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Joe Messina, Motown legend and Funk Brothers guitarist, dies aged 93

Joe Messina
(Image credit: Brian Rasic/Getty Images)

Joe Messina, guitarist for the Funk Brothers and Motown session legend, has died at the age of 93.

As per The Detroit News (opens in new tab), the news was confirmed by Messina’s son, Joel. It’s been reported Joe died of natural causes linked to a kidney disease he had been battling for 12 years.

Dubbed the “white brother with soul” by his peers, Messina was one of the original Funk Brothers – Motown’s in-house session band that recorded with a number of the label’s biggest names.

Across his prolific session career from the late ‘50s to the early ‘70s, Messina – usually with the help of his fellow Funk Brothers regulars, Robert White and Eddie Willis – collaborated with artists such as Dianna Ross and The Supremes, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye and the Four Tops, as well as Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson and The Miracles.

Responding to the news, Motown Museum CEO and chairwoman Robin Terry said, “As one of the original Funk Brothers, Joe Messina leaves a lasting legacy as one of the creators of the Motown sound.

“A powerhouse talent, he was personally recruited by Berry Gordy and made a massive impact during the label’s most formative years. We are thinking of his family and fans, and will continue to celebrate his musical contributions for generations to come.”

Known for his razor-sharp proficiency in sight reading and the modified Fender Telecaster slung over his shoulder, Messina’s Motown career was preceded by a stint with the ABC Television studio band, with whom he played The Soupy Sales Show alongside a host of guest jazz A-listers, such as Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.

It proved to be a busy time for Messina, who held down a regular slot at the Park Lounge in Allen Park, while also leading the Joe Messina Orchestra in Windsor, Ontario, and attending his Sales Show gig.

As Motown began expanding in the ‘60s, Messina was personally sounded out by the label's founder Berry Gordy, after the guitarist had caught the eye of A&R director Mickey Stevenson during a jazz gig at a Detroit nightclub.

In terms of his appearances, the Motown catalog is littered with Messina’s guitar work, though at the time credit was rarely directed towards Messina or his Funk Brothers peers.

His playing – lithe and graceful, with an ample amount of funk to spice things up – can be heard on Diana Ross’s Someday We’ll Be Together, while his pinpoint lead jazz chops and rhythmic prowess is present in abundance on Stevie Wonder’s 1965 track, For Once In My Life.

Of Messina’s playing, the musician’s jam buddy Steve Shephard told The Detroit News, “No matter what context, Joe always found a place to fit in that made the music better, without getting in the way. His playing was clean and precise, but it flowed and he always swung.”

“Joe was the musician we all wished we could be,” Shepard added. “He could do it all, but he was also a role model as a person. Everyone, from the symphony to jazz clubs looked up to Joe, but he treated other musicians as though they were the stars, and rarely talked about himself. Joe was one of a kind.”

In 2002, Joe Messina's career was addressed in a Motown documentary titled Standing In The Shadows of Motown, which also explored the life and times of the whole Funk Brothers band – Messina went on to win two Grammys in 2003 for the soundtrack. A year later, Messina and 12 other musicians were awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement award by the Recording Academy.

According to the Detroit Free Press (opens in new tab), Messina had been living on his own up until around a month ago, and up to that point had been inviting other jazz musicians round to his home for jam sessions.

Messina is survived by his son, Joel, and daughter, Janice Coppa, as well as his four grandsons.

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Matt is a News Writer, writing for Guitar World, Guitarist and Total Guitar. He has a Masters in the guitar, a degree in history, and has spent the last 16 years playing everything from blues and jazz to indie and pop. When he’s not combining his passion for writing and music during his day job, Matt records for a number of UK-based bands and songwriters as a session musician.