The Birthday Club
MAY DAYS AT MOTOWN
Sharing a birthdate this Sunday, May 13, are three change-makers of Motown. Each defined the company – its music and its business – very differently. All are significant in Hitsville history.
Mary Wells is known to many as the lady who left, the canary who quit, the diva who departed. But she is acknowledged, too, as Motown’s first real star, with three consecutive Top 10 hits on the Cash Box and Billboard pop charts in 1962-63. In many ways, “The Sound of Young America” began then: Mary was 19.
That success also shone the spotlight on her hit-maker, Smokey Robinson, empowering him inside and outside Motown. Look, this is the guy responsible for records which entranced the Beatles. As their fame grew, they were swift to praise Mary and others from Hitsville. Money couldn’t have bought such love, or influence.
Wells was the company’s first Grammy nominee (for “You Beat Me To The Punch”) while “My Guy” became its first international smash. She toured Britain with – who else? – the Beatles. And, according to Peter Benