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Ferndale couple raises funds to purchase headstone for late Motown drummer

By: Jeremy Selweski | Woodward Talk | Published June 20, 2012

 The late Uriel Jones, one of three drummers for Motown house band the Funk Brothers, has been buried in an un-marked grave since he passed away in March 2009. But thanks to a fundraiser by Ferndale musicians John and C.J. Milroy, he will soon have his own headstone at Detroit’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

The late Uriel Jones, one of three drummers for Motown house band the Funk Brothers, has been buried in an un-marked grave since he passed away in March 2009. But thanks to a fundraiser by Ferndale musicians John and C.J. Milroy, he will soon have his own headstone at Detroit’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

Photo provided by June Childress-Jones

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FERNDALE/DETROIT — John and C.J. Milroy never knew Uriel Jones personally, but the music that he made will forever hold a special place in their hearts.

The same could be said for virtually anyone who’s ever turned on a radio over the last 50 years — whether they know it or not. As one of the three drummers for the legendary Motown record label, Jones served as an integral piece of what founder Berry Gordy coined as “the sound of young America.”

Jones was a member of the Funk Brothers, the Motown house band, which spent much of the ‘60s and ‘70s cranking out hit after hit and serving as a soundtrack of the times, but which remained virtually unknown to the public until the 2002 documentary film “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” shone a light on their vast contributions to popular music. That’s Jones pounding out the beats to such classic songs as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Tracks of My Tears.”

With such an impressive musical pedigree, John and C.J. Milroy — fellow musicians who live in Ferndale and perform under the name The Milroys — were saddened to learn that the drummer’s posthumous legacy carried a noticeable blemish.

Jones passed away in March 2009 at age 74 after suffering a heart attack. He was buried in Detroit’s Woodlawn Cemetery near Eight Mile and Woodward, which also serves as the final resting place for Motown kingpins David Ruffin and Levi Stubbs and a host of other local celebrities. However, his grave carries no markings of any kind, which the Milroys recently discovered after making a trip to Woodlawn to pay tribute to some of their musical heroes.

They did not want this injustice to stand, so they quickly took action by organizing a fundraising campaign to purchase a headstone for Jones’ grave. Although they had never undertaken such an endeavor before, they felt like something needed to be done.

“We just saw an opportunity to do something good here, and we figured it would be an easy sell,” John Milroy explained. “(Jones) is a legendary musician and a native Detroiter, after all. The whole thing just seemed so sad to us: Why was this man who played on so many great, famous songs buried in an unmarked grave?”

The Milroys got in touch with Jones’ widow, June Childress-Jones, and received her blessing. They began collecting money online via the fundraising website Indiegogo and by passing around a donation jar at their own shows. They sought to bring in enough money to acquire headstones for Jones and Marv Johnson, an early Motown crooner who is also buried in an unmarked grave.

According to C.J. Milroy, “Our hearts were kind of broken that two musicians we admire were in this same sad situation. I guess we decided to do this almost out of embarrassment: How can this be? How could this happen? This is our city, our hometown, so we couldn’t just sit back and let this continue on this way.”

Once word got out about the fundraising campaign, it immediately took off. Donations started coming in from all over the U.S. and from locations as far away as Europe and Australia. Classic rock guitarist Peter Frampton even made a sizable contribution. The Milroys’ $3,000 fundraising goal for Jones’ headstone was reached in no time, and they plan to put any extra funds that come in toward a similar memorial for Johnson.

“We picked a deadline of 90 days to meet our goal, but we were able to get there in only about 10 days,” John Milroy said. “A lot of people responded to this campaign really quickly, which was so nice to see. It served as a great reminder of how many people have a deep love of this music.”

Childress-Jones said that she was “overjoyed and overwhelmed” when the Milroys first contacted her about the fundraiser. She had been saving up money for a couple of years to purchase a headstone for her late husband, but her efforts were derailed last October when her Lincoln Park home was burglarized, and she lost everything.

Those plans are back on track now, however. The Milroys are confident that by this fall, they will be able to place headstones on the graves of both Jones and Johnson.

“We’re just glad that we could help,” C.J. Milroy said. “We do a lot of benefit concerts, so we’ve seen what can happen when people work together to raise money for a good cause. The music of Motown has touched so many lives, especially for people living around here. That music is truly coming out of our pores.

John Milroy added that as music lovers, he and his wife would like to see the Detroit area make greater efforts to pay tribute to local musicians who have passed away.

Childress-Jones plans to go to Woodlawn soon to pick out a headstone for her late husband, and she hopes that when she does, the Milroys will come with her. She last visited the cemetery with her family on June 13 to commemorate what would have been Jones’ 78th birthday. When she returns to his grave site again, it will likely be under much more positive circumstances.

“We went out there on his birthday, and it was just so sad to see it,” she said. “He’s buried right next to his mom and his sister, but his grave has nothing on it — no headstone, no name, nothing. This has been heavy on my mind for a long time. Now I can finally have some peace.”

To make a donation to the headstone campaign for Uriel Jones and Marv Johnson, go to www.indiegogo.com/urieljones. The campaign will run through Aug. 23.

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