More Marv Johnson
Breaking up with a girlfriend, a $20 loan, and on the road in Britain
Readers write. Several of you, in fact, have got in touch, following my March musings on Marv Johnson. There was clearly another side to the singer, despite evidence of a hitmaker's ego, or perhaps he gained humility from later loss of the spotlight.
Gordon Prince knew Marv in Detroit before "Come To Me" was a hit. Working for record distributor B&H, he took him to local record hops and radio stations to promote the Tamla single, before Berry Gordy leased it to United Artists Records. "When I first met Marv," writes Prince, "he was down on his luck, and had just broken up with his girlfriend. When we went out to promote 'Come To Me,' he told me he was going to show his ex-girlfriend that he could be somebody. He was penniless and determined to make it big." Prince remembers lending him $20.
"Marv was very friendly, serious and easy to work with," adds Gordon. When "Come To Me" was reissued by UA and became a national hit, let’s hope Marv's ex took note that he did become somebody.
Johnson and Prince were reunited when the latter joined Barney Ales' sales and promotion team at Motown in 1965, and Johnson was back at the company. "I was asked to find things for him to do," recalls Gordon. "I did use him in public relations when dealing with some R&B radio stations. He would go to some Motown artist openings more or less as a goodwill ambassador."
There was another occasion when the two teamed up. "When Esther Edwards decided to open the Motown Museum," Prince explains, "she had a Miracles 45 on one of the walls as the first Tamla single. Marv and myself went there and explained that 'Come To Me' was before the Miracles. Marv's record now hangs on that wall. He was grateful for my assistance. I always respected Marv and I only wish that he had been more successful in his career." The last time Prince saw Johnson was at the funeral in 1992 of Detroit DJ legend "Frantic" Ernie Durham.
Keith Hughes, co-producer with Harry Weinger of Universal Music's peerless The Complete Motown Singles series, got in touch to say that he, too, saw Johnson in the 1990s, in the U.K. "Marv was on tour with a line-up that included Kim Weston, some odd version of the Supremes, and others. After the show, outside by the [tour] bus, I talked with Kim. I said how well I thought Marv had performed, and she said I should tell him that. She led me onto the bus, right down to the back, where Marv was fast asleep."
Weston woke him: "Marv, you have a fan here!" Keith comments, "He was charming, friendly, unassuming, apparently happy to talk Motown until the driver called down to say the bus was leaving." Hughes came away with a very warm impression; it was the first time that he had met any of his Motown heroes.
Author Susan Whitall gained an equally positive view of Johnson in 1987. She was covering music for the Detroit News when 2648 West Grand Boulevard was officially designated that year as the Motown Museum. The ceremony took place during a November sleet storm, and a drenched Whitall remembers having trouble negotiating access to the premises. Johnson courteously intervened to make it happen.
At the time, the singer was living "a spartan existence" in Detroit, according to Whitall. In her book, Women Of Motown, she writes with regret that she didn't document Johnson's stories, which he was only too willing to share.
That estimable book, by the way, is due to be expanded, updated and republished later this year. It will be part of Memphis-based DeVault-Graves’ "Great American Music Book" series. The original edition appeared in 1998, and featured essential interviews with Mable John, Claudette Robinson, Brenda Holloway, Katherine Anderson of the Marvelettes, and Norma Barbee of the Velvelettes, among others.
“When it originally came out,” Susan notes, “my editor eliminated my chapter on Janie Bradford, and I may put that back in.” She is going through her original text files, making corrections, and will write a new introduction. “The cover art will be better, too,” she adds, dryly.
Janie certainly deserves the attention, as one of many Motown’s backroom believers. A song she wrote with Richard “Popcorn” Wylie has just come back into circulation: “My Letter,” recorded by Priscilla Page for Rose G, a small Detroit label. In 1962, the composition appeared under the surname of Janie’s first husband, Lance Finney, because she and Wylie were working “undercover” from Motown. The track is now included in the Special Detroit Edition 1961-64 of Ace Records’ commendable “Birth of Soul” album series, together with another Bradford co-write, “I Know How It Feels” by Laura Johnson. The 24-track CD has extraordinarily thorough liner notes by Graham Finch.
Thanks to all for the reminiscences about Marv Johnson. Keep such feedback coming.