The other Marvin, and a mystery
A black Cadillac, a fight (or two) and a dangerous drive to Owosso
Since this is 2017, you can bet that someone connected to Motown Records’ storied past is thinking of the future.
In 2019, it will be the 60th anniversary of the company’s first release: “Come To Me” by Marv Johnson, on Tamla 101. Eight years ago, Universal Music, owner of the Motown masters, ran a successful, worldwide campaign to hail the 50th anniversary. If that’s replicated two years from now, it would good to think that Marv might gain some attention. There was little of that for him in 2009, which was also the case with 1983’s Motown 25 television special.
Johnson resented his exclusion from the latter. “I feel that a lot of us early artists played a major part in Motown,” he told Blues & Soul a year before his death in 1993, “and – in a lot of cases – I feel we don’t have the type of respect that perhaps we should.”
What intrigues me – yes, I know it’s not a burning issue, even among the Motown cognoscenti – is what lay behind this lack of recognition. After all, the money earned by Berry Gordy when “Come To Me” was picked up for national distribution by United Artists Records and when Marv was signed to UA directly, helped bankroll this young enterprise. “Three thousand dollars, more money than we’d ever seen in our lives, had been the advance paid by United Artists for ‘Come To Me,’ ” wrote Raynoma Singleton in her 1990 autobiography, Berry, Me, and Motown.
That was just the beginning. “Come To Me” reached the Top 30 of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1959, but was followed by two Top 10 hits the next year, “You Got What It Takes” and “I Love The Way You Love.” Together, Marv’s three singles sold more than 1 million copies, according to United Artists. The label’s first royalty cheque to Gordy, who was Johnson’s manager as well as his record producer, was more than ten times the original UA advance, according to Singleton. If that really was more than $30,000, today’s equivalent would be at least $250,000. From that bounty, artist royalties would have been due to Johnson, of course. To say nothing of what he earned from live appearances.
It’s what the singer did with money which caused some friction. “I had one major argument with Marvin,” Berry Gordy told me years ago, “and that was when he paid for a Cadillac. He was making a lot of money, certainly for those times.” Johnson had the car when he was a teenager. “He had finally paid for it,” said Gordy, “and he wanted at 20 to get a new Cadillac.”
Gordy argued with his protege: “You’re gonna turn this [car] in, they’re going to give you nothing for [it] and you’re going to get a brand new car, and you’re going to start your payments all over again. That’s crazy.” Johnson had to obtain Gordy’s permission, because the star was under 21. “And I said, ‘No, absolutely not.’ As your friend and your manager, and the person responsible, I don’t want to see you do that.” Johnson was left with no choice, but the day “he turned 21, this man drove up in a black Cadillac,” said Gordy. “I didn’t know what to do. And from then on, he was in charge, could make his own decisions, and so forth.”
That was the adult Johnson. “There were so many things I loved about him and each one was different,” said Gordy, but he had additional pressures: recording and managing a growing Motown roster, building his business. “As a person, Marvin made many of our other artists aware of his star status. Sometimes they would complain about his arrogance. As far as Marvin and I were concerned, it was a good relationship. He treated me fine.”
Perhaps Johnson’s relationship with others has influenced his standing. Musicians from Harold “Beans” Bowles’ band played on “Baby-O,” Marv’s pre-Tamla recording for Kudo Records, and Bowles later became his road manager at Motown. As a youngster, Bowles’ son Dennis admired Johnson, but recalled that besides “spending most of his money and not planning the rest of his life, Marv made the biggest mistake of his life, when he hit Brian or Eddie Holland in the mouth.” Given the stature of the brothers in 1964, when Johnson returned to Motown from United Artists, punching a Holland – whichever one it was – might not have been the best career move.
Former Motown Records president Barney Ales told me that when Johnson was successful, “he was very difficult to like.” Ales also remembered a physical fight between Johnson and another early Motown artist, Henry Lumpkin. “He threw Marv out the window. Henry was a big guy.”
Johnson’s post-1964 career at Motown produced little commercial success, save for the British Top 10 appearance of “I’ll Pick A Rose For My Rose” in 1969. This unlikely hit bestowed upon him a brief return to the spotlight, some U.K. concert dates and even an album release – although not in the U.S. By the following decade, the singer was working in the Motown back office, promoting other artists’ records to radio. In 1971, he was among those attending a company meeting in Montreal, and was photographed there for a trade-press advertisement as one of “Motown U’s Music Majors.” (The ad proved controversial: 45 men were pictured, but only eight of them were black. Civil rights activists were not impressed, even though most of the 45 were not employed directly by Motown.)
Johnson returned to performing in the 1980s and early ’90s, when the appeal of his early hits and his stage skills combined to sell tickets on both sides of the Atlantic. I once saw him at a show outside London, and his extraordinary energy put to shame singers half his age. Whether or not Marv was appreciated by his fellow artists back in the day, that night he was a credit to Motown’s history and reputation.
As for that history, there’s one other conundrum which involved Marv – or perhaps not. After Berry Gordy borrowed $800 to launch Tamla Records, he contracted with American Record Pressing, north of Detroit, to manufacture “Come To Me.” It was January 1959, a frigid season in the Midwestern states. “That,” recalled Johnson for Blues & Soul readers, “was the day Berry and I went up to Owosso, Michigan – where we were getting our record pressed – to get my singles, so that we could take them to the radio stations.” The highway was like a sheet of glass. “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, he said, a hair-raising experience.
But wait: was there a third person in the car? “I’m going nuts with nervousness ’cause I’m riding shotgun and the road’s a sheet of glass,” remembered Smokey Robinson in his autobiography, Inside My Life, about the same journey. “The world’s turned to snow and ice. We’re trucking fifty miles over to Owosso, Michigan, to pick up the actual 45s of ‘Come To Me’ to deliver to record shops and radio stations back in Detroit.” Thus the Miracles’ leader reminisced about the trek north, albeit without mentioning Marv – just as Marv doesn’t mention Smokey.
“We’re slipping and sliding,” continued Robinson, “avoiding crashes by the skin of our teeth, when suddenly a truck” – ah, that trailer-truck – “swerves towards us and we wind up in a ditch.” It takes a bulldozer to lift Berry, Smokey and/or Marv back on the road. The same happens on the return trip. “Another quick swerve, another fall into another ditch,” wrote Smokey. “Another bulldozer, another thirty miles until we finally arrive home – we will not be stopped – with the new Marv Johnson single.”
The determination paid off, as we now know. So when the time comes in 2019 to celebrate Motown’s 60th anniversary, perhaps there will be more credit for Marv Johnson. Regardless of who was in the car that cold January, Tamla 101 transported him into music history.