Robert White, 1936-1994: A Motown Requiem

By Slutsky, Allan | Guitar Player, March 1995 | Go to article overview

Robert White, 1936-1994: A Motown Requiem


Slutsky, Allan, Guitar Player


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Robert White, 1936-1994: A Motown Requiem
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.