When one thinks of the great Motown performers, one thinks of the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Diana Ross & the Supremes, and on and on. We’ve bought their records and heard them on the radio and danced to their songs, fallen in love to their songs, mended our broken hearts with their songs. The thing is, though, is that every one of those artists would be singing a capella (or in Stevie Wonder’s case, accompanied only by himself) were it not for Motown’s in-house studio band, known to all as the Funk Brothers.
Uriel Jones was a Funk Brother - one of the three drummers the label employed in their golden era. Born June 13, 1934 in Detroit, Jones started at Motown as a fill-in musician when Benny Benjamin, the first-call Funk Brothers drummer, couldn’t make a session. He gradually moved up in rank, becoming one of the main players in the band as Benjamin’s health deteriorated. Many of Motown’s best-known songs featured Jones’ playing (as we’ll see below) and he was a much-respected session drummer, even after he left Motown’s employ. He died in 2009 of complications after a heart attack, and the world has been a little less funky ever since.
Let’s toast Uriel Jones by enjoying a handful of his best performances:
The Temptations, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”: That opening drum roll and ride cymbal pull the listener in immediately, providing the only accompaniment for David Ruffin’s iconic first lines (“I know you want to leave me / But I refuse to let you go”). It’s such a simple thing, but it means everything at the beginning of this indelible hit.
The Supremes, “Back in My Arms Again”: The Supremes’ voices are so sassy and beautiful, they need a counterpart to punch up their delivery. What better counterpart than the drums and percussion (tambourine, by the sound of it) and the bass – a rhythm section that could lift them up?
Marvin Gaye, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”: Listen closely and you’ll hear that the real heroes of this record are Uriel Jones’ right foot (on the bass drum) and his strikes on his floor tom – low-end percussion that nudges the song forward without being ostentatious. The spotlight is on the singer – Jones was there to move things along in the background.
Jimmy Ruffin, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”: Temptations singer David Ruffin’s elder brother Jimmy recorded one of the best songs of 1966; the steady beat behind him was provided by Uriel Jones.
Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, “The Tears of a Clown”: Jones rides the hi-hat during the verses and then lets go just before the pre-chorus, with tom-tom drum rolls that would have made any rock drummer jealous.