Legendary Motown guitarist Eddie Willis passes away aged 82.
More sad news reaches us here at TFSR. Eddie Willis, one the members of the iconic Motown house band The Funk Brothers, has passed away aged 82. Willis, one the few remaining members of this exclusive band, had been ill for many years as he fought the effects of polio. He also struggled to care for his wife, who was the victim of a severe dog attack a few years back.
Willis, along with rest of The Funk Brothers, would play an integral part in the development of the ‘Motown Sound’.The group was led by Earl Van Dyke on keys, and included Benny Benjamin on drums, James Jamerson on bass, Jack Ashford on tambourine and vibes, Eddie ‘Bongo’ Brown on bongos and congas, and Robert White, Joe Messina and Willis on guitars. It was these talented men, along with later members, bassist Bob Babbitt, drummers Uriel Jones and Robert “Pistol’ Allen, Joe Hunter and Johnny Griffith on keys, that would serve as Motown’s house band in the sixties and early seventies.
Together the group would play on more number one records than Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys combined. It was their grooves that gave acts such as The Supremes, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Spinners, The Four Tops and many others their unique sound.
But, unlike these acts, the Funk Brothers were only paid per session, and were largely unknown to the record buying public. Their names were kept off album covers. To prevent them being lured away from Motown, their identity was somewhat hidden by the company, until Marvin Gaye printed their names on the album sleeve of his What’s Going On masterpiece. For the first time, the musicians received the credit they deserved.
With such a great collection of musicians able to produce quality soul, R&B and pop, Motown tried to limit the group playing outside sessions and gigs. Yet, for all their control over The Funk Brothers and their importance to the whole success of the company, the group was left behind when Motown left Detroit in 1972. Suddenly the Funk Brothers were expendable. Several of the musicians would relocate to Los Angeles, but many stayed in Detroit and played local gigs and recording dates.
It wasn’t until 2002 that the surviving members of the Funk Brothers, including Willis, would receive greater recognition fo their contributions to Motown. The remaining members were reunited by documentary maker and writer Allan Slutsky to tell their story of working at Motown, alongside performances with a whole host of soul stars. The resulting film, appropriately titled ‘Standing in the Shadows of Motown’, was an international hit and earned the Funks the recognition they deserved. The soundtrack to the documentary was a surprise hit, and their cover of ‘What’s Going On’ with Chaka Khan won them a Grammy. A world tour followed, introducing The Funk Brothers to a whole new audience.
However, time took its toll and many of the members passed away. The group splintered, and several versions of The Funk Brothers took to the road.
In 2010 Phil Collins asked Willis and Bob Babbitt to record with him for his Going Back album, a collection of his favourite Motown songs. The duo would perform with him for some select dates, including a broadcast on ITV in the UK.
In 2013 Eddie Willis and Jack Ashford appeared together in Hollywood as they were given a star on the Walk of Fame; Stevie Wonder was in attendance.
Just last year, Detroit resident and musician Drew Schultz released an impressive tribute album for Willis in the hope of raising money for his medical bills. Schultz managed to pull together the best in Detroit talent for the project, including guitarist Dennis Coffey and singer Carolyn Crawford.
Willis’ death leaves Ashford and Joe Messina as the last remaining Funk Brothers. He leaves behind him an incredible musical legacy.