Joe Messina, Revered Guitarist With Motown’s Funk Brothers, Dies At 93

Known as the ‘white brother with soul’ by his peers, Messina brought his deft skills on a Fender Telecaster to countless Motown staples.

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Joe Messina - Photo: Tabatha Fireman/Redferns
Joe Messina - Photo: Tabatha Fireman/Redferns

Joe Messina, one of the guitarists in the A-list of Motown musicians who became known as the Funk Brothers, died early on Monday (4) at his son Joel Messina’s home in the Northville suburb of Detroit. He was 93, and had long suffered from kidney disease, but lived on his own until a month ago, reports the Detroit Free Press, and invited fellow players to jam sessions.

Messina, known as the “white brother with soul” by his peers, brought his deft skills on a Fender Telecaster to countless Motown staples. They included Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street,” the Four Tops’ “Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” Diana Ross and the Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together,” Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Your Precious Love,” the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” and others without number.

Your Precious Love

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After the success of the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which was directed by Paul Justman and produced a double Grammy-winning soundtrack, Messina was among the 13 musicians formally acknowledged as the Funk Brothers by the Recording Academy.

They won a Grammy lifetime achievement award in 2004, and their belated recognition by the wider world of music led to receive a collective star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2013. They also toured under the band name for the first time, including at a memorable, star-filled show at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 2004.

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

Messina would frequently be part of a three-part guitar arrangement in Motown’s famous “Snakepit” studio, dovetailing with Robert White and Eddie “Chank” Willis. Born in Detroit on December 13, 1928, he was developing his style from early years, rising to the ranks of the ABC Television band by his mid-20s. His licks were further honed in the jazz clubs of Detroit in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Motown & Funk Brothers Guitarist, Joe Messina - FULL INTERVIEW

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In a message addressed to music students on the Educational CyberPlayGround website, Messina wrote: “When learning an instrument or composing music, the teacher opens the door, but you must enter by yourself to learn about the wonderful world of chords. All the great composers, such as Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Debussy, etc. had great knowledge of chords.”

He played live incessantly, fronting his own Joe Messina Orchestra and playing on comedian-actor Soupy Sales’ long-running TV show. As he recalled in the documentary, he was personally sought out by Motown founder Berry Gordy as the company began its rapid expansion in the early 1960s, and was soon an integral part of the studio ensemble.

Stevie Wonder, one of so many Motown stars to benefit from Messina’s deft playing, once noted: “Benny Benjamin, James Jamerson, Robert White and Joe Messina, the original cats, Joe Hunter, who played piano, Earl Van Dyke with his organ thing. That, to me, is the Motown Sound.”

Messina continued to play local gigs even during the exacting demands of all-night Motown sessions, while his business acumen (including purchasing a car wash) stood him in good stead when the company relocated to Los Angeles. Even when the Funk Brothers won such belated acclaim, he remained modest about his legacy.

“He was the warmest human being – always a smile, always a good word, always a sunny disposition,” Motown arranger and trombonist Paul Riser told the Detroit Free Press. “He was anchored and assured, just a great spirit with music.”

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