Keeping the Funk Alive: Human Nature’s Backing Band Continues a Proud Motown Tradition
Posted by Andrew C on Tuesday, September 16th, 2014
For as often as we describe Human Nature as a quartet, anyone who has ever seen the group’s Motown show will know that it takes far more than four people to pull off a nightly spectacular of this magnitude. There’s the stagehands, sound and lighting technicians, management, security, the staff at the Venetian, and perhaps most importantly of all, there’s the Funk Foundation—or as some folks call them, “the best band in Vegas.”
Yes, it’s fair to say that Human Nature’s longtime seven-piece back-up band doesn’t get quite the same level of attention as the four front-and-center crooners themselves. But for the Funk Foundation, that’s exactly how they prefer it. After all, these remarkably talented musicians are proudly following in the footsteps of the original purveyors of “The Motown Sound”— the collective of Detroit studio musicians who later came to be known as The Funk Brothers.
Despite playing on dozens of the most beloved and recognizable pop hits of all-time, the Funk Brothers did most of their work in anonymity during the 1960s. Even when compared to other similarly brilliant backing bands like Booker T and the MG’s (of Stax Records in Memphis) or the Los Angeles-based Wrecking Crew (famous for their work with Phil Spector), the Funk Brothers were virtually unknown to the general public during their time. It wasn’t until the release of the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, in fact, that a wider recognition of their achievements finally took hold.
In a roundabout way, though, the mystery surrounding the makers of the Motown Sound (most session players weren’t even included in Motown album liner notes until the 1970s) was also a testament to their abilities. After all, the number one job of a good back-up band is to seamlessly complement and elevate the skills of the featured performer. And so, rather than being thought of as a band unto themselves, the Funk Brothers functioned more as the invisible backbone to the boundless talents of superstars like Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, and of course, Smokey and the Miracles.
By the time the world did seem ready to fully credit and celebrate the Funk Brothers’ contributions to American music, the extra challenge was determining just which musicians actually comprised the band. Considering the group could technically include any session player on Motown records from 1959 through the label’s move to Los Angeles in 1972 (and maybe beyond that), the Funk Brothers were really more like a special club, rather than a “band” in the traditional sense.
Still, music historians seem to agree on at least 13 session men who made the biggest, long-term contributions to the Motown music we all know and love today: Guitarists Eddie “Chank” Willis, Robert White, and Joe Messina; bassists James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt; keyboardists Joe Hunter, Earl Van Dyke, and Johnny Griffith; percussionists Jack Ashford and Eddie “Bongo” Brown; and drummers Richard “Pistol” Allen, Uriel Jones, and William “Benny” Benjamin—the man often credited with bestowing the “Funk Brothers” moniker on his fellow bandmates.
While no one could identify those men in a line-up back in the ‘60s, they were the driving forces behind every timeless hit from “You Can’t Hurry Love” to “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and “Tears of a Clown.”
Beyond the core 13, the list of honorary Funk Brothers takes a long while to unroll, with numerous skilled trumpeters like Marcus Belgrave, sax players like Hank Crosby, the Miracles’ personal guitarist Marvin Tarplin, and the great string arrangements of Gordon Staples and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra string section.
Again, these may not be household names, but to the musicians inspired by Motown and devoted to keeping its legacy alive, the mythical Funk Brothers are very well known, indeed. That goes for the four members of Human Nature, as well as their own crew of musical mavens, the Funk Foundation.
Originally formed in 2009 by Joe Accaria, the Funk Foundation currently includes Ronnie Foster (musical director / keyboards), Tommy Alvarado (saxophone/percussion), Greg Babcock (drums), Chris Clermont (guitar), Michael Evans (trombone), Daryl “Funky Z” Fields (bass), and Isaac Tubb (trumpet).
Along with backing up Human Nature every night at the Venetian in Vegas, the Funk Foundation has taken to the road with the boys in 2014, as well, including the recent eastern U.S. swing and the big upcoming event in London this November.
No matter the venue, the Foundation’s goal is always the same—to keep the spirit and rhythm of the original Funk Brothers alive, and to complement and elevate Human Nature in the same ways those great Detroit players helped get the best out of Smokey, Marvin, and Diana. If you don’t notice them at first, it’s because they’re just that good at their jobs. And if you don’t remember their names, it’s only because they’re always putting the songs above themselves.
For fans who do take a moment to really watch the band in action at the next Human Nature show, though, we’re pretty sure you won’t soon forget it.