was Really Sayin' Somethin'" topped out at No. 64. The group never released a full-length album, but in 1982 they enjoyed some newfound recognition when Bananarama covered "He Was Really Sayin' Somethin'" (renaming it "Really Saying Something").
Garage rock isn't necessarily what we think of when we think of Motown, but it absolutely is a huge part of Detroit's musical history, and The Underdogs were already hometown heroes by the time they signed to Motown's VIP label in the mid-'60s. The Underdogs were the first white band signed by Motown, and they recorded their own version of Chris Clark's "Love Gone Bad" in 1966 as well as a cover of The Temptations' "The Way You Do The Things You Do." They tapered off in 1967, but their legacy endures, earning them spots on several Nuggets compilations.
Eddie Holland had some early success as a solo artist for Motown with hits like "Jamie," but he suffered from terrible stage fright and eventually made the transition to working behind-the-scenes for the label. He became one-third of the legendary Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting and production team with his brother Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier. Eddie Holland served as the team's lyricist, writing 10 out of 12 of The Supremes' No. 1 singles as well as hits like "Heat Wave" by Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye's "Can I Get A Witness" and "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)" and the Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)." In 1988, the trio was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and two years later, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Syreeta Wright—also known simply as Syreeta—began her career at Motown as a receptionist in 1965. She eventually worked her way up to singing on demos of Supremes songs before singing background for that girl group as well as Martha and the Vandellas. In 1968, she met labelmate Stevie Wonder, and the two co-wrote "It's A Shame" for The Spinners in 1969. Wright also co-wrote and sang background on Wonder's iconic "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)", and in 1970, the two married. They divorced two years later, but remained close collaborators, with Wonder producing her debut album, Syreeta, as well as its follow-up, 1974's Stevie Wonder Presents: Syreeta. She enjoyed success outside of Stevie Wonder as well, however; she collaborated with Billy Preston on the 1979 hit "With You I'm Born Again" and recorded an album of duets with Preston in 1981. Sadly, she passed away in 2004 after a battle with cancer.
One of the few white artists to be signed to Motown at the time, Chris Clark earned hits with 1965's "Do Right Baby Do Right" and 1966's "Love's Gone Bad." In the early '70s, she served as an executive in Motown's Los Angeles-based Film and Television Production Division, and in 1972, she co-wrote the screenplay for Lady Sings The Blues, the Billie Holiday biopic starring Diana Ross. She earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay, while Ross received a Best Actress nomination.
The Elgins may have had a secondhand name (Berry Gordy wanted the group to use the moniker, which was the original name for The Temptations), but they were the first ones to record the Holland-Dozier-Holland hit "Heaven Must Have Sent You" in 1966. The song peaked at No. 50 on the US pop charts, but it later enjoyed cult success within the UK's Northern Soul scene, reaching No. 3 on the UK singles chart in 1971. Bonnie Pointer later recorded a version of the song in 1979. The group broke up in 1967, but their status as hidden gems remains.