Willis’ daughter Terez Willis told the Detroit Free Press that her father had been suffering from complications from his lifelong bout with polio, which he had since childhood and prevented Willis from touring more frequently during the prime of his career.
The guitarist, nicknamed “Chank,” joined the Motown house band in 1959, joining a group of session musicians that included guitarists Joe Messina, Robert White and Marv Tarplin, bassist James Jamerson, drummer William “Benny” Benjamin, keyboardist Earl Van Dyke and percussionist Jack Ashford.
The Marvelette’s “Mr. Postman,” the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” the Temptations’ “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her” and “My Cherie Amour” were among the Motown hits that Willis played on, Billboard reports.
Willis remained with the Funk Brothers when Motown Records moved to Los Angeles but left the label in 1972, returning to Detroit to work with Eddie Kendricks and the Four Tops. Willis, along with Funk Brothers bassist Bob Babbitt, also played on Phil Collins’ 2010 album Going Back, a collection of Motown covers. Members of the Funk Brothers also featured in the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown., which aimed to bring credit to the often-unheralded musicians.
“We wasn’t on paper, we wasn’t being taken care of like we were told,” Willis told the New York Daily News in 2015 prior to a benefit concert for the guitatist. “There’s a lot of us that got left in the shadows.”
“He was the funkster, Eddie was,” fellow Funk Brother Dennis Coffey told Billboard. “He was an amazing guitar player. He had that Southern thing. He’d always come up with some funky lines. We did many sessions together and he was just an all-around nice guy. I never heard him get angry at anybody about anything. He just came in and did his job.”
Terez Willis told the Free Press, “He knew that he was loved. He knew that a lot of people in the industry loved him.”
In 2013, the surviving members of the Funk Brothers – Willis included – reunited in Los Angeles to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.