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Joe Hunter, 79; was 1st Motown bandleader and a Funk Brother

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Joe Hunter, 79, Motown’s first bandleader and a three-time Grammy winner with the Funk Brothers, was found dead Friday at his Detroit apartment.

Hunter was diabetic, but the cause of his death was not immediately known, his son, Joe Hunter Jr., told the Detroit News.

A native of Jackson, Tenn., who moved to Detroit as a youth, Hunter was Motown legend Berry Gordy Jr.'s first hire.

A piano player, he backed up such acts as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles in the late 1950s as Gordy mustered a staff for what would become Motown Records.

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Hunter also served as Motown’s first bandleader in the early days.

The multiracial studio musicians who called themselves the Funk Brothers played backup on many Motown recordings. Hunter’s piano work was an integral part of such songs as Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” and “Come and Get These Memories,” and Marvin Gaye’s “Pride and Joy.”

After the documentary film “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” was released in 2002, the Funk Brothers’ soundtrack album won two Grammy awards in 2003. In 2004, Hunter and the Funks received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys, and the group toured for several years.

They had split into several groups more recently, and Hunter had just returned from a European tour with Jack Ashford, another Funk Brother.

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