Joe Hunter : First of the Motown Funk Brothers


Although dozens, perhaps hundreds, of musicians played in the studio for the Motown label of Detroit, the core players were the stellar house band known as the Funk Brothers. Uncredited on the records, in the 1960s they played on hits by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, and others.

Best known of the Funk Brothers is the late James Jamerson. The 1989 book Standing in the Shadows of Motown : The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson by Dr. Licks (Allan Slutsky), contained a biography and transcriptions of Jamerson’s playing, plus recordings of his parts by other great bass players. For many people, it was the first notice they had of the Funk Brothers story. Of the 13 official members of the now-legendary Funk Brothers, Joe Hunter was the first to be recruited by Berry Gordy, founder of Motown. Hunter was the group’s leader until he departed from the label.

In the fall of 2001, I attended the annual conference of the Society For Ethnomusicology in Southfield, Michigan, a satellite community of Detroit. I gave a paper called “The Enshrinement of Outmoded Styles : Current Institutionalized Performance Sites for Hillbilly, Rockabilly, and Psychedelic Music,” which compared Montreal’s longstanding Hillbilly Night with the music festivals Viva Las Vegas and The Gathering on the Mountain (in Pennsylvania). I joined others at the conference for a tour of the Motown studios.

One concert at the conference was by veteran blues singer Alberta Adams, who had recorded for Chess in the 1950s. I brought my recorder in the hopes of interviewing her, but as soon as I heard Joe Hunter on piano, even before I knew of his past, I aimed to speak with him. Hunter’s fluid playing impressed me and reminded me of that of Vann “Piano Man” Walls.

After the concert, he kindly agreed, and in the opening remarks he named Glenn Miller, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Oscar Peterson among his early musical influences. Our discussion, on the bandstand in the hotel ballroom on October 27, 2001, was interspersed with brief examples of his piano playing.

The movie Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the story of The Funk Brothers, came out two years later. The film and its terrific reception brought Hunter and the others into the worldwide spotlight. In 2004, the Funk Brothers, with guests that included Joan Osborne and the Four Tops, performed at the Montreal Jazz Festival at a free outdoor show attended by about 120,000 people. I was there, delighted to see Hunter at the piano.

Not to be confused with pianist Ivory Joe Hunter, of “Since I Met You Baby” fame, Joseph E. Hunter was born in 1927, in Jackson, Tennessee. The family moved to Detroit when he was around 10. He died in that city in 2007. His obituary can be read here.

Craig Morrison : Your mother was your piano teacher, right ?

JH : Well, actually I was one of those little guys who liked to go out and play baseball and shoot marbles with the rest of the guys. She didn’t think I was really interested in music, but she was teaching five or six students who would come there. She’d be laying the fundamentals and the principles. She could teach to about the third year of music.

CM : Did she play in the church ?

JH : No, she was singing in the choir. Anyway, I’d be walking through the house and stop sometimes and listen. One day they were sitting on the porch eating them watermelons and I started playing the piano on a tune called “Stormy Weather” (sings) : “don’t know why, there’s no sun up in the sky, stormy weather.”

[“Stormy Weather” is a standard, composed by Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen. Published in 1933, it was a major hit that year, with successful recordings by Leo Reisman with Harold Arlen, Ethel Waters, Guy Lombardo, Duke Ellington, and Ted Lewis. If Joe Hunter’s story takes place when the song was in its first popularity, he would have been about six years old at the time.]

My grandmother came in and she heard me and ran back out on the porch. She said, “This boy here playin’ a tune : ‘Stormy Weather’ ! You been teaching him, huh ?” She said, “No I haven’t taught him a thing !” But come to find out that I knew more than any of the students that she had taught, just [from] listening. Then I learned that I could write, so I started writing lead sheets. I made a business out of lead sheets. I think I made more money off of lead sheets and writing arrangements than I did playing music in bars and halls and whatnot, sending them off to Washington to copyright and all that.

CM : How did you get started with Hank Ballard ?

JH : I met Hank Ballard in Detroit at one of the clubs down there, what we called The Valley : Paradise Valley. I was getting ready to enroll into Wayne University because I wanted to study law. The first black lawyer that was chosen by the prosecuting attorney was Kingston Grand (?) of Detroit. I used to like the way that he presented himself, so I wanted to be… he was a model for me. I had a little musical talent, so the day before I was going to Wayne to register, I came into this club downtown and there was a group up there that was kicking and steadily stopping, it was stopping and going. I looked up and I recognized two of the musicians I went to high school with, and this guy sings “Work With Me, Annie.” I said, “Oh, that’s the Midnighters,” [with guitarist] Cal Green, the orchestra with the Midnighters, Hank Ballard and all. The horn player that I knew, the guy I went to school with, said, “stop the band,” and he whispered something to the lead singer and Sonny Woods, the bass singer. They all walked over to the bar where I was and said, “Man, would you sit in with us ? We’d like to see what you sound like.”

CM : Did they already have a piano player ?

