Joe Messina, Motown guitarist and original Funk Brothers member, has died at 93

Susan Whitall
Special to The Detroit News

Joe Messina, one of the star guitarists on the front line of Motown’s studio band, the Funk Brothers, died early Monday at his son Joel Messina’s Northville home, his son confirmed. He died of natural causes at 93.

Along with the other Funk Brothers, Messina won two Grammys in 2003 for the soundtrack to the documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.” A year later, the Recording Academy gave him and the Funks a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Motown used many musicians, but most often on those classic cuts you’re hearing a three-guitar line, with Robert White on one side of Messina and Eddie Willis on the other (augmented by guitarists Dennis Coffey and Wah Wah Watson). Only Stevie Wonder manages to reproduce that three-guitar attack live, giving him an authentic Motown sound.

Eddy Willis, left, and Joe Messina play an encore at the end of the Funk Brothers' jam session at the Roostertail in Detroit on Nov. 10, 2002.

For Motown, Messina’s forte was the back beat, and also, his proficiency in reading music, enabling him to explain parts to the other guitarists. Messina also loved to double the bass line (when producers let him), and you can hear him doing that with bassist James Jamerson on Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Your Precious Love.”

That insistent guitar figure that percolates throughout Diana Ross and the Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together” — was Joe Messina. He was also front and center on the Four Tops’ “Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street,” and Stevie Wonder’s “For Once In My Life,” where his jazz chops, honed in the nightclubs of Detroit’s fabled jazz scene in the late ‘40s and 1950s, came in handy.

Robin Terry, chairwoman and CEO of the Motown Museum, called Messina "a powerhouse 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 the Motown Sound," said Terry in an email Monday. "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 was also known for playing in Soupy Sales’ nighttime jazz band, where he backed up Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Pepper Adams among others on Soupy’s 11:30 p.m. adult show, out of WXYZ-TV in the Maccabee’s building downtown.

“Joe was a real bebopper,” said Allan Slutsky, who produced the Funk Brothers documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.” 

The Funk Brothers

“When I heard the clip where Joe’s playing in the Soupy Sales (jazz) band, he was swinging, man. It’s hard to imagine that the guy playing guitar on ‘Sugar Pie Honey Bunch’ comes out of that. He was a really accomplished musician and a cerebral guy, he could read music. 

“But his soul was the most beautiful thing,” Slutsky added. “He was always happy, he loved to laugh. He and his wife (Josie) were two peas in a pod. He wouldn’t go on the road without her, so we had to take Josie (who was ailing) in a wheelchair, wherever we went.”

Always quick with a quip, his genial disposition never left him. When a News reporter accompanied Messina and the Funk Brothers into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame one time, the Spinners' song "It's a Shame" was playing, with its catchy opening guitar riff. "Is that you, Joe?" he was asked. "Do you like it? Then it's me!" (In that case, it wasn't).

“Joe was the musician we all wished we could be,” said his longtime friend and jam session buddy, Steve Shepard. “He could do it all, but he was also a role model as a person. Everyone, from the symphony to jazz clubs looked up to Joe, but he treated other musicians as though they were the 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 attended Central High School before switching to Cass Tech for the music instruction, but didn’t finish, preferring to launch his career as a professional musician.

Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, he rarely had a day off. He played a regular gig in the ‘50s at the Park Lounge in Allen Park, and led the Joe Messina Orchestra at the Metropole in Windsor, Ontario, as well as playing in Sales’ nighttime show.

Messina was personally recruited by Gordy in the early ‘60s, after the Motown boss and A&R director Mickey Stevenson caught him playing jazz in a Detroit nightclub. “Berry asked me if I was interested in playing in the band. I said yes,” Messina said in “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.”

He kept up the live gigs even while working all-night sessions at Motown throughout the 1960s.

Like an elite few players, including Jamerson, Messina was put on salary by Gordy so he would stay in Detroit and record exclusively with him, according to Slutsky. 

Messina had a good business sense, and bought a car wash and jewelry store, which came in handy when Motown left for Los Angeles in 1972, and any session musicians who didn’t head West were pretty much out of work.

When Slutsky started looking for various Funk Brothers in the late ‘70s for his book, Motown keyboard player Earl Van Dyke (who died in 1992) advised him that Messina wasn’t involved in music anymore, he was “running his car wash and eating snails on his back porch.”

Slutsky found Messina, but it took time to convince him to give the music business another whirl. He’s glad he got him out of the house.

In 2000, In the midst of a snowstorm, Joe and the Funk Brothers reunited for a gig at the Royal Oak Theater with an array of singers, including Chaka Khan, Bootsy Collins and Joan Osborne.

After the film’s soundtrack won two Grammys, Messina and the Funk Brothers went on the road, a first for Messina, who had done all of his recording and playing in Detroit. Messina and the Funks went to the White House and met President George W. Bush; toured in Europe; and Joe had two Grammys he could display under glass in his Sterling Heights home.

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 celebratory gig at the Apollo Theater, as the Funks rode in a limo uptown to the theater, Joe admitted to the News that he’d never been to New York before. Saxophone player Tom Scott couldn’t believe it. 

“I had a studio gig, so I didn’t have to leave Detroit,” Joe explained. 

“Well, you’re on the road now, buddy,” Scott told him. “You’re a rock star now. You did it backwards.”

“No matter what context, Joe always found a place to fit in that made the music better, without getting in the way,” his friend Shepard said. “His playing was clean and precise, but it flowed and he always swung.”

In addition to his son Joel, Messina is survived by a daughter, Janice Coppa. He had four grandsons; Joel Jr., Adam, Steven and Michael, and six, soon to be seven, great-grandchildren: Aiden; Benny; Lucy; Capri; Lucian, and Stella (and soon to be, Milo). A memorial is being planned.