Shapes and sounds on Sunset
Marc Gordon and Hal Davis at Motown West
Picture the suite at the Montcalm Hotel, an oasis of peace amid the noise and bustle of London’s music business. A journalist, cautiously questioning a quintet of American visitors, plays a cassette of an early recording of theirs. Within seconds, the group’s two female members jump up and jauntily demonstrate the on-stage choreography used with the song. The ice is officially broken.
That’s how I met the original 5th Dimension, and their manager, Marc Gordon. It was “You’re Good Enough For Me” which crackled out of my tape machine, their first and only single as the Versatiles, produced and co-written by Gordon. They were surprised that a British trade hack would know their history, never mind have the record. After all, it did not set the charts alight when first released, unlike their later releases: “Up – Up And Away,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Wedding Bell Blues,” “One Less Bell To Answer” and more. Even Marilyn McCoo and Florence LaRue Gordon seemed surprised at how a song from their past could summon an urge to reproduce its dance steps, ten years later.
Versatility aside, it was Marc Gordon who I was pleased to meet in London. I knew of his background at Motown’s first California outpost in the early 1960s, but this quiet-spoken songwriter/producer/manager has generally received less attention for that history than his close associate, Hal Davis. I came away learning more about the 5th Dimension, but Marc confirmed a few other facts. For example, that it was at the National Association of Radio Announcers’ convention in Los Angeles that Berry Gordy first caught the sight and sound of breath-taking, soul-shaking Brenda Holloway, who was to become Motown’s initial West Coast-signed artist.
NARA was the black radio DJs’ association; the event took place at the Ambassador Hotel in August 1963. In common with other record companies, Motown had promotion staff present, and even sponsored one of the convention dinners at the hotel’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub. Berry knew many of the NARA broadcasters, but may not have been expecting to see 17-year-old Holloway “in a real, real tight gold pant suit, with a gold headband and gold heels,” as the singer herself explained in Susan Whitall’s Women of Motown book, and “that famous Brenda Holloway shape.”
Marc Gordon and Hal Davis had arranged for her to sing for the NARA crowd. Both men knew a fair number of DJs themselves, having been in the music business for several years by this point. And Davis had no trouble persuading Holloway to put on a show, not least because they were engaged to be married. The producer had already been working with Holloway and her younger sister Patrice (“she was twelve,” Davis once told me, “I used to put her on a box [to reach the microphone]”).
Impressed by this California talent, Gordy expeditiously placed the Holloway sisters under contract, and also hired Gordon, 28, and Davis, 30. “Detroit-based Motown Records has opened an office here to handle A&R and publishing activities,” reported Billboard in November 1963. Until then, the two men had been part-time in music. Their day jobs were different: Davis was a cook for Los Angeles County, while Gordon worked in engineering for Hughes Aircraft Co. Now, they squeezed into modest quarters for Motown in the Sunset Vine Tower on Sunset Boulevard; also on board was a young songwriter, Frank Wilson.
Davis and Gordon set to work with Brenda Holloway, producing her first hit, “Every Little Bit Hurts,” and recording other, would-be stars, including Joanne & the Triangles, Oma Heard, the Vows and the Lewis Sisters. They also went into the studio with aging crooner Tony Martin and rockabilly/country singer Dorsey Burnette; neither had hits. “There was a club on Sunset where they had all these old stars,” Gordy’s former consigliere Barney Ales explained to me. “I told Berry to stop going! He made some of the worst mistakes in the world with those records.”
More profitable were results from Marc Gordon’s Hollywood film and TV studio contacts. In 1964, he netted $2,500 (worth approximately $20,000 today) for the Supremes’ on-screen singing in Beach Ball, and he placed Little Stevie Wonder in Muscle Beach Party with Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. Shortly afterwards, Davis and Gordon produced Stevie At The Beach and Marvin Gaye’s Hello Broadway, both LPs made in California.
The team’s talent-spotting extended to songwriters. To Jobete Music, they inked 19-year-old Jimmy Webb, whose work was recorded by the Supremes (“My Christmas Tree”) and even Davis himself under the pseudonym of Danny Day (“This Time Last Summer”). Webb once also said that, while under Jobete’s wing, he wrote “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” for Motown artist Paul Petersen, although it was declined.
Another unfortunate moment was Motown’s decision to “pass” on the group which kicked off this story. Marc Gordon told me that the Versatiles – LaMonte McLemore, Ron Townson, Billy Davis Jr., Marilyn McCoo and Florence LaRue – wanted so badly to be signed to the company in 1965. McLemore already had a connection; he was a photographer who had handled some projects for Marc in Los Angeles, including a beachside shoot with Stevie Wonder.
So the Versatiles recorded tracks for Berry Gordy to hear. One was said to be “Tell Me,” written by Gordon and Frank Wilson, which may still be in the Motown vaults. “Everyone in the group chipped in for me to take those demos to Berry [in Detroit],” wrote McLemore in his autobiography with Robert-Allan Arno, From Hobo Flats To The 5th Dimension, “but each day when I hightailed it to the Motown headquarters…Berry would tell me, ‘I’m too busy, come back tomorrow.’ ”
“Tomorrow” eventually yielded a meeting with the boss, but he was unenthusiastic about what he heard. “The group was terribly disheartened,” explained McLemore. “However, the always even-tempered Marc Gordon revved us up: ‘If you go with Motown, you’ll get lost in the shuffle behind the Supremes, the Temptations, and all.’ ” Instead, according to McLemore, Gordon suggested they pitch another company, perhaps with material composed by…Jimmy Webb.
Gordon left Motown at the end of ’65, and the company shut down its Hollywood office for six months. It wasn’t clear if the exit was due to a conflict of interest, or whether Gordon simply saw a better future elsewhere. Either way, the outcome was that he became the Versatiles’ manager, securing a deal with Bronco Records, which released “You’re Good Enough For Me” in the spring of 1966. Marc’s new management firm had other clients, too: singers Willie Hutch (who also wrote songs) and Mary Love.
One year after his departure from Motown, Gordon was appointed to run pop star Johnny Rivers’ new Soul City label, and the Versatiles – newly named the 5th Dimension – began their ascent to stardom. For them and for himself, Marc accomplished much. By the time we met at the Montcalm, the group had generated a string of major American hits (a couple in Britain, too) and built an enduring career in television and in concert.
There were one or two ironies. When the 5th were signed at ABC Records in the mid ’70s, Gordon had them record a track included in a new Diana Ross album. He was confident the song had hit potential as a single – and he was right. Motown’s reaction? To rush-release Diana’s original “Love Hangover,” sending the group’s version into oblivion. What’s more, that cover-killer was produced by none other than Hal Davis, who had maintained a relationship with Motown after Gordon left. What goes around, comes around.
Neither man is still alive, but their legacies are sound. They owed each other: that early partnership gave them valuable experience, industry contacts and creative credentials. For Marc Gordon, the 5th Dimension soared as high as many of Berry Gordy’s stars. For Hal Davis, his skills as a writer and producer made him one of Motown’s most effective magicians. To adapt a song title, both were good enough for music – and then some.