Home Adult entertainment Joe Messina of the Funk Brothers, an integral part of the Motown sound, dies at 93

Joe Messina of the Funk Brothers, an integral part of the Motown sound, dies at 93


Joe Messina, a jazz guitarist whose work with the Funk Brothers helped build the foundation of the Motown sound, died Monday in Northville. He was 93 years old.

Messina, a longtime Warren resident, died at 4 a.m. Monday at the home of his son, Joel Messina, succumbing to 12-year-old kidney disease. The guitarist lived on his own until a month ago and regularly hosted other jazz musicians at his house for jam sessions, his son said.

With the Funk Brothers in the late 50s to early 70s, Messina played on an impressive number of hits, being part of a guitar attack alongside regulars Robert White and Eddie Willis at Motown’s Studio A.

Largely uncredited on these releases at the time, Messina and his fellow Funks operated in the dark in the downstairs studio they called the Snakepit while helping to create one of the corpora of greatest works of the 20th century.

Typically using a Fender Telecaster with a modified neck, Messina gave the guitar’s stamped-back rhythm luminosity the signature Motown sound – a deft sight-reader with a supple, funky touch. His performances with the Funk Brothers have graced the hits of the Supremes, Four Tops, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and myriad others.

Robert White and Joe Messina in Studio A at Motown.

With Willis and White usually flanking him in the studio, Messina would later describe himself as “the cream in the Oreo cookie” of the Funk Brothers guitar section. He was one of 13 players officially recognized by the Recording Academy when the group received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004 and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2013.

Prior to his passing on Monday, Messina was among the last surviving players in the Funk Brothers base set. The band’s little-known contributions to Motown were brought to public notice with the acclaimed 2002 documentary “Standing in Motown’s Shadow”, in which Messina featured prominently.

“As one of the original Funk Brothers, Joe Messina leaves a lasting legacy as one of the creators of Motown sound,” said Robin Terry, CEO and President of the Motown Museum of Detroit. “A powerful talent, he was personally recruited by Berry Gordy and had a huge impact during the label’s most formative years. We are thinking of his family and his fans, and will continue to celebrate his musical contributions for generations to come. to come.”

Motown arranger and trombonist Paul Riser was a 17-year-old Cass Tech student and precocious professional musician when he first encountered Messina in Hitsville in 1961 – immediately recognizing the guitarist from his appearances in “The Soupy Sales Show” on WXYZ-TV. The two have become close over the years.

“He was like a brother, a father figure, a friend,” Riser said. “Joe was a great musician who mentored many others, and there were so many guitarists who followed him.”

Messina’s tenure with the Soupy Sales program — he was part of both the midday children’s show and the late-night adult edition — has grown since his stint in Detroit jazz clubs as a what a young player. He was also a go-to employee for television commercials before his enlistment at Motown in the late 1950s.

Joe Messina, second from left, performing at Detroit's Club Sudan in 1946 with Alvin Jackson, left, Phil Hill and Milt Jackson.  From the book

Calm and good-natured, Messina bought a car wash in Detroit in 1968 and another several years later. These successful investments played a part in the guitarist’s decision to stay in Michigan when Motown Records uprooted for Los Angeles around 1972.

“He didn’t want to give up what he had to go there,” said Joel Messina. “But he also knew they were looking for a more current (musical) vibe in California, and he realized that would have been short-lived.”

After Motown, Messina remained musically active, playing gigs around town and eventually, after training on the harmonica, released an album called “Messina Madness” in the early 90s.

“He always seemed to have something to do,” his son said. “He didn’t have a regular seat, but he always sat with other musicians.”

Funk Brothers Joe Messina, Johnny Griffith, Joe Hunter, Bob Babbitt and Richard

Riser and others said Messina was pleased with the belated exposition that accompanied the 2002 Funk Brothers documentary. their sometimes contentious relationships with filmmakers, Riser said.

“He was the warmest human being – always a smile, always a good word, always a sunny disposition,” Riser said. “He was grounded and assured, just a great spirit with music.”

Messina’s son said his father was proud of his accomplishments at Motown, although, in typical style, he didn’t speak loudly about it.

“He was very modest. He never bragged about any of that,” said Joel Messina. “Even if something in the movie was supposed to put someone down, it would stay out of it.”

In addition to her son, Joel, Messina is survived by her daughter, Janice Coppa; four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. His wife, Josie Messina, died in 2009.

Funeral details are expected to be announced this week. Arrangements will be made by Harry J Willis Funeral Homes in Livonia.

Contact Detroit Free Press Music Writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or [email protected]