Joe Clunich Obituary, Death – Throughout the decade of the 1960s, artists and record producers were mystified by the specific recipe that was employed to create the Motown sound. Was it a particular quality of the microphones, maybe, or the way the snare drum was tuned? Perhaps it was even the type of carpeting that was used in the company’s recording facility in Detroit. The playing of rhythm guitar by Joe Messina, who has since passed away at the age of 93, was an important aspect that was neglected because its presence was virtually subconscious.
A musician with a background in jazz, Messina’s contributions to Motown records often consisted of playing a chord on every backbeat, as well as the second and fourth beats of each bar. However, those downstrokes contributed an additional layer of thickness and tone to rhythms that were already being given their weight by a snare drum and their cutting edge by a tambourine. The end result was the kind of dancefloor propulsion heard on songs like “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas, “Going to a Go-Go” by the Miracles, “I Can’t Help Myself” by the Four Tops, and “(I Know) I’m Losing You” by the Temptations. These are the kinds of hits that would give Motown a massive following across the world.
The Motown session men were finally brought into the public eye in 2002 when the award-winning documentary film Standing in the Shadows of Motown revealed their role. Prior to this time, the Motown session men were not known by name or face to the people who bought and danced to the million-selling records on which they played. The popularity of the movie led to live performances of the band’s reunion, which included shows at the Apollo theater in Harlem, the Royal Festival Hall in London, the opening ceremony for the 2004 Ryder Cup golf tournament at Oakland Hills, just outside of Detroit, and the White House, where they were hosted by President George W. Bush.
A great number of people were taken aback when they discovered that one of the Motown performers was a white guitarist. In the days when he was sitting between his fellow African American guitarists Robert White and Eddie Willis, churning out one hit after another in Motown’s Studio A, he liked to refer to himself, in the sort of joke that probably could not be made today, as “the cream in the Oreo cookie.” This was a reference to the fact that he was the only white member of the trio of African American guitarists.
Joe Messina was born in Detroit, Michigan, to Mary and Jasper Messina. He went to the Central high school in the city and studied music at Cass Tech, which is the alma mater of many famous jazz musicians, before dropping out to seek a career in the music industry. Beginning in the late 1940s, he was a fixture in the jazz clubs of Detroit, and he finally obtained a job with the band on the wildly successful nightly television show hosted by comedian Soupy Sales. The show was transmitted nationwide from a studio located in the middle of downtown Detroit. As a student of bebop, he took great pride in the fact that he had the opportunity to perform alongside notable guests including as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Milt Jackson.