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Motown Funk Brothers guitarist Joe Messina dies at 93

Joe Messina, a guitarist for the Motown session band known as the Funk Brothers, whose largely anonymous work has graced such hit records as Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, “For Once in My Life” by Stevie Wonder and “Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” died April 4 at his son’s home in Northville, Michigan. He was 93.

A family friend, Steve Shepard, confirmed his death from complications of kidney disease.

Mr. Messina was a mainstay of Detroit’s vibrant jazz scene for years before joining the Motown studio band in 1959. Along with a dozen other musicians, including bassist James Jamerson, pianist Earl Van Dyke and the drummers Benny Benjamin and Richard “Pistol” Allen, Mr. Messina helped form the nucleus of a versatile band that quickly learned and recorded new songs for young Motown hitmakers.

Label owner Berry Gordy modeled Motown on automobile production lines, with sessions going on around the clock. The company’s early recordings were often completed in one or two takes. Even as Motown songs rose to the top of the charts, Mr. Messina and his colleagues were not credited on early albums and initially received no royalties for their contributions.

Typically, Motown producers paired Mr. Messina with fellow guitarists Robert White and Eddie Willis.

Mr. Messina was known for his almost subliminal backbeat rhythms, his chord accents that followed the snare and tambourine on the second and fourth beats of a bar. Sometimes the three guitarists would play the accents in unison.

On some songs, including 1967’s “Your Precious Love” by Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Mr. Messina doubled Jamerson’s bassline. On the Supremes’ 1970 hit “Someday We’ll Be Together,” Mr. Messina’s insistent guitar riff can be heard under the orchestral strings, adding heightened tension to Diana Ross’ vocals.

Although most jazz players played hollowbody guitars, Mr. Messina preferred a solidbody Fender Telecaster with heavy-gauge flatwound strings for a brighter tone, especially on the higher notes. He said he imitated saxophonists more than other guitarists.

“I liked the sound” of the Telecaster, he once said. “All the jazz players were playing that thick ‘muddy ink sound’ with lots of bass.”

Mr. Messina’s background as a jazz musician made him adept at sight-reading and transposing key signatures, but many Motown arrangements were created on the spot by the Funk Brothers.

“They came up with a chord sheet,” Messina told the Musician Hall of Fame, recalling a session with the writing and production team of Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland. “There could have been three, maybe four chords at most, and they were like, ‘Cut it down. So while we’re performing it, we kind of feel what we think would fit. While we were doing this, they were guarding it. So we fixed it for them – we didn’t know we were doing it!”

Joseph Lucian Messina was born on December 13, 1928 in Detroit. His father, an auto worker, played the guitar as a hobby and bought his son a guitar when he was 13 years old.

Mr. Messina studied at Cass Tech, a high school known for its music program, before dropping out to work as a guitarist in Detroit jazz clubs. He has led his own bands and performed with many guest musicians. He joined the crew of WXYZ, a local ABC television affiliate, and performed in the band on comedian Soupy Sales’ late-night TV show, backing jazz greats such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

After seeing Mr. Messina perform at a jazz club, Gordy asked if he would record for his Motown label. Mr. Messina was one of the few white musicians in the Funk Brothers, whose lineup changed often.

When Motown moved its operations to Los Angeles in 1972, Mr. Messina remained in Detroit. He quit performing and opened a car wash and jewelry business before returning to music 30 years later. He continued to conduct jazz jam sessions at his home until shortly before his death.

The Funk Brothers were virtually unknown to record buyers, but emerged from anonymity in director Paul Justman’s 2002 documentary film, “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.”

The film, built around a reunion concert in Detroit, portrayed 13 of the Motown session players, many of whom had already passed away. Eight members of the group, including Mr. Messina, went on tour for two years.

The Funk Brothers received two Grammys in 2003 for the film’s soundtrack and their remake of Gaye’s “What’s Going On” with singer Chaka Khan. They received a Grammy for lifetime achievement in 2004 and were inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum in 2007. With Mr. Messina’s death, percussionist Jack Ashford is the last living member of the original 13 musicians.

Mr. Messina’s wife, Josie, died in 2009. Survivors include two children; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Mr. Messina, who considered himself a jazz man, often told people that he viewed his work with Gordy as little more than a job.

“When we came to Europe, people knew more about us and our songs than I did,” he once said. “Of course, I never knew much about our songs anyway because I recorded them, and when I left the studio, I didn’t get a chance to play them back. … When we had rehearsals, they would say that we were going to do such and such a song, and I would ask them: ‘How is it going?’ because I had no idea.


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