Uriel Jones (1934-2009) and “The best kept secret in the history of pop music”

1. 4. 2009 | Rubriky: Articles,Lives

[by Ken Hunt, London] Uriel Jones was one of the largely unsung heroes of popular music. His drumming added the muscle and sinew to many of the great hits that came out of his birthplace and hometown, Detroit, for he was a leading member of the Motown house-band, the Funk Brothers. He played on sessions that became international hits including Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Stevie Wonder’s For Once In My Life, the Temptations Ain’t To Proud To Beg, I Can’t Get Next To You and Cloud Nine, Marvyn Gaye & Tammy Terrell’s Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ I Second That Emotion during a period when Motown was an essential element in the soundtrack to people’s lives.

Born in Detroit, Michigan on 13 June 1934, it looked as if he would choose the trombone as his instrument. However, boxing and trombone embouchure did not mix and under the sway of the jazz drummer Art Blakey in particular he took up the drums seriously. In due course he fell into the orbit of Detroit’s rising pop label Motown.

Motown was a production-line hit factory and the house band backed whichever act was in the ‘snake pit’ (as the house studio was nicknamed) that day, up to six days a week. It was like a Bombay film studio with its succession of name playback singers following each other to lay down vocal tracks backed by the same session musicians. Yet while the likes of The Supremes, Marvyn Gaye & Tammy Terrell, the Four Tops and Smokey Robinson & The Miracles got the kudos and the glamour and became household names, the backing musicians were anonymous, uncredited on the singles or album jackets and on weekly salary. This was still seen as disposable music – ‘culture’ would not have had a look-in – and it was decades later that Uriel Jones and his fellow session musicians received overdue credit for their sterling work and contribution to popular culture.

Jones was not the only Motown drummer yet those song credits give a flavour of his achievement. The Funk Brothers, as they became anointed, had been part of Berry Gordy’s hit machine from the label’s inception in 1959. Benny Benjamin and Richard Allen preceded Jones but, with sales increasing and Benjamin’s efficiency diminishing, Jones joined the team in 1964. His entrance was timed to perfection for the great upswing in Motown’s fortunes. He was more a session musician though because he also went on the road with Motown acts on occasion.

Uriel Jones and the Funk Brothers got their belated recognition with director Paul Justman’s documentary film Standing In The Shadows of Motown (2002). Its tagline said, “The best kept secret in the history of pop music”. In 2004 the Funk Brothers received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award with a citation acknowledging that they had had a hand in “more No. 1 hits than the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones combined”. He died in Dearborn, a part of Detroit, on 24 March 2009.

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