Motown's iconic Funk Brother Joe Messina dies at 93

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    (April 4, 2022) He was part of arguably the greatest run of soul music hits in our lifetime, on the greatest record label. Joe Messina was there at Motown from the beginning, where he made history as a guitarist in the famed Funk Brothers. We are sad to report his death at age 93, at home in the Detroit area.

    Messina was a teen guitar prodigy at Detroit’s Cass Tech high school, and as a young man became part of the ABC television network studio band, where he had the opportunity to work with many of the all-time jazz greats, from Charlie Parker to Dizzy Gillespie.

    (April 4, 2022) He was part of arguably the greatest run of soul music hits in our lifetime, on the greatest record label. Joe Messina was there at Motown from the beginning, where he made history as a guitarist in the famed Funk Brothers. We are sad to report his death at age 93, at home in the Detroit area.

    Messina was a teen guitar prodigy at Detroit’s Cass Tech high school, and as a young man became part of the ABC television network studio band, where he had the opportunity to work with many of the all-time jazz greats, from Charlie Parker to Dizzy Gillespie.

    But it was Messina’s work as one of the original Funk Brothers at Motown Records that made him an icon. Called the “white brother with soul,” Messina was part of virtually every great Motown hit of the 1960s, from The Temptations to The Supremes to Marvin Gaye, only parting with the label when he opted, along with many of the musicians, to stay in Detroit when Motown relocated to Los Angeles.

    Upon hearing the sad news of Messina’s death, noted Detroit musician and music historian Drew Schultz told us today of his friend and mentor, “Joe Messina was an inspiration on and off of his instrument. He could sight read sheet music with no rehearsals, no reference recordings needed, and then proceed to drop your jaw with a flowing and inventive improvised solo on top of those chord changes. His creative approach to soloing using intervalic jumps, outlined harmonic arpeggiations, and chord inversions combined with a rhythmic fluency that blended subdivisions to create a seemingly bottomless well of ideas. It didn’t matter how many different times I heard Joe take a guitar solo, I swear I heard something new every single time.

    “However, Joe was inspirational not just as a musician, but as a human being. He had all of this deep music theory knowledge at his disposal, but was perfectly content to play simple phrases and repeating motifs as a part of the Funk Brothers guitar section at Motown. When you had Joe in the mix with multiple other guitarists like Eddie Willis, Robert White, Dennis Coffey, Wah-Wah Watson, Marv Tarplin … there was no room for ego in those band arrangements. Joe’s willingness to be a musical team player in those guitar sessions shows true humility.”

    When he left Motown, Messina slowed down on his musical life, and quietly opened a series of local businesses, including a car wash. He became known around town as a superstar who didn’t act like a superstar. Schultz adds, “By the time I met Joe, he was no longer gigging or touring. He didn’t need to. He obviously loved his family and his friends over the fame and attention that music can bring. He could have had all of that if he wanted (and thankfully he did receive his flowers for his work while he was with us), but he chose instead to sight read jazz songs with his friends in his living room several times a week. Instead of chasing the spotlight he was challenging everyone to see how good we could be on the first try, how much better we could become on the next, joking and laughing the entire time. Joe Messina entered my life as a musical hero, but became a template for how to carry yourself beyond music, and how to prioritize your life around the people you love.”

    Messina and the other Funk Brothers were honored in the 2003 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, and it created another opportunity for Messina to pick up his guitar and do occasional shows with his longtime musical friends. It recalled for many just what an impact Messina and his brothers had on the soul music universe; they were the foundation of the soundtrack for a generation.

    Joe Messina was a musical giant, who quietly made some of the greatest music ever recorded. He will be missed.

    By Chris Rizik

     
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