West Grand Blog

The 8 of '58: Part 2

EMPLOYMENT, TEARDROPS AND A MARRIAGE PROPOSAL

 

It was a year of contradictions.

      On the upside, Berry Gordy’s first recording date with the Miracles delivered a hit (of sorts) in various parts of the U.S., and validated his faith in the talent of young Smokey Robinson. Gordy’s songs for Jackie Wilson broke onto the national charts, setting the stage for the singer’s solo stardom. And the woman who would become Gordy’s second wife, Raynoma Liles, helped to strengthen and stimulate the circle of young music makers surrounding him.

      On the downside, making a profit – or even much of a living – from such hyperactivity was a struggle. Sure, Gordy’s songs were published, he leased material to various record companies, and his creative reputation grew. But a dependence on business partners beyond Detroit was frustrating, as was their disinterest in paying him fairly and squarely.

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      Defining Gordy by “the 8 of ’58” may be too simple, but it serves to illuminate the people who ultimately lit the flame of what we now know as Motown. After last week’s quartet – recordings involving Nat Tarnopol, the Gaylords and the Holland brothers, and the life lesson learned through “Bob Kayli” – it’s the turn of music by the Miracles, Jackie and Marv Johnson, and the connections of disc jockey Tom Clay.

      “Got A Job” by the Miracles earns the opening slot here, even though there are questions about its chronology. In his autobiography, Smokey told of cutting it at Detroit’s United Sound in November 1957. In his memoir, Gordy remembered Robinson bursting into his office at Al Green’s Pearl Music in January 1958, enthusing about the idea for the song (“I got it, man! I really got it this time!”). By this account, it was put onto wax soon afterwards, and released on Robinson’s eighteenth birthday, February 19.

      Either way, “Got A Job” was a dumb-ass answer record to the Silhouettes’ popular “Get A Job,” but it fizzled with energy. It had to: there were at least two competitors: “I Found A Job” by the Heartbeats and “I Got A Job” by the Tempos. Gordy leased the Miracles’ novelty to End Records, which – it must be said – got seriously busy with promotion. “Got A Job” showed up on Top 10 radio and retail charts throughout March and April, from Michigan to Missouri, from Pennsylvania to California. Cash Box went so far as to bestow its “R&B Sure Shot” blessing on the record.

      For all that, “Got A Job” never cracked the national charts. Perhaps Gordy’s infamous royalty cheque from End was only $3.19 because the label spent a bundle on trade-press advertising and payola. (Was that recoupable under the contract?) Even so, the Miracles were off and running, earning cross-country recognition, if not much cash.

THE FIRST OF MANY PHONE CALLS

      While End was putting “Got A Job” to work, Decca was hustling hard on behalf of Jackie Wilson’s second solo single, “To Be Loved.” But for my (non-recoupable) money, it was his third – “Lonely Teardrops” – which deserves to be one of the 8 of ’58. Plus, it’s more fun to mix and match the recollections of where “Lonely Teardrops” was recorded.

      Several sources swear that United Sound was the location, on October 15, 1958, but not the man who helped to make it, Dick Jacobs. In an extensive interview with Tim Holmes for Musician magazine, Jacobs said that Nat Tarnopol had designated him to be Wilson’s sole arranger, “and that he and I would co-produce on the sessions.” Then Tarnopol handed Jacobs a lead sheet for “Lonely Teardrops,” and asked him to call Gordy in Detroit to discuss the arrangement. “This would be the first of many phone calls over the years,” the producer said, “but this time I had some questions.

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      “The chord progression of ‘Lonely Teardrops’ struck me as being a little unusual, and I asked Gordy if it was correct. He assured me that it was, and we went on to discuss the arrangement in highly technical terms. Not only was Gordy a budding populist genius in terms of knowing the teen market, he was a brilliant and knowledgeable music theorist. The phone conversation ended with me inviting Gordy to New York for the ‘Lonely Teardrops’ session.”

      The first time that I interviewed Gordy, he rhapsodised about the sound which Jacobs conjured up in Gotham, and remembered being hypnotised when Wilson laid down his vocals. “I think they’d rehearsed the track, got all that balanced – I wasn’t really looking – but when I heard Jackie’s voice come over that thing…”

      This wasn’t Wilson recording his part over a pre-recorded track, this was Wilson singing with the band, right there, right then. “When I heard that crystal-clear voice come booming out over [the studio sound system], I knew I had something. And hearing my song being played” – Gordy sighed – “it was just an incredible, incredible thrill.”

      No wonder “Lonely Teardrops” soared to the summit of the R&B charts in December, and graduated into Jackie’s first Top 10 pop hit soon afterwards. Still, the national scope of that success must have seemed far removed from the mundane pursuit of income by Gordy and Liles (aka “Miss Ray”) through their joint-venture Rayber Music Writing Company. Yet this work-for-hire service connected the pair with a variety of talented, opportunistic people in Detroit. It seems likely that Tom Clay was one of them.

FROM THE TOP OF A CAR WASH

      In 1958, Clay was among the city’s top radio personalities, known as “Jack The Bellboy” on highly-rated WJBK-AM. Sometimes he was literally on top: a stunt in September saw him broadcast from the highest point of a five-storey car wash in Detroit, refusing to descend until 1,000 vehicles had gone through the facility. The radio station gave away a free album to every customer on four wheels.

      At some point that year, Clay decided – or was encouraged – to make a record. And so he did, singing a generic rock & roll tune, “Marry Me,” written by Gordy and released as a 45 on the local Chant label. The surprisingly-beefy lead vocal was accompanied (“bom-bom-bom”) by the Rayber Voices, who were usually comprised of Miss Ray, Brian Holland, Robert Bateman and Sonny Sanders. There was an obligatory sax solo, but the record was ultimately less than the sum of its parts.

   Marv Johnson: he had what it took

Marv Johnson: he had what it took

      So why is “Marry Me” one of the 8 of ’58? Because Clay at ’JBK later gave significant propulsion to Gordy’s work with Marv Johnson, and also introduced the businessman to Barney Ales, whose skill at promotion and sales would transform Motown in the 1960s. Moreover, Clay once explained to me how he let Gordy “into the studio while I was doing my show because he looked down and out,” adding that Gordy offered him $200 in cash to spin “You Got What It Takes.” (It was a contentious, unprovable claim at best, although Clay was fired from WJBK in 1959 for accepting payola from a variety of sources.)

      Finally, there’s Marv himself. It was his good fortune to be playing piano in a 12th Street record store late in ’58 when Gordy and Liles strolled in, and began to pay attention. “I was working there as a clerk,” the singer told Kevin Keegan for Record Profile Magazine (RPM). “There was a piano there and, in between customers, I would rehearse, on slow days, this little girls group in the neighbourhood. We used to do a lot of Chantels songs and things like that. In the process, I would write some songs myself.”

      Johnson had previously met Gordy, who was familiar with his debut (“My Baby-O”) for Kudo Records, backed by the band of Harold “Beans” Bowles. This time, Marv was invited to the entrepreneur’s apartment to play some more material, including “Come To Me,” the soon-to-be catalyst for Tamla Records. “That was a song I had written, but got a lot of help from his wife as far as producing was concerned, chord changes and things,” said Johnson.

      A tape recorder and a piano were at hand where Gordy and Liles were living. “So we would have these little jam sessions and get together in that apartment,” recalled Johnson. “And we would have pork and beans and hot dogs and pop and things like that, little cookies. And everybody was very willing to put forth their efforts to see whatever was coming come.”

      And so “Come To Me” came, committed to tape under Gordy’s direction at United Sound in December, with the alchemy of musicians such as James Jamerson, Benny Benjamin, “Beans” Bowles and Eddie Willis, plus – of course – the Rayber Voices. There was the small matter of the money needed to manufacture and release the record as Tamla 101 in the opening weeks of 1959, but that’s a familiar tale which needs no retelling here.

      Besides, it’ll be ubiquitous when the 60th anniversary arrives.

 

Music notes: Jackie Wilson’s peerless body of work is available on digital services, as is the Miracles’ “Got A Job” and even the Heartbeats’ boppin’ “I Found A Job.” The same applies to Marv Johnson’s “Come To Me,” but not “My Baby-O.” For the latter and Tom Clay’s “Marry Me,” check the YouTube links embedded above. Oh, and there’s a surprisingly detailed bio on Spotify for Clay, which naturally notes his later Motown link as the hitmaker of 1971’s “What The World Needs Now Is Love/Abraham, Martin and John.”

Adam WhiteComment