Johnny Griffith, 66; Played Keyboard for Motown Greats
Johnny Griffith, a keyboard player with the Funk Brothers, the highly skilled group of Detroit studio musicians who helped create and define the legendary Motown sound, has died. He was 66.
Griffith died of a heart attack Sunday in a hospital in Detroit, just hours before the local premiere of “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” a documentary film that gives belated recognition to the anonymous studio band that furnished much of the instrumental sound for the fabled Motown hit machine.
A racially integrated collective of about a dozen top jazz and R&B; musicians in Detroit who worked at Motown from 1959 to 1972, the Funk Brothers provided the background music for Motown greats such as Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, the Four Tops and Stevie Wonder.
Griffith most notably played electric piano on Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” the swirling organ on the Supremes’ “Stop in the Name of Love,” and the organ and shotgun effects on Junior Walker and the All-Stars’ “Shotgun.”
On Sunday, the six surviving members of the Funk Brothers went ahead with their scheduled performance at a Detroit club after the local premiere of “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.”
“Very few musicians will stop or shut down because of the death of one of the members,” Jack Ashford, the group’s percussion and vibraphone player, told The Times on Monday.
“We celebrate his living by playing.”
During their Motown days, Ashford said, Griffith “played No. 2 piano to complement Earl Van Dyke,” who was known for his heavier-handed jazz-funk style of playing.
“Johnny had a very beautiful touch, very melodic.... Especially when he did a ballad, this guy was just incredible,” said Ashford.
The Detroit-born Griffith was one of the few classically trained musicians who worked at Motown. At 16, he was playing with blues superstar John Lee Hooker. And before joining the Motown studio band in 1961, he toured with Dinah Washington, Aretha Franklin and Sarah Vaughan.
Hoping to record jazz when he began working at Motown, Griffith ultimately recorded two albums for Motown’s “Workshop Jazz” label. Although most of Motown’s studio musicians worked under exclusive recording contracts, Griffith continued to moonlight for other R&B; records labels in Detroit and Chicago.
Among the non-Motown records Griffith played on as a keyboardist are Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops” and "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” the Chi-lites’ “Have You Seen Her?” and The Capitols’ “Cool Jerk.”
Griffith, who recently moved to Las Vegas after living in Detroit most of his life, returned to his hometown Saturday to promote the documentary film, which features eight Funk Brothers in their 60s and 70s. One of the eight, drummer Richard “Pistol” Allen, died last June.
“Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” directed by Paul Justman, is loosely based on Allan Slutsky’s acclaimed 1989 book “Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson.”
The Funk Brothers played together in the Detroit club scene from around 1964 until the early ‘70s. They got together again to film the documentary, which was shot primarily in Detroit last year.
After promoting the documentary, the remaining Funk Brothers plan to go on a national tour.
But it will be difficult doing it without Griffith, Ashford said. “His dream was to go across the finish line with us.”
Griffith is survived by his wife, Delma; three children, Jonathan Jr., Beth and Rhonda; two stepsons, Roman and Charlie Reid III; and two grandchildren.