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Funk Brothers Honored at White House - Black Music Month

Wednesday, June 25, 2003 By Susan Whitall / The Detroit News

See Joe Messina and President Bush

President Bush honors The Funk BrothersMotown's Funk Brothers stepped out of the shadows of the Rose Garden to meet President George W. Bush Tuesday during a cocktail party following a program at the White House honoring Black Music Month.

It topped a big year for Motown's famed studio band, who were the subject of the Artisan documentary film "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" in 2002.

President Bush had obviously been well briefed on the Motown musicians, because he knew who each Funk Brother was, according to Funks producer Allan Slutsky.

"The guys were very honored and touched; I could tell, I was watching their faces as they talked to the president," said Slutsky.

Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice were also at the party, and Powell spoke to several Funks, Slutsky said.

The logistics were too complicated for the Funks to perform because the East Room is much too small. But each Funk Brother -- Joe Hunter, Joe Messina, Uriel Jones, Bob Babbitt, Eddie Willis and Jack Ashford -- had a private minute with the president. Hunter, Messina and Jones all still live in the Detroit area.

Others on hand included gospel singers Marvin Winans and Bobby Jones; Kirk Whalum; Herb Jeffreys, who sang with Duke Ellington in the '40s, as well as football player Lynn Swann and music writer Stanley Crouch.

Performers from George C. Wolfe's musical "Harlem Song" and the Harlem Jazz Museum Artists combined three Duke Ellington pieces with four songs from the Broadway musical during the entertainment portion of the afternoon ceremony.

"In so many different ways, the artistry of black musicians has conveyed the experience of black Americans throughout our history," Bush said. "From the earliest generations of slaves came music of sorrow and patience, of truth and righteousness and of faith that shamed the oppressor and called upon the justice of Almighty God and praised His holy name. Out of this heritage has come a tremendous variety of music."

Ironically, Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. had a role in founding Black Music Month, which was first proposed by the Black Music Association in 1978, comprising black music industry leaders like Gordy, writer/producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and singer Stevie Wonder. President Jimmy Carter first declared June Black Music Month in 1979.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. You can reach Susan Whitall at (313) 222-2156 or swhitall @ detnews. com.