Joe Messina, Guitarist with Motown’s Funk Brothers, Dead at 93

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Joe Messina

Guitarist Joe Messina, whose fretwork graced numerous recordings made for Berry Gordy Jr.’s Motown label, died today, April 4, 2022, at his son’s home in Northville, Michigan. The cause was unspecified in initial reports. Messina’s death at 93 was confirmed by the Detroit News.

Messina, one of few Caucasian musicians in the Motown house band, known as the Funk Brothers, appeared on recordings by Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Stevie Wonder and other staples of the Motown lineup.

The Funk Brothers

The Funk Brothers band was a 13-member group consisting of Richard “Pistol” Allen, Jack Ashford, Bob Babbitt, William “Benny” Benjamin, Eddie “Bongo” Brown, Johnny Griffith, Joe Hunter, James Jamerson, Uriel Jones, Messina, Earl Van Dyke, Robert White and Eddie Willis. Ashford is the last member still living.

Messina, dubbed “the white brother with soul,” was the recipient of two Grammys in 2003 for the soundtrack to the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, and also a Lifetime Achievement Award, along with the other Funk Brothers members.

Related: Our obituary on Eddie Willis of the Funk Brothers

Born in Detroit on Dec. 13, 1928, Messina started playing guitar in his teens and by his twenties was playing professionally. He accompanied many jazz greats in his early career, among them Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. Gordy brought Messina into the Motown fold early in the company’s history, in 1958. During the ’60s, his guitar work could be heard on such hits as Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street,” the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself,” the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and Wonder’s “For Once in My Life.”

According to his entry in Wikipedia, “Messina was the creator of an alternative music technique known as The Interval Study Method, which uses the chromatic and diatonic scales to create music.”

When Gordy moved the company to Los Angeles in 1972, Messina quit playing guitar for 30 years. When Standing in the Shadows of Motown producer Allen Slutsky brought the Funk Brothers to the Apollo Theater for a performance, the Detroit News reports that Messina admitted that he had never been to New York City before. “I had a studio gig, so I didn’t have to leave Detroit,” he explained. He remained in the Motor City until his death.

Related: Musicians and other celebrities we’ve lost in 2022

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