West Grand Blog

September song

Marvin Gaye signs to Motown before that Christmas party

 

"Attend to work, service, health interests," recommended the horoscope in the Detroit Free Press on the day Marvin Gaye was signed to Motown Records. "Give or gain service," the newspaper’s astrologer added for the benefit of readers who were born, as the musician was, under the sign of Aries.

   Marvin's remarkable service to Berry Gordy spanned two decades. But it officially started on Monday, September 19, 1960 – a little earlier than is commonly accepted.

   In research for Motown: The Sound Of Young America and to underpin the recollections of Barney Ales, I excavated a range of information about the company's business. This included details of contracts with Motown artists. And there it was: the September date for Marvin's sign-up, three months before the Motown Christmas party when Berry claimed he first heard and saw the singer, and eight months before the release of his first Tamla single.

   Whatever the disparity, the individual who shaped this milestone was Harvey Fuqua, Marvin's mentor and the celebrated leader of the Moonglows, of which Gaye had been a latterday member. But by September of '60, the group was effectively out of commission, and Fuqua – though continuing to record and perform as a solo artist for Chess Records – was handling A&R duties for Anna Records.

   Anna was co-owned by Gwen Gordy, Berry's sister, and it was, of course, the label through which he routed Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)" when it needed national distribution to maximise sales. Anna was handled coast-to-coast by Chess, making "Money" a major R&B hit in March 1960.

   At Anna, Harvey was more than an A&R man: he was romantically involved with Gwen (they later married). Since the Moonglows were kaput, he sought to place Gaye in the Gordy orbit, to have him signed to the family business, and to benefit financially from the deal. After all, Marvin was contractually bound to Harvey "for life," Gaye told author David Ritz.

   In his powerful book, Divided Soul, Ritz quotes Marvin as declaring that Fuqua sold him to Berry. But it does not put dates to any of this activity, and also avoids the Christmas party scenario entirely. Steve Turner, in his thorough Trouble Man: The Life and Death of Marvin Gaye, locates the Moonglows’ final shows in Detroit during autumn 1959, but the combo actually opened a five-night run at the Twenty Grand on January 13, 1960. For my money, that’s when Berry first saw Marvin, albeit as part of a group. According to Turner’s book, Anna Gordy was also present at the club, and met her future husband there for the first time.

   Harvey Fuqua could have illuminated this period, but did relatively few media interviews during his career, telling acquaintances that he was saving stories for his own autobiography. It never materialised; the Moonglows-and-Marvin maestro died in 2010. Fuqua remains an underrated figure in Motown history, for all the artists he brought into the business, the songs he wrote, and the records he produced. “Harvey was a very creative guy, and a lot of fun,” the late Johnny Bristol told me years ago. “He did a tremendous amount of work for Marvin, and a lot of it he did not receive credit for.” 

   Bristol was among those with a debt to Fuqua: Anna Records introduced Johnny and singing partner Jackey Beavers to the public. Coincidentally, the label advertised Johnny & Jackey’s “Hoy Hoy” single in Billboard (“already riding the charts in California!”) on the day that Marvin joined Motown.

   And where was Berry Gordy himself on September 19, 1960? If not overseeing the Gaye paperwork at Hitsville, he might have been preparing for the imminent release of the Miracles’ “Shop Around,” or even planning his evening. Dinah Washington was performing at the Flame Show Bar that night, and it was one of Berry’s favourite haunts. Or maybe he was rehearsing another of his stars, Marv Johnson, due the following evening to hit the stage of Detroit’s Broadway Capitol Theatre, sharing a bill with Sam Cooke, Bo Diddley and Bobby Rydell.

   Hey, maybe Marvin was down at the venue, too. After all, Bo had been an admirer of Gaye’s pre-Moonglows group, the Marquees, when they recorded for Chess in the 1950s. And the Broadway Capitol show was due to be presented by Detroit area station WQTE, whose disc jockey Tom Clay had even recorded one of Berry's songs a couple of years earlier.

   It was a close-knit community, at a most exciting time, and good for giving or gaining service.

Adam WhiteComment