Joe Messina was by all accounts, including his own, a soft-spoken guy who was happiest while playing his guitar. But as one of Motown’s legendary Funk Brothers studio band, Messina spoke loudly with the instrument, on hits by nearly every act during Motown’s golden age.
“Joe was a super player, a jazz player. He loved to work,” Dennis Coffey, another of the Funk Brothers’ guitarists, told Billboard about Messina, who died on Monday [April 4] at the age of 93 in the Detroit suburb of Northville after battling kidney disease.
“Joe was the best sight reader in the guitar section,” continued Coffey, adding that Messina’s preferred instrument, a Fender Telecaster, “was unusual for jazz players” who typically preferred “the big boxes.” But the Telecaster allowed Messina to differentiate himself within a corps that also included Robert White and Eddie “Chank” Willis, bringing a clean sound to hits such as Martha & the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street,” the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” and the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” as well as recordings by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and others.
Messina is also credited with creating the Interval Study Method, a playing technique using diatonic and chromatic scales.
During a 2005 interview with the Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum, Messina shared that because of Motown’s fast and furious recording pace, he “never knew much about our sounds… I recorded them and when we left the studio I didn’t have a chance to play them again, so I didn’t know the songs.” When the Funk Brothers came to prominence again with the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown and went on tour after its release, “they would say, ‘We’re gonna play such and such a song.’ I’d say, ‘How does it go?’ ’cause I had no idea,’” Messina said.
Born in Detroit, Messina took up guitar as a youth, playing his father’s Gibson L7. He dropped out of high school to play music, performing in area clubs and leading his own Joe Messina Orchestra. He was also part of the house band for the televised Soupy Sales Show. “People know (Messina) because of Motown, but as a jazz player he was all over it in the 50s and 60s,” said fellow guitarist Steve Shepard, a friend and frequent playing partner for the past 35 years. “Joe was a guy every musician aspires to be — any tune, any key, any tempo. Between his experience and his ear he found his place to fit into anything.”
Motown founder Berry Gordy recruited Messina, along with other jazz musicians, from the city’s jazz clubs — in Messina’s case at the 20 Grand in 1959. Messina recalled that Gordy offered him $10 per song — $5 higher than what he was paying other musicians — and Messina countered with a $10 per hour rate. It wound up costing Gordy too much money to retain Messina at one point, but he brought the guitarist back when Motown began paying union rates, putting him and other Funk Brothers on salary, with an exclusive contract.
“I considered it just another job, but I did have fun,” Messina recalled. “I remember… they told us we had a No. 1 hit song. It didn’t mean much to me ’cause it was just a job. I had no idea that it would represent anything other than it would make money for the company.”
When Motown relocated to Los Angeles in 1972 Messina chose to stay in Detroit and gave up playing guitar for 30 years, taking up harmonica for a change of pace. He also focused on business endeavors, including a jewelry store and car wash, as well as caring for his wife, who had multiple sclerosis. His interest was rekindled by the Standing in the Shadows of Motown project, which brought him two Grammy Awards — for the film’s soundtrack and for the track “What’s Going On.” Two years later, The Funk Brothers received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy. In 2013, they received a star on the Hollywood Hall of Fame. Messina played with the group for two years — including on his first tour ever — but preferred a quieter life back in Detroit. He continued to play at occasional jam sessions in local clubs and informally with other players over the years.
“The testament is here is a guy in his 90s and guys half his age, professional guys, were showing up at his house every day, not to sit by his rocking chair, but to play with him — and he was kicking their asses!,” Shepard said. “And never did I experience a session where Joe said, ‘I’m tired. Let’s stop, guys.’ Joe was always the last man standing. He was always ready to keep playing.”
The Motown Museum paid tribute to Messina, noting that he was the first Funk Brother to donate an instrument to its “The Magic Behind the Magic” exhibit. “Among other things, Joe was known for keeping the backbeat, heard in many Motown hit songs,” the Museum wrote in a statement. “We remember Joe Messing for his prolific contributions to the Motown Sound.”
Messina is survived by a son, Joel, and daughter Janice Coppa, as well as four grandsons and six great-grandchildren. Memorial arrangements are pending.