Playing in tandem with Robert White, Joe Messina and others, Willis was known for his parts on Motown classics such as The Temptations' "The Way You Do the Things You Do," The Supremes' "You Keep Me Hanging On," The Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman" and Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made to Love Her."
"He was the funkster, Eddie was," fellow Funk Brother Dennis Coffey, who did recording sessions with Willis before and during their days at Motown, tells 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."
Coffey also bought a signature Gibson Firebird guitar because it was what Willis played. After the instrument broke Willis switched to a Gibson ES-335. He also played the electric sitar on songs such as The Supremes' "No Matter What Sign You Are."
Willis often told the story about coming home for a Hitsville USA session after curfew during the Detroit riots in the summer of 1967 and being stopped by a National Guard tank in front of his house. "You can only imagine, here's Eddie with his guitar and his cane, being stopped by a tank," Coffey says. "'What are you doing here?' 'I live here, man! I have to get into my house!'"
Willis learned to play guitar as a youth in Grenada, Miss., citing Chet Atkins, Albert King and Wes Montgomery as his chief influences. He moved north to Detroit after he finished school, finding gigs in the Detroit clubs and studios from where Berry Gordy Jr. eventually recruited the Funk Brothers, where the troupe and Motown's stable of artists, producers and writers churned out hits in Studio A, aka the Snake Pit. "That was like home," Willis told the New York Daily news in 2015. "We had...so much fun, so much good music, so much of everything. We all worked playing at different clubs...And then sometimes we'd go back to the Snake Pit and play some more. We just loved to play."
Motown songwriter and producer Lamont Dozier recalled that, "If Eddie wasn't one of the guys on the the guys on the session, I didn't want to do it. If he was out of town or couldn't be there, I'd wait 'til he got back. he was just that good. I would give him an idea and he would just embellish it. He was a very intricate part of making that sound we got in the studio."
Willis also toured with The Temptations' Eddie Kendricks and, later the Four Tops, both during and after their initial Motown tenures. He didn't move to Los Angeles with Motown in 1972 and eventually made his way back down to Gore Springs, Miss. But Willis did enjoy some of the spotlight generated by the Academy Award-winning 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown and the tours that followed, and he and the other Funk Brothers recorded with Phil Collins on his 2010 soul covers album "Going Back." The Funk Brothers also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame during March of 2013.
"Eddie was humble beyond his necessity to be," recalls Drew Schultz, a Detroit percussionist, band leader and producer who worked with Willis in later years. "He had the right to be proud and boast about all the things he had done, but he was just a regular guy. he was one of those musicians who didn't seem to know how good he was."
Schultz adds that Willis was also "one of the most optimistic people I ever met," especially as his health and financial status declined. “He might be unable to get up with is wife struggling to help him at home, and you’d call him and he’d say, “I’m doing just fine. I got no complaints, everything is great,” Schultz says. “He would talk about the food he was cooking, the music he was listening to, the people he talked to on the phone that day. He seemed o genuinely enjoy himself all the time.” Schultz hosted a fundraiser for Willis in Detroit during 2013, and he was also the beneficiary of a For The Love of Motown fundraiser during 2015 in Bellemore, N.Y.
Willis is survived by his wife, Rose, and their three children. Memorial plans are pending.