Eddie Willis: The Funk Brothers' Soulful Secret Weapon

Eddie Willis in 2004
Photo Credit
Tabatha Fireman/Redferns

The Funk Brothers - Motown’s house band during the label’s heyday in the ‘60s and early ‘70s - were, for the most part, a three-guitar group. Joe Messina and Robert White were foundational: the main rhythm or riff guys, holding down the base of the song. Eddie “Chank” Willis was the color guy - the one who would throw on a blues lick, bring in some funk, or do something else to make a given song stand out.

When Willis passed away on Aug. 20, 2018, those who knew or had played with him stopped to recall his brightest moments “in the shadows” at Motown, as one of the crucial (but largely unknown) instrumentalists who made the label’s sound possible. Those conversations had to include some, if not all, of these songs:

Jr. Walker & The All Stars, “Home Cookin’”: Listen to the intricate guitar riffing behind Walker’s voice - it’s almost a counter-melody to the main line of the song.

Marvin Gaye, “How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved By You)”: Willis uses the guitar almost as a part of the percussion on this Gaye classic. Listen closely to the snare drum - the main beat of the song - particularly in the verses. Every time the drummer hits that snare, there’s a guitar chord likewise struck. It’s a little thing, a detail you might miss, but it’s a detail that keeps the song sounding crisp, sounding alive. It’s a detail that matters.

Stevie Wonder, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)": The opening bars of the song, with the descending melody, feature an odd instrumental accoutrement for a soul track. That stringy-sounding thing picking out the notes is an electric sitar - a guitar-shaped instrument designed to mimic the sound of the sitar, a stringed musical instrument found in India. The Beatles had begun using it, and here, Eddie Willis adds a little global flavor to a Stevie Wonder smash.

The Temptations, "The Way You Do the Things You Do": Willis uses a dry, effects-free guitar to strum out the chords that underlie the entire song. Even after you have the drums and the voices and the horns come in, that guitar figure is still there, supporting it all.

Gladys Knight & The Pips, “Friendship Train”: There weren’t many distorted, quasi-psychedelic guitar riffs to be found on Motown songs. This funky “we all need to get together” track has a good one, right at the beginning, thanks to Eddie Willis.


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