Joe Messina, guitarist with the famed Funk Brothers studio band at Motown Records, died April 4 at his home in Northville, Michigan. He was 93 and suffered kidney disease the last several years of his life.
Messina studied music at a technical high school in Detroit before playing jazz professionally in the city’s clubs, starting in the late 1940s. A few years later, he joined the studio band at local ABC affiliate WXYZ-TV, where he accompanied artists like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, and Dizzy Gillespie on Soupy Sales’ late-night show, “Soup’s On.”
Circa 1960, Motown founder Berry Gordy invited Messina to join the band at his new studio, and in nearly 15 years there, his trademark rhythm-guitar style – playing a downstroke chord on the backbeat using a Fender Telecaster with a Jazzmaster neck and heavy flatwound strings – helped propel the deep dance feel of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street,” the Temptations’ “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself,” Diana Ross & the Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together,” as well as hits by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, and others. Perhaps his best-regarded work is heard on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.
When Gordy moved Motown to Los Angeles in 1972, Messina stayed in Detroit to operate a car wash and jewelry store he’d bought earlier. In 2002, he was one of the musicians featured prominently in the Funk Brothers documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which won two Grammy Awards.
This article originally appeared in VG’s June 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.