JH : Yeah, they had another guy trying out, a friend of mine. I said, “No, I don’t solicit on a friend’s job.” He was a jazz pianist. They needed more of a boogie woogie type of piano player, who could play ragtime or something. So he says, “I haven’t hired this guy yet. We’d be obliged if you’d come up and I’d be willing to compensate you.” I said, “Well, that’s okay.” So I asked Walter Cox, the guy trying to play the piano with him, he’s dead now, and he said, “No, man, go on up there and do your thing.”

I walked up there and they started off their tune and I knew the changes and all that stuff. All I had to do was listen to their phraseology and whatnot and they had a little guide sheet that was nothing but a chord sheet. So I played that thing through the first time and they whispered again and walked over and said, “Well, we pay such and such a thing and we’re leaving out of here and we’ve got 40 one-niters, say would you be interested ?” I said, “Let me go home and think about it. I’ll let you know in the morning by eight o’clock.” I wasn’t married or anything, so the next day I said, “Well, yeah.” That’s the way I went on out with him, stayed with him two years.

He was smoking so much weed and stuff and every time they’d be going though the turnpikes in Oakland, California, and Fresno, California, I was always the one to see the police comin’ and I said, “Man, I’m tired of bailing you all out of trouble if we all goin’ to jail. I’m going to give you two weeks notice.” I was in the union, “When you all get back to Detroit, that’s it.” I gave him two weeks notice. He said, “Oh no, you’re making more money and you’re seeing more pretty girls than you’ve ever seen in your life.” And I say, “I don’t care nothin’ about that. I’ve saved enough money now to last me for a while. I’ll go home and get me a job right away.” So that’s what I did.

The year I met him was ’56. I stayed with him through the first half of ’58, and I came on home just before that fall. Then Berry Gordy came down where I was at, got me a job in Detroit, working for Chevrolet—I just wanted to see could I work again—for about a month. And also playing nightclubs on the weekends, three days a week at the Little Sam’s. That’s where Berry came in and told me what he was about and he asked me would I join him and helping him start a record business. That’s where me and Motown got together.

CM : Can you recall the recordings that you played on with Hank Ballard ?

JH : There was one thing called, “There’s a thrill up on the hill, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go” and there was another one called, “Early One Morning.” That’s when I used my churchy thing. I was just before Little Richard [he plays a bit of a slow blues with a gospel feel].

CM : Can you play me a bit of “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go” ?

JH : No.

CM : You don’t recall that one ?

JH : Yeah, I recall it, but I just don’t want to sit here all night. I’ve got to play in church tomorrow at 11 o’clock. [“Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go” was recorded in 1960, after Hunter had left Ballard’s band, and features Jimmy Johnson on the piano, though they may have been playing it when Hunter was in the band. “Tore Up Over You,” recorded in Cincinnati in March 1956 is one that does include Joe Hunter.]

CM : Alright. Do you recall the first recording that you played at Motown ?

JH : The first recording was with a fellow named Marv Johnson and it was a thing called, “Come To Me” (sings) : “come to me, bap-bap-de-boo-doo-doo-dum-bap-bap-bap-bap-bap, de-doo-dum-dum, oh baby won’t you come to me”). “Come To Me” was the first one. [“Come To Me,” co-written by Marv Johnson and Berry Gordy, was the first single released by Gordy, on the Tamla label in May 1959. Picked up by United Artists, it made #30 on Billboard’s top 100.] The second thing was “Merry Go Round,” recorded the same day with Eddie Holland, one of the Holland and Dozier and them.

CM : The writers.

JH : Yeah, he was a singer and he sung the record and it sounded so much like Jackie Wilson until they said, “There’s already one Jackie Wilson out there. You’re good but you’re too close to Jackie ! And you ain’t never going to get your propers, everybody gonna say you’re copying another singer.” His voice was so close. That was the second tune we did. Next we did a couple of Smokey’s tunes, “Try Me Baby” and we did a whole lot of tunes back there that they put into the can and took out later. We did tunes back in ’58, ’59 and the ’60s.

CM : Were you on “Shop Around” ?

JH : Yeah, I was on all of Smokey’s first tunes until I resigned and went with Jackie Wilson. I didn’t do any recording with Jackie. I went up and toured with him in Boston and through the New England states mostly.

CM : He was an astonishing performer on stage.

JH : I had worked with Jackie years before he made it, before I went with the Midnighters. We used to do amateur shows and Jackie would win every one of them : “oh Danny Boy” – I wish I could sing like him. Berry wrote him some tunes, like “To Be Loved” and “Reet Petite,” one of the big ones

CM : Was your recording with Hank Ballard your first time in the studio ?

JH : No, when I got out of high school, we used to go up and down Hastings at the Warfield Theatre, where a lot of them had talent shows. We played some of the talent shows there. There was a fellow named Joe Battle, he was recording—he had a funny kind of machine where you put the wax thing on—and he was recording Aretha Franklin’s father, Reverend Franklin.

CM : Sermons ?

JH : Yes, and he was at Hastings Street, recording for the blacks. Detroit had around three studios here : one was Fortune Records, and Joe Battle’s was the onliest black one that I can think of, the onliest Afro-American studio. He saw us walking down the street one day and the boy had his trumpet and one had a tenor saxophone. He says, “Hey, wait a minute you fellas, y’all play together don’t you ? I’ve got a thing here, I’ll give you five dollars a piece to come and do your best tune and record it.” So five dollars was better than nothing, and we walked in there and we did something, so he gave us the five dollars !

CM : What was it that you did ?

JH : Just rhythm stuff, like “I got rhythm, da da da da, da da da da, doo-dee-diddle-ee-da,” you know and did a little bridge. [Many tunes are based on the chord changes of George and Ira Gershwin’s 1930 composition “I Got Rhythm.” It uses the standard 32-bar song form, with the common A-A-B-A structure. The B section (bridge) is readily recognizable for its circle-of-fifths movement. Musicians call the chord progression “Rhythm changes.”]

CM : Did he put it out ?

JH : You know a lot of these record companies are tricky ; he had something going in St. Louis. I saw him about four months later and he says, “Hey, the record sounds good, my partner in St. Louis compared y’all diminished chords in which Nat King Cole was doing for Capitol Records. They liked it, they really liked it.” I said, “They did ?” And he gave a bonus of another five dollars and I began to think, “This cat might be making money off of this stuff.” We didn’t ask for no contracts or hadn’t copyrighted nothing, nothing ! So I’m beginning to learn, I’m beginning to think. I didn’t know. I say, “We can make money off of this stuff.”

CM : What was that group called ?

JH : I done forgot. I called them Star Makers.

CM : Was that on the record, the Star Makers ?

JH : I don’t know what Joe did. Joe is dead now. He was recording a lot of church stuff, preachers and whatnot. I don’t know whether he put any name on it at all.

CM : Why did you leave Motown ?

JH : I was fed up. I think my wife was pregnant with my daughter. I already had a son and I know they started making money. Berry was going to California to try to open up the stuff and get that Hollywood contact. And I wanted to borrow I think about three or four hundred dollars and pay it down on a house at the time. They refused me, “You’ve got to wait until Berry comes back.” So I just got hot headed because I saw the others starting to buy Cadillacs and shit. I said, “We ain’t nothing but being used and abused.” I just decided that I could make money from other record companies. I decided to cut on out.

CM : How long did you stay with Motown ?

JH : About five and a half years, until the last of ’63. I got with Berry in ’58.

CM : Do you remember the last recording you played on ?

JH : I know we did “Heatwave” and “Come and Get Those Memories” [both 1963 hits for Martha and the Vandellas] and we had recorded Marvin Gaye. Me and Marvin had played stuff with Jimmy Reed and I told Marvin, “I’m gonna change the trend of this guy there at Motown and put some jazz funk into it.” That’s when he did “Pride and Joy.” In fact I took it from Wes Montgomery, I put in : [plays a jazzy lick on the piano] and went into that thing. I did the whole introduction and they liked it and Marvin—he was walking around smoking his weed—said “I’ve got to put some good words to this thing !” He dropped it on the floor, so I picked it up and put it in under my pack and started smoking it. [We laugh] Yeah, Marvin was crazy about it. We did “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” before that, and “Hitchhike” and all stuff like that. I think my last thing was either “Pride and Joy” or “Try It Baby” ; we recorded that and they put it in the can and put it out later. But there was a lot of things that we did. Seemed like it was about the last stuff before I left. I did some other stuff before I left, but I can’t remember the names of the tunes. Sometimes somebody would have chord sheets up there with no title and no tune on it. No titles on that.

CM : You were leading that band right ?

JH : I was the leader of the band then. When I left, Earl Van Dyke came in and started leading it.

CM : Was James Jamerson with you guys then ?

JH : Yeah, Jamerson was a hell of a good bass player, but he never did lead the band. He was in my band and he joined Van Dyke after I left. Jamerson was one of the best.

CM : After Motown, who were you working with ?

JH : I started doing things on my own ; I was freelancing, self-employed. I started making more money self-employed than I did at Motown, with the lead sheets, and going over to Chess Records and over to Vee Jay. I think the Beatles had already recorded with Vee Jay.

CM : You recorded with Jimmy Reed too ?

JH : Just one tune with Jimmy.

CM : Do you remember which one it was ?

JH : I think they had already recorded it but they wanted us to dub in, they say there was a couple of mistakes, so they called us up, cleaning up on it : “you got me running, you got me hiding, you got ooh-yeah ooh-yeah anyway you want me” [“Baby What You Want Me To Do”]. We did that funny thing over there. There were a couple of spots in there that didn’t add up right, so I was the clean up man. Then we recorded Jerry Butler. I think he’s in politics now over in Chicago. City councilor over there

CM : He was just on TV ; he’s been MC-ing doo wop revival shows.

JH : Maybe he’s doing different now. We did, “Just a teeny weeny bit of your love” [“Just a Little Bit”] on him and Curtis Mayfield was the producer. I got the contract still at home, my part of the contract. Everybody say, “Oh ! You worked with Curtis Mayfield !” I say, “No, Curtis Mayfield worked with me.” [We laugh.] Yeah, I was the bandleader ; he was just the guitar player on there, just to make that money.

Joe Hunter at the keyboards. Picture source.

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I have posted interviews with many veteran musicians. To go to the index page, click here.

is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006