Signed, sealed, delivered
The Funk Brothers
Let’s compare two classic songs: “Satisfaction” and “My Girl.” Both were No. 1 hits in 1965. Both have been covered hundreds of times, and both songs feature distinctive, unforgettable guitar riffs so deeply embedded in the collective unconscious that you can probably hum either one right now.
“Satisfaction,” as you’re no doubt aware, was first recorded by the Rolling Stones. It was written by that group’s lead singer, Mick Jagger, and rhythm guitarist, Keith Richards. Jagger sang the lead vocal, and Richards played the guitar riff. Unless you’ve never left the cave you were born in, you know that.
You also almost certainly know “My Girl” was first recorded by The Temptations. You might’ve also heard it was co-written by Smokey Robinson, and music buffs will know that David Ruffin, the Tempts’ frontman at the time, sang the lead vocal. But here’s the million dollar question: Who played that guitar riff?
His name is Robert White, and he also played guitar on other classic songs, like Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness” and The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” He was a member of The Funk Brothers, the house band at Motown Records, the most efficient and consistent hit-making machine in the history of recorded music.
Studio founder Berry Gordy Jr., a songwriter-turned-producer-turned-executive modeled his Detroit-based
company and its subsidiaries on his hometown’s other major industry. But instead of automobiles, this assembly line cranked out amazing music.
According to the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, The Funk Brothers played on “more No. 1 records than The Beatles, Elvis, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys combined.”
Funk Brothers bassist James Jamerson’s melodic style reinvented the use of the instrument in popular music. Paul McCartney, for example, cites him as a primary influence, and Jamerson played on more No. 1 hits than any other single musician, including McCartney. Drummers Benny Benjamin, Richard “Pistol” Allen and Uriel Jones were the pulse of 1960s soul music. Jones was featured in recent Funk Brothers tours before he passed away in March.
The Reno appearance of The Funk Brothers on the closing day of Artown will feature Jack Ashford, the vibraphonist and percussionist, who is best known as the world’s most important innovator on the world’s least glamorous instrument: the tambourine. Ashford played tambourine on hundreds of recordings, including Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and Edwin Starr’s “War.”
Also performing will be Bob Babbit, who played bass on, among other Motown hits, Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” the unofficial theme song of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.