Joe Messina, one of the star guitarists at Motown’s leading studio band, Funk Brothers, died early Monday at his son Joel Messina’s home in Northville, his son has confirmed. He died of natural causes at the age of 93.
Along with other Funk Brothers, Messina won two Grammy Awards in 2003 for the soundtrack to the documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown”. A year later, the Recording Academy awarded him and Funks the Lifetime Achievement Award.
Motown has used a lot of musicians, but most often on those classic versions you hear a line of three guitars, with Robert White on one side from Messina and Eddie Willis on the other (supplemented by guitarists Dennis Coffey and Wow Watson). Only Stevie Wonder manages to reproduce this attack with three live guitars, giving it a real Motown sound.
For Motown, Messina’s strong point was the back beat, as well as his ability to read music, which allowed him to explain parts to other guitarists. Messina also loved to double the bass line (if allowed by the producers), and you can hear him do it along with bassist James Jamerson in Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell’s song “Your Precious Love”.
This persistent guitar figure who penetrates Diana Ross and “Someday We’ll Be Together” by Supremes – Joe Messina. He was also the lead actor in the Four Tops films “Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)”, Martha and the Vandellas “Dancing in the Street” and Stevie Wonder’s “For Onece In My Life” where his jazz chops , honed in the nightclubs of Detroit’s legendary jazz scene in the late 1940s and 1950s, came in handy.
Robin Terry, chairman and CEO of the Motown Museum, called Messina a “powerful talent.” Messina was with the Funk Brothers from 1959 to the early 1970s.
“As one of the original Funk Brothers, Joe Messina leaves a lasting legacy as one of the creators of Motown Sound,” Terry said in an email Monday. in the years of the greatest formation of the label. We think of his family and fans and will continue to celebrate his musical contributions for future generations. ”
Messina was also known for playing in the night jazz band Soupy Sales, where he supported Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Pepper Adams, among others, in an adult show at 11:30 pm Soupy with WXYZ-TV at the Maccabee’s downtown building .
“Joe was a real beboper,” said Alan Slutsky, who produced the Funk Brothers documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.”
“When I heard the clip where Joe plays in the jazz band Soupy Sales, he was swinging, dude. It’s hard to imagine a guy playing guitar on “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch” coming out of this. He was a really perfect musician and a smart guy, could read music.
“But his soul was the most beautiful,” Slutsky added. “He was always happy, he loved to laugh. He and his wife (Josie) had two peas in a pod. Without her, he would not have gone on the road, so we had to carry Josie (who was ill) in a wheelchair, wherever we went.
Always quick to joke, his benevolent disposition never left him. When a News reporter once accompanied Messina and the Funk Brothers to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Spinners sang “It’s a Shame” with a catchy guitar riff. “Is that you, Joe?” They asked him. “Do you like it? Then it’s me!” (In that case it was not).
“Joe was the musician we all wanted to be,” said his longtime friend and friend from the jam session, Steve Shepard. “He could do anything, but he was also a role model as a person. Everyone, from symphonies to jazz clubs, looked at Joe, but he treated other musicians like stars and rarely talked about himself. Joe was one of a kind. ”
Messina was born in Detroit in 1928 to Jasper and Mary Messina. He studied at Central High School before moving to Cass Tech to study music, but did not graduate, preferring to start his career as a professional musician.
During the 1950s and 60s he rarely had a day off. He regularly performed in the ’50s at Park Lounge in Allen Park and conducted Joe Messina’s orchestra at the Metropole in Windsor, Ontario, and played on the nightly Sales show.
Messina was personally recruited by Gordy in the early ’60s, after Motown boss and A&R director Mickey Stevenson caught him for jazz at a Detroit nightclub. “Berry asked me if I was interested in playing in a band. I said so, ”Messina said in“ Standing in the Shadow of Motown ”.
He supported live concerts, even though he worked all night at Motown during the 1960s.
Like some elite players, including Jamerson, Messina was paid by Gordy to stay in Detroit and record exclusively with him, according to Slutsky.
Messina had good business sense and bought a car wash and jewelry store that was needed when Motown left for Los Angeles in 1972, and any session musicians who did not head west were largely out of work.
When Slutsky started looking for different “Funk Brothers” for his book in the late 70’s, Motown keyboardist Earl Van Dyke (died 1992) advised him that Messina was no longer involved in music, he washed the car and ate snails on his back porch. ».
Slutsky found Messina, but it took time to convince him to give the music business another vortex. He is glad to have taken him out of the house.
In 2000, in the midst of a snowstorm, Joe and the Funk Brothers reunited for a concert at the Royal Oak Theater with a host of singers, including Chuck Khan, Bootsie Collins and Joan Osborne.
After the film’s soundtrack won two Grammy Awards, Messina and the Funk Brothers set off, for the first time for Messina, who recorded and played all of his recordings in Detroit. Messina and Funk went to the White House and met with President George W. Bush; toured Europe; and Joe had two Grammy Awards that he could show under glass at his home in Sterling Heights.
At the premiere of “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” at the Birmingham Uptown Palladium, singer Martha Reeves said of the film and Messina: “They made Joe talk. Joe never talks. ”
When Slutsky brought The Funk Brothers to New York for a holiday concert at the Apollo Theater, when the Funks were riding in a limousine downtown to the theater, Joe admitted to News that he had never been to New York before. Saxophonist Tom Scott did not believe.
“I had a studio concert, so I didn’t have to leave Detroit,” Joe explained.
“Well, you’re on your way now, my friend,” Scott told him. “You’re a rock star now. You did it in reverse order. “
“No matter what the context, Joe always found a place to fit in to make the music better without interfering,” his friend Shepard said. “His game was clean and accurate, but it flowed and he always waved.”
In addition to Joel’s son, Messina has a daughter, Janice Copa. He had four grandchildren; Joel Jr., Adam, Stephen and Michael and six, who will soon be seven, great-grandchildren: Aiden; Benny; Lucy; Capri; Lucian and Stella (and soon Mila). It is planned to install a memorial.