THE MARVELETTES: Motown 50 classic interview series - Sep 1990
With Motown Records’ currently celebrating their 50th Anniversary, Pete Lewis recalls speaking exclusively to The Marvelettes’ former lead vocalist Wanda Rogers back in September 1990.
"I came off the road. I stopped singing because of the problems that was going on down South and what would happen when we were touring the Southern States. The white people were so prejudiced! I know Mary Wilson of The Supremes wrote a book and I began writing one. And I'm gonna continue it, because I notice that there's a lotta stories that the artists have not revealed to the public yet. We would work for the white people and they didn't never wanna pay us our money!"
“All of the Motown artists traded with the Bank Of The Commonwealth, right? My money - I had over 13,000 dollars in small savings. Next thing I know, I go in the bank, and they can’t even find my NAME on the file! They stole the money, they stole my children’s trust fund! Ooh, it was horrible, HORRIBLE things that happened! And I’d not only find prejudice in the Southern States. I’d come back up north, and even there it was everywhere I’d go! The whites couldn’t stand to see black people with their money!”
“It hurt me deeply, because I read about these things in High School, right?... About the slavery and how white people treated the black people in earlier times. But I never in my Holy Ghost life thought that I’d actually EXPERIENCE it! You’re talking about FRIGHTNING?!! This was a SCREAMING NIGHTMARE!! No-one’s mentioning it in their books - maybe some of the artists have touched on it recently. But I still haven’t heard of any of the artists mention the PURE HATE that they endured, the disadvantages.”
… Sad, sinister tales related to me by Wanda Rogers of The Marvelettes, in an exclusive interview - the first she has given in over twenty years - following years of mental and alcohol-related problems. No doubt much of which was a reaction to the horrible experiences she endured within the social climate of the early Sixties, when The Marvelettes were Motown’s premiere girl vocal group, having provided the legendary Detroit label with its first US national Number One - ‘Please Mr. Postman’ - in 1961.
Professionally, meanwhile, disappointment also came in the early Seventies. When - with Motown’s move from Detroit to L.A. - The Marvelettes became one of several veteran Motown acts left behind in their hometown. Which ultimately led to them leaving the label and splitting up: “At the time no-one actually complained”, relates Wanda sombrely: “It was all done so quietly that we didn‘t know if the gangsters had taken over, or WHAT was going on - nobody knew! I guess I personally put it down to Sammy Davis Jr. and Mr. Berry Gordy Jr. being in the process of making movies togeyther. My understanding was that Berry was tired of the recording business and wanted to step up a little higher and get into the movie production. But, at the same time, inside I felt bad about the company moving - I mean, REAL bad… You know, I felt I‘d been personally left behind. I’d grumble and complain within myself sometimes: ‘Why would they move to California, knowing that this is Berry Gordy’s home town?’.”
Nevertheless, as Wanda openly acknowledges, life at Motown during The Marvelettes’ Sixties heyday was far from all bad: “Yeah, knowing that the public really loved us would bring tears to my eyes! When they’d throw money on the stage, throw keys, throw hankies - I’d be like ‘Ooh, they really LOVE us!’ and it really would put me into shock for a while! Because I’d think they really cared for us! I’d carry my babies and go on the road. You know, sometimes I’d be pregnant and singing. It was hard work!”
“I mean, on that score those were the greatest days I’ve ever experienced in my life!”, she reminisces joyfully: “We - all the artists - were like one big happy family! Not only Berry Gordy, but the whole Gordy family, looked after us like we were their babies. Berry Gordy was like the daddy, and we were his children! If any problems would go wrong within the group, or with the female vocalists - Mary Wells, Kim Weston - we’d sit and have meetings. Even if somebody had personal problems at home, we’d still sit and discuss it! We’d have such great times! We’d have big company picnics every summer; Christmas parties where Mr. Berry Gordy would give the artists beautiful gifts… It was something I’d never experienced before, and I loved it!”
“And, while those old Motown records are definitely still so popular because of that Motown Sound, I also believe some of their longevity is down to the love we shared with one another back then. You know, it’s something that‘ll always linger and be there, regardless of how jealous one act might feel about another. You know, when you think of the company as a whole, you think of that love - one big happy family in the Motown Sound. And if there’s one wish I have, it’s that those days would come back - where everybody could get together again as one big happy family - before I die, maybe…”
Interestingly, Wanda was not actually an original member of The Marvelettes’ line-up. The group originally comprised five High School friends from Inkster, Michigan - Gladys Horton, Katherine Anderson, Georginna Gordon, Georgia Dobbins and Juanita Cowart, who all formed in 1960 to compete in a talent show, the three finalists from which were to win auditions at Motown. While The Marvelettes actually came fourth, a school teacher nevertheless persuaded Motown to listen to them too. With their audition going well, the group were advised to write some songs. Georgia came up with the essential idea for ‘Please Mr. Postman’; Motown chief Berry Gordy liked the general idea… And, after completion by staff songwriters, it was recorded and became the group’s first success - hitting Number One when the average age of the group was just 17! At this stage, Wanda joined the group to share lead vocals with Gladys. Hits that followed included ‘Used To Be A Playboy’, and ‘Beechwood 45789’.
“Yeah, I’d just graduated from High School when Gladys came over to my house and said ‘Wanda, I heard you can sing! Would you like to join our group? We’re having rehearsal this evening over at Georginna‘s house. If you’re interested come on over!’”, remembers Wanda with a distant smile: “She wanted to know if I could sing alto. And I said ‘I think can sing ALL of them - soprano, second soprano AND alto!’... So that evening I went over to Georginna’s house, and instantly became a member of the group! You know, there were five original Marvelettes when the group first started out. But soon after Juanita Coward took ill and had to come off the road to get medical attention… Then Georginna had to come off the road to get medical attention... It was like an unknown sickness started in the group that I’m not able to explain. And before long Katherine, Gladys and myself were the only three left.”
US hits under this line-up included ‘Too Many Fish In The Sea’, Don’t Mess With Bill’ and ‘The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game’; while the romantic ballad ‘When You’re Young And In Love’ gave the trio their first UK Top 20 success in 1967. Meanwhile, Gladys became the next to leave the group - to have her first child - and was replaced by Anne Bogan (who later fronted the early Seventies RCA Records soul group New Birth). And, with Anne in the line-up, they had one last hit with ‘My Baby Must Be A Magician’ before officially splitting in 1971
Meanwhile, bringing things up-to-date, both ‘Too Many Fish In The Sea’ and ‘My Baby Must Be A Magician’ are two remakes contained on the current Ian Levine-produced “The Marvelettes…Now!’ album, on Ian’s Motorcity label. The line-up on said LP comprising Wanda Rogers, Gladys Horton, plus two new girls (Echo Johnson and Jean Mc Clain) that Gladys chose when she reformed the group in the mid-Eighties.
Concludes Wanda; “When Ian Levine first contacted me about doing a new Marvelettes album, I was amazed! It was a real shock! In fact, if it hadn’t been for my baby sister pushing me, I wouldn’t have recorded! Because, I’d decided years ago that I didn’t wanna record anymore!”
While Wanda has rejoined the group for recording purposes, she no longer tours with them. Nevertheless, she was lead vocalist on their debut Motorcity single release (also contained on their aforementioned current album), ‘Holding On With Both Hands’.
As part of Motown Records’ 50th Anniversary, The Marvelettes’ album ‘’The Definitive Collection’ is released January 26; with The Marvelettes’ ‘Complete Albums Vol.1’ following February 2
Words PETE LEWIS