Robert White, 1936-1994: A Motown Requiem

Article excerpt

Every decade produces a handful of guitar lines so overwhelming that they stand out from their musical surroundings like a D'Angelico New Yorker in a pawnshop. Certain indelible themes launch new trends, endure for decades, and help to define the generation that spawned them. You know - Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" intro, the Keith Richards "Satisfaction" riff that made "fuzz" a household word, Steve Cropper's Telefied sixths on "Soul Man," and the Peter Gunn theme, Henry Mancini's tribute to the low-E string.

Unfortunately, the guitarist responsible for one of the most celebrated themes in pop history enjoyed little fame or fortune. On October 27, Robert White, the man who played the unforgettable lick at the beginning of the Temptations' "My Girl," passed away in near-total anonymity at 57. White was no one-hit wonder; from '59 to '72 he was a member of Motown's legendary studio band, the Funk Brothers, who played on more #1 hits than the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, and Elvis Presley combined.

It's impossible to understand Robert White's story outside the context of the Funk Brothers. Except for a few isolated road shows, Robert and the rest of the band spent the entire Motown era joined at the hip in Detroit, averaging almost 80 hours a week in smoky, late-night recording sessions and club gigs.

Robert and his Fender Duo-Sonic guitar had arrived in Detroit in 1958, fresh off their first major road gig with Harvey Fuqua's Moonglows, a doo-wop act that included an unknown singer named Marvin Gaye. After working for a year as house guitarist with Anna Records, a local R&B label, White migrated in '59 to the Motown label, where the studio band had been slowly evolving since the label's birth a year earlier.

Motown founder Berry Gordy and A&R man Mickey Stevenson juggled local musicians until the right combination could be found. By 1963 all the elements were in place. "The Snakepit," Motown's cave-like, dimly lit basement studio, now boasted a lineup of Detroit jazz and R&B veterans: Earl Van Dyke and Johnny Griffith on keyboards, the guitar trio of Eddie Willis, Joe Messina, and Robert White (known as Heckle, Jeckyl, and Son), percussionists Jack Ashford and Eddie "Bengo" Brown, bassist James Jamerson, and drummer Benny "Papa Zita" Benjamin. Within a few years bassist Bob Babbitt and drummers Uriel Jones and Richard "Pistol" Allen would be added to handle the overwhelming recording schedules.

Motown's assembly-line mentality never would have worked were it not for the musicians' ability to create incandescent grooves and hooks at the drop of a hat. Playing between two and four sessions a day, six days a week, Robert and company were expected to crank out finished masterpieces like "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Heat Wave," and "Reach Out" in an hour or less.

"Because of the size of the rhythm section," Robert recounted several years ago, "each player had to have a pre-specified role. It was like a Dixieland band. Everybody knew his given job, and that's why we got along so well. Motown wasn't giving album credits in those days anyway, so there was nothing to be gained from thinking you were better than somebody else. Besides, everybody always lied about the parts depending on which gift asked him. If the girls asked me, 'Robert, did you play that wah-wah part on "Cloud Nine"?' I'd say, 'Yeah baby, that's me.'"

The technology was primitive by today's standards. …