March 6, 2013 at 6:54 pm

Motown's Funk Brothers get their star

Famed backing band to get its spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on March 21

Funk Brothers Eddie Willis and Joe Messina play at Detroit’s Roostertail in 2002. The group’s members became well-known after the release of the “Standing in the Shadow of Motown” documentary. (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)

The Funk Brothers, Motown's famed backing musicians, will be getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on March 21 in Los Angeles.

Percussionist Jack Ashford and guitarist Eddie Willis, as well as several of the late Funks' family members will be there to bask in the glow of the Tinseltown honor.

"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity; I couldn't miss this," said Joe Hunter Jr., son of the late pianist Joe Hunter, the first bandleader for Motown's band in 1959. He scraped up the money to fly out with his wife. "Too many people sacrificed to make this happen."

The march of time has depleted the ranks of the Motown band over the years since their 1960's heyday. Most of the Funks were older than the Motown stars they backed up, having come to the "Snakepit" recording studio at 2648 W. Grand Blvd. as seasoned pros from Detroit's vibrant jazz scene.

Hunter had already been touring for years backing up Hank Ballard & The Midnighters, Little Willie John and other R&B greats before setting foot in Motown's studio.

Several key members of the group were gone well before Allan Slutsky's book about Motown bass legend James Jamerson, "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" came out in the late 1980s. Jamerson died, largely unknown, in 1983, and drummer Benny Benjamin had passed on years before that in 1969.

Funks bandleader Earl Van Dyke died in 1992 and guitarist Robert White, who played the immortal lead on the Temptations' "My Girl," in 1994.

Since the "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" documentary came out in 2002, Hunter, pianist Johnnie Griffith, drummers Pistol Allen and Uriel Jones, and just last year, bassist Bob Babbitt died.

Finally, Motown fans knew them by their individual names, thanks to the documentary, and they won two 2003 Grammys related to the film soundtrack, plus a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.

Drummer Jones knew about the work being done to secure a Funk Brothers star on the Walk of Fame before he died in 2009. "He was in contact with them," said his widow, June Childress-Jones, who will fly out to represent her husband. "He was very happy about it."

Guitarist Joe Messina has indicated that he'd like to go, but it's not certain. Now 86, he hasn't ventured out of Detroit in recent years. James Jamerson Jr. will attend the ceremony to represent his famous father, who Paul McCartney called the best bassist he ever heard.

Some of the Funk Brothers' famous friends, including Motown writer/producer Valerie Simpson, Detroit native Ray Parker Jr. and David Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer were instrumental in helping with some of the $25,000 fee for the star.

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Motown bass player James Jamerson died in 1983. (The Detroit News)