Pianist Joe Weaver was a vital link between the gritty R&B of postwar Detroit and the fabled Motown sound of the 1960s. His band, the Blue Notes, played on many of the formative Tamla sessions, effectively establishing the sonic blueprint later honed to perfection by the Funk Brothers. Born in Detroit in 1934, Weaver began playing piano at age nine, and with guitarist Johnnie Bassett co-founded the Blue Notes while the two were students at Northwestern High School. An uncommonly versatile outfit equally adept at blues, boogie-woogie, and R&B, they regularly claimed top honors at local talent shows, winning the Warfield Theater's amateur showcase with such regularity that they were eventually named the permanent house band, backing everyone from Little Willie John to John Lee Hooker.
The Blue Notes typically practiced at producer/JVB label owner Joe Von Battle's Hastings Street record store, and in 1953 Von Battle recorded one of their sessions, titling an instrumental "1540 Special" in homage to the street address of the pioneering Cincinnati label King, which picked up the song for release via its Deluxe Records subsidiary. Soon after the renowned Fortune label hired the Blue Notes as its house band, and in addition to backing acts like Andre Williams and Nolan Strong, they also headlined records of their own. Credited to Joe Weaver & His Blue Note Orchestra, the band's debut LP, A Fortune of Blues, appeared in 1954, followed a year later by Baby I Love You So. Neither record sold, but their raw, vital sound represents Detroit funk in its most embryonic state.
The Blue Note Orchestra's stature as Detroit's premier session band was firmly in place by the time songwriter and aspiring entrepreneur Berry Gordy, Jr. hired their services for his fledgling Tamla label. As the backing unit on what would become the company's first million-selling single, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles' "Shop Around," their contributions to Motown history are assured, but Weaver also deserves credit for nurturing the early careers of latter-day Blue Note Orchestra members including bassist James Jamerson, guitarist Eddie Willis, and drummer Benny Benjamin, all of whom later served with Motown's world-renowned session unit the Funk Brothers. But Weaver never enjoyed the commercial success or creative fame afforded so many of his musical progeny -- upon learning of his wife's abrupt departure in the middle of a tour, he abruptly retired from music to return to Detroit and care for his young daughters, accepting a job at the Ford Motor Company and spending the next three decades working the assembly line.
Upon retiring from Ford in 1999, Weaver and Johnnie Bassett mounted a new incarnation of the Blue Note Orchestra, traveling to the Netherlands to record a new LP, Baby I Love You So, for the Dutch label Black Magic. In 2002, Weaver also teamed with fellow Detroit legends Stanley Mitchell and Kenny Martin as the Motor City Rhythm & Blues Pioneers, cutting an eponymous album for Blue Suit. Weaver remained at the helm of the Blue Note Orchestra until his death on July 5, 2006; he was 71 years old. ~ Jason Ankeny