Detroit News Online 11, 2007

Motown brethren remember Funk Brother Joe Hunter

'If there is a Motown session in heaven, Joe is there'

Susan Whitall / The Detroit News

DETROIT -- Little Rock Baptist Church was brimming with music, musicians and more than a few tears as the Rev. Jim Holley presided over services for Funk Brother Joe Hunter today.

Hunter died Feb.2, at age 79.

Many of Hunter's Motown colleagues showed up to say goodbye to the pianist, known for his wit and kindness, in a church directly across the street from Northern High, where Hunter graduated in 1945.

"I need you to loosen up a little, I want you to all be Baptists," Holley quipped to the diverse group gathered at the church. "Joe Hunter enjoyed his life. I want you to loosen up and do it his way."

Among the Detroit contingent were Bobby Rogers of the Miracles, Charles Davis of the Contours, Gino Washington, Marcus Belgrave, Raymond Tilmon of the Detroit Emeralds, Golden World singer J.J. Barnes, and Motown producer Hank Cosby's widow Pat.

Cal Street and Bertha Barbee McNeal of the Velvelettes drove in from Kalamazoo and Funk Brothers Bob Babbitt and Jack Ashford flew in from Nashville and Memphis respectively.

Paul Justman, the director of "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," the documentary that brought the Funk Brothers out of the shadows as Motown's studio band, came the farthest, from Los Angeles. He sat next to his brother, Seth Justman, the keyboardist for the J. Geils Band, who'd flown in from Boston. Allan Slutsky, who wrote the book "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" and executive produced the documentary based on it, couldn't make it in from Philadelphia but sent his condolences.

Also there were Ejuana Taylor, who sang with Hunter in his last band and singer/songwriter Sir Mack "Mustang Sally" Rice.

"He was great," said Paul Justman, of Hunter. "I don't know if people realize just how great."

In the church, gospel singer Sandra Feva sang a heartfelt "His Eye Is On The Sparrow," accompanied by Willie Wooten on piano.

Then Joseph Hunter III, son of Joseph Hunter Jr., Hunter's only son, set everybody back a step when he sang a stirring "I Need You Now" by Smokie Norful.

The young Hunter said he would prompt a look of contempt from granddad Joe when he sang a Chris Brown or Usher song.

"So I decided to sing something that he might like," the grandson said, before unleashing a vibrant, full-bodied voice that filled the cavernous church.

Hunter was also survived by a daughter Michelle, two other grandchildren, and his former wife, Mable Hunter.

Holley got into the spirit of things by referencing Motown songs that Hunter played on. The pastor talked about how Hunter's music brought together black and white, Christian and Jew to his church that day. But the funeral of a Funk Brother brought a unique problem.

"I have a difficult time saying 'funk' in the pulpit," said Holley, with a laugh. "But it is what it is."

Several friends spoke briefly about Hunter.

Street, of the Velvelettes, described how the almost-always affable pianist nonetheless had a great ability for putting someone in their place.

"I was trying to tell him how to play 'Needle in a Haystack' one time, and he said 'Excuse me miss, but I played on that song, you don't have to tell me anything.' "

Street added: "If there is a Motown session in heaven, Joe is there and all the Motowners are with him, singing. And I can't wait to join them

"But not too soon!" she added, prompting smiles and laughter.

Born in Jackson, Tennessee, Hunter moved with his family to Detroit in 1939. After graduating from Northern High School he did a stint in the Air Force, where he met future Funk Brother Earl Van Dyke. Hunter started gigging as a musician in the early '50s, backing up Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, Jackie Wilson and other acts. He joined up with Motown in 1959.

"I remember Joe from seeing him in the clubs," said Duke Fakir of the Four Tops. "He was just the sweetest guy."

"Always a gentleman. Whenever I saw him he was in good spirits," said singer Spyder Turner.

"We go all the way back to Chappie's," Motown singer Frances Nero said, of the downriver club frequented by the Funks and Motown stars.

"Did you see what he's wearing? He's dressed like a showman," said his Funk Brothers colleague, bassist Babbitt. Just as in life, in death Hunter was debonair in a tuxedo, white gloves and patent leather, silver-tipped shoes.

Holley opined that Hunter would be stirring things up in heaven.

"He'll put a little hump into what's going on with the angels, just like he'd put a hump into his music. He added so much music and joy into this life."

Bert's in the Marketplace was the site of a jam session Friday night in Hunter's honor, presided over by Marcus Belgrave.

Another jam session will go on at Bert's this evening.