William “Benny” Benjamin (drums; born early 1930s, died 1969)
Benny Benjamin was Motown’s first drummer and, together with bassist James Jamerson, provided the rhythmic anchor for the Motown Sound. He was an essential member of that collective of session musicians known as the Funk Brothers. Drawing upon his background in big bands, which dated back to the 1940s, Benjamin brought jazz, swing and Latin influences to the Motown groove. With his deft brushwork and explosive drum fills, Benjamin propelled classics by such Motown artists as the Temptations, the Miracles, the Four Tops, the Supremes, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye and numerous others.
Berry Gordy, Motown’s founder and guiding force, has said, “I, like some of the other producers, would not do a session unless at least two of the Funk Brothers were present - namely, Benny Benjamin and James Jamerson.” Concerning Benjamin in particular: “He was so good on the drums and had a feel no one could match,” Gordy wrote in his autobiography, To Be Loved. “He had a distinctive knack for executing various rhythms all at the same time. He had a pulse, a steadiness, that kept the tempo better than a metronome. Benny was my man.”
It has also been written of Benjamin, Coming out of a big band-jazz background, Benny’s beats swung much harder than any of the other R&B and blues drummers residing in Detroit at the time, and his time was impeccable. Even the Beatles, when they met Berry Gordy in England, singled out Benjamin’s drumming and James Jamerson’s bass playing as part of what they loved best about Motown.
Among his fellow musicians at Motown, Benjamin - known as “Papa Zita” within the Funk Brothers’ fraternity - was a special favorite, having been called “the most beloved musician at Hitsville.” The basic Funk Brothers lineup - built around the core of Benjamin, Jamerson, and pianist Earl Van Dyke - was in place by 1964, recording virtually around the clock in Studio A (aka the Snakepit) at Motown’s headquarters on West Grand Street in Detroit. In addition to Benjamin, the two other drummers who figured significantly in the Motown sound were Uriel Jones and Richard “Pistol” Allen.
Benjamin, who battled alcoholism and heroin addiction, died of a stroke in 1969.