Aa member of Motown’s Funk Brothers, Joe Messina, helped lay the groundwork for some of the most iconic and influential recordings pop music has produced of any era or genre, either before or since Hitsville’s heyday. Yet for much of his career, Messina and his studio brothers have remained largely anonymous, even among the hungriest fans of Berry Gordy’s arsenal of soulful hitmakers.
Well, that suited the longtime resident of Warren well. Standing in Motown’s shadow? Secure. Why not? It was just another gig after all.
Messina, who died April 4 at the age of 93 at his son Joel Messina’s Northville home, was – for lack of a better word – a musician-musician. A jazz musician first, he was already well established in Detroit when Gordy knocked on his door in the late 1950s. Messina had made a name for himself in nightclubs, live television commercials and the day and night show Soupy Sales, where he played with jazz greats such as John Coltrane and Charlie Parker.
He accepted Gordy’s offer on the condition that his time in the recording studio would not interfere with his television work.
From the late 1950s through the early 1970s, Messina and colleagues Robert White and Eddie Willis forged the classic three-guitar sound found on countless hits by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Miracles, The Supremes and a host of other Motown greats. And while all three players brought something unique to the sessions, it was the meek Messina who really had the goods. He was a skilled sight reader with a bebop playing style and an uncanny ability to find just the right spot to fit into an arrangement.
“Joe was the most educated of the Funk Brothers,” says Allan Slutsky, author of Standing in the Shadow of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bass Player James Jamerson and producer of the acclaimed 2002 documentary Standing in the shadow of Motown, which for the first time shed a national light on the contributions of Messina and the rest of the Funk Brothers. “He was probably the best reader there.”
While best known for his work at Hitsville, Motown wasn’t necessarily representative of Messina’s talent, nor was his true love of music, friends say.
“I’ve never heard a recording of Joe playing as I know him,” says Bruce Miller, a hugely successful Hollywood composer and lifelong friend of Messina’s. “That frustrates me the most.”
Miller was only 13 when he began taking guitar lessons from Messina in the boiler room of Soupy Sales Studio. “He was always my hero,” says Miller. “He was different from other guitar players I had seen. He did things they couldn’t do.”
Despite such tremendous talent, Miller says, Messina had little desire to be in the spotlight — much less to leave Detroit — and turned down offers to tour with everyone from Coltrane to Parker to Phil Collins over the course of his career. It’s the same laid-back manner that likely made it easy for Messina to part ways with Motown in the early 1970s when operations moved to the West Coast. Instead of packing his bags, he hung up his guitar, bought a few car washes and a jewelry store, and spent time with his family.
“He was an easygoing guy, but he always had an excellent sense of when it was time to move on,” says Messina’s longtime friend Steve Shepard.
In his post-Motown years, Messina continued to play music locally, teaching himself how to play the harmonica and eventually picking up the guitar again. And he and the rest of the Funk Brothers got the well-deserved, albeit belated, recognition they deserved. Following the outpouring of attention the 2002 documentary garnered, the musicians received a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — feathers in Messina’s cap, which he certainly enjoyed but would never let go to his head .
“He would never brag about it,” Joel says of his father. “Humble doesn’t even begin to describe who he was. Even when they tried to poke the hive during filming, he never said a bad word about anyone.”
Messina was essentially a friendly, good-natured Midwestern guy who also happened to be a musical virtuoso. He adored his wife Josie, whom he cared for until she died of multiple sclerosis in 2009; his two children, Joel and Janice; and his four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. He lived in the same Warren home where he had raised his family until the last three weeks of his life. He drove a Ford Focus. He loved hosting jam sessions with other local musicians. And he had no use for “stinky thinking.”
“He was one in a million,” says Joel. “He made everyone feel like number 1.” The motto Messina passed on to his children growing up? “Stay positive and smile,” says Joel.
This story is from the July 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.