Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Amidst Motown’s 50th Anniversary celebrations Pete Lewis recalls fondly his November 1992 interview with the label’s very first recording artist, Sixties hitmaker Marv Johnson

There is no doubt that Berry Gordy' s Motown was a landmark in musical history, creating for the first time black household names the world over and breaking down innumerable cultural and racial barriers along the way. Yet, while many of the company's early celebrities have retained their international prominence for virtually three decades (Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, and others) it is sad that the essential contributions of many other artists to the label's early growth are all but overlooked by the general public today. Unfortunately, such is the case with Motown's first ever artist - Marv Johnson - who also happened to be Gordy's first international star.

While Marv has not enjoyed a hit record in 23 years, he is still active touring and has in recent years returned to the recording studio under the aegis of UK producer/writer Ian Levine. Meanwhile, his distinctive falsetto will always hold a special place in the hearts of Motown devotees as the singer whose name graced the company's first-ever release and heralded the dawn of an exciting new era in black musical history.

Relaxing in the busy lounge of his cosmopolitan West London hotel, a now-greying and bespectacled Marv Johnson recalls his early years: "I was born Marvin Earl Johnson in Detroit, Michigan in 1938 and started entering local talent shows at age 13", he begins: "I just liked music - it's just one of the things I liked to do. And, whether I had come from a luxurious or ordinary background, it would still have been the same. In the beginning I listened to groups like Billy Ward & The Dominoes and people like Clyde McPhatter, Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson. I think it's the sincerity that really makes the better artist. You know, a lotta people can sing, but they can't really reach people."

On graduating from Case Technical High School in 1957, Marv joined local doo-wop outfit The Serenaders and released his first record in 1958 on Kudo Records, 'Once Upon A Time'/'My Baby-O'. However, it was when Johnson later began to work as a part-time clerk in the 3-D Record Mart, owned by then-local writer/producer Berry Gordy, that the latter learnt of Marv's musical abilities and saw him rehearse at the Speciality Studios with another group, The Town Beats. One of the songs in their repertoire - 'Come To Me' - was singled out by Gordy who decided to record the song with Marv, using Berry's regular studio choir - The Rayber Voices - to provide backing vocals. Marv himself played piano on the track, the hit potential of which was strong enough for the young Gordy to borrow money from his family to make it the first release on his own Tamla label.

"Oh yeah, that was the very first Motown record ever - Tamla 101 in 1959!", confirms Marv who, with typical old-school modesty, is also keen to give credit to others involved: "The song may have been written by myself and Berry Gordy, Jr., but of course we had a lot of assistance from a lot of other people around us. Because everyone was there and wanted to participate in some way to the success of what we were doing. You know, there were various little inputs that you can't put your finger on that were just as significant as anything Berry and I did."

Speaking of that first single brings the memories flooding back, as Marv reflects further on the company's humble beginnings: "Probably my most vivid experience at the beginning of Motown was the very first day!", he adds with a wistful smile: "That was the day Berry and I went up to Owasso, Michigan - where we were getting our record pressed - to get my singles, so that we could take them to the radio stations. In those early days of Motown, everybody did everything - we all packed records, we all took them to radio stations - EVERYTHING! So, Berry and I went to get these 250 records and it was in the dead of winter. The highway was like a sheet of glass - pure ice! We were almost killed twice on the way up there, and twice again on the way back! I'll never forget, we turned over into a ditch to avoid one of those tractor-trailer trucks that had lost control. It was a really hair-raising experience!"

At this stage Motown Records' distribution was limited to the four Michigan cities of Detroit, Ann Arbor, Flint and Pontiac: "But the record became so big in those four cities that we could no longer handle it, because we weren't set up for national distribution", explains Marv: "There wasn't enough money to distribute the product as well as a big company could. So Berry in turn sold the rights to United Artists in New York. But then they said they would only take the record if I became one of their artists long-term. So Berry released me to the United Artists company for a certain amount of money, so that he in turn could invest it in something back home."

'Come To Me' climbed to Number 30 in the US Pop chart, and Marv Johnson became the first Motown-launched national star virtually overnight; thus boosting Berry Gordy's confidence in his own work, while at the same time providing him with the finances to groom other acts (like The Mircales) for his new Motown studios. With Marv now signed to United Artists, Berry (as a writer) worked further with him, achieving major international success in February 1960 as Johnson's million-selling 'You Got What It Takes' hit the UK Top Five. The song has since become accepted as an all-time rock'n'roll classic: "Yeah, it went worldwide", agrees Marv: "It had hit qualities for the world in which it was released - there's no other explanation for it. Timing is a big thing - some songs are hits at one time and can't be hits at others. The acceptance was so great that you were just sorta lost in a big ball of appreciation! You know, when you have a hit a lot of times you don't pay attention to anything except the positive aspect of it. Your record's making someone else happy and you're happy doing it - that's the whole thing!"

The buoyant ‘You Got What It Takes’ was quickly followed up by another transatlantic hit - the infectious ‘I Love The Way You Love’ - while ‘Ain’t Gonna Be That Way’ provided Marv with a hat-trick of UK chart-riders in August 1960. By this time Marv had joined a very select handful of black American acts who were enjoying pop success on the international plain through white-owned major labels. By the early Sixties companies like United Artists - who had little or no experience in marketing soul acts - were experimenting in this new musical field, and Marv was undoubtedly one of the true ‘guinea pigs’ of the era. This was reflected by the diverse and surprising nature of some of the material they recorded with him.

“Absolutely - that’s exactly how it was!”, he agrees: “There were other tunes I recorded that were, shall we say, adventures - because a lotta the songs weren’t the type that were suited to my character. But I did them anyway because of my love of music - and that in turn taught me that I could do more than one kinda style. I was accorded the pleasure of recording a lot of Gershwin songs, earlier Rogers & Hart classics... I wrote with Don Costa, Teddy Randazzo, did some Burt Bacharach songs, Leiber & Stoller songs - I worked with all the big guns in New York! But then it’s not necessarily who WROTE the songs that is important, but what the song is SAYING. It’s just that you come to expect a little bit more from certain guys who are more consistent.”

Between 1959 and 1962, Johnson enjoyed nine American Top 100 singles - including lesser-known hits like ‘Happy Days’, ‘Merry Go Round’, and ‘Move Two Mountains’ - though by 1963 his popularity had begun to wane. ‘Unbreakable Love’ proved his last release for United Artists, by which time Berry Gordy’s own Motown empire was taking off. Marv returned to Motown in 1965, joining the ever-growing roster of artists on the label‘s Gordy imprint.

Marv’s mid-to-late Sixties career as a Motown artist proved only moderately successful Stateside, resulting in him working behind-the-scenes in the company’s sales and promotions department. But 1969 put a temporary halt to this, as Johnson returned to the UK Top 10 for the first time in nine years with the timeless romantic Motown anthem ‘I’ll Pick A Rose For My Rose’ (still frequently played today), which was in turn immediately followed-up by the Northern Soul stomper ‘I Miss You Baby (How I Miss You)’ - a UK Top 25 hit in October 1969, having originally been released in the US in 1966: “You know, ‘I’ll Pick A Rose For My Rose’ wasn’t a hit in The States AT ALL”, responds a still-baffled Johnson: “It was something that the producers - James Dean and William Weatherspoon - and myself came up with one day. But I guess roses are obviously traditionally popular in England, plus it was a good clean story. You know, you wanna bring a person home to stay that you care about - that’s a trip that a lotta people have to take. And that song saw me coming to England for the first time to do ’Top Of The Pops’ - though all that promotion work in itself wasn’t that new to me. You know, I’d been doing TV shows like ‘American Bandstand‘ in The States back in the early Sixties. But, at the same time, the idea of actually coming to another part of the world WAS a big thing - it always IS to any man who is intelligent enough to want to expand his horizons. You know, you meet other people, you work on other projects, so many different things... And obviously that’s a good dose of life for ANYONE who wants to really build.”

“Then Clarence Paul - another one of the Motown producers - came up with that nice driving sound for ‘I Miss You Baby’, and we enjoyed a little success with that too over in England”. continues Marv: “He used to work with Stevie Wonder in his early days - he’s quite devoted to music. But then I also worked with other producers while I was at Motown - people like Norman Whitfield, Brian Holland, Eddie Holland... All of those guys are very good friends of mine.”

Marv Johnson‘s last single on Motown proved to be 1970’s joyous ‘So Glad You Chose Me’, taken from the ‘I’ll Pick A Rose For My Rose’ album, which was actually Marv’s first-ever British LP release. However, the exact circumstances surrounding his departure from the label remain puzzling - even to the man himself: “It was a funny thing. I was issued with a letter that said my contract had expired, three years after it actually had! I didn’t understand that, because I’d have thought they wouldn’t have wanted me around under those circumstances. I had been dismissed, and I didn’t even KNOW!”

While he today laughs about this strange series of events, Marv still harbours considerable bitterness inside about the way he was treated by the company he had been instrumental in setting up: ”Nowadays I don’t look back too much”, he begins hesitantly, then candidly adds with open resentment: “But, being a man who wanted to support his family, I thought I’d be issued with a certain amount of stock or something in the company to establish a secure position for us... to reap the benefit of what I had given in my younger life. But it didn’t happen! Berry Gordy didn‘t choose to give me that stock and it was difficult for me to understand, because he had made statements to that effect from time to time... He had frequently said that Smokey (Robinson) and myself would be secure in this way.”

“You see, I feel that a lot of us early artists played a major part in Motown and - in a lot of cases - I feel we don’t have the type of respect that perhaps we should. Sometimes other people’s efforts are a little more obvious for one reason or another. But l am satisfied to know that I was part of something that was wonderful”, he adds on a happier note, though at the same time disputing the oft-reported “family atmosphere” of Motown in the late Sixties: “It was more of a family situation to some than it was to others. Diana Ross & The Supremes were blessed to have been favourites of Berry Gordy himself - there was a personal relationship between Diana and him. But at the same time there were so many others - Jr. Walker, The Four Tops, The Velvelettes, Hattie Littles, and so on - who played a huge part in launching what became one of the greatest companies in the world but received little credit.”

Indeed, by the end of his time with Motown, it would seem that personal relationships between Marv and the Gordy family had become somewhat strained: ‘We didn’t get on too well in the latter years, because there were tremendous egos”, he states bluntly: “The feelings were not positive from Berry and from the family generally, though I got along fine with Mrs. Gordy Sr. She supported her son - which was natural - but she did also try and understand my growth and at least try to treat me like a decent human being.”

Following his departure from Motown, Marv continued to tour Britain, complete with his unique energetic dance routines (including The Funky Chicken, The Twist, and others!), and it was during one of these visits that the UK producer Ian Levine coaxed him back into the recording studio in 1987, later making Marv a prominent addition to the artist roster and composing team of his London-based Motorcity label (specifically formed to revive the career of ex-Motowners): “Ian Levine is a very enthusiastic type of producer”, admits Johnson: “He has tried his best to help a lot of Motown acts and, because of his interest, I actually got another shot at the whole deal. So, in perspective, Ian is a pretty positive guy, because no-one ELSE was doing it. Plus, I really enjoyed the Motown reunion he held in Detroit back in 1989 - it was nice to see people I hadn’t seen in a long time, even though I personally was already in a position where what I had recorded in the past was keeping me quite well.”

Marv’s working relationship with Levine began in 1987 with a remake of the old Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell Motown classic ‘Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing’, which featured him duetting with Carolyn Gill - lead singer with Sixties Motown girl-group The Velvelettes. Meanwhile, the pounding, synthesised hi-energy production of ‘By Hook Or By Crook’ (1988) and ’Run Like A Rabbit’ (1989) were both solo 12” releases for Marv; preceding the 1990 album ‘Come To Me’, which contained both new material plus remakes of the historical title track and ‘I’ll Pick A Rose For My Rose’, in addition to covers of Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Was Made To Love Her’ and Gene Chandler’s “Nothing Can Stop Me’.

There have been no Marv Johnson records released since, through his stint as opening act for The Temptations on their recent tour of Europe saw him in ever-lively form and still in fine voice. However, with Ian Levine currently channelling his production energies into pop acts like Take That! and Sinitta (and presently lacking a distribution deal for Motorcity Records), Marv’s future as a recording artist remains in the balance and it is conceivable he will remain in the oldie-but-goodie position he has occupied for most of his career.

Nevertheless, whatever happens, Marv Johnson’s unique position as the first-ever Motown act will assure this endearing gentleman of a prestigious place in the music history books.

Marv sadly died - aged 54 - of a stroke on May 16, 1993 in Columbia, South Carolina, USA

As part of Motown’s 50th Anniversary celebrations, the 7” vinyl single ‘I’ll Pick A Rose For My Rose’ is released March 30

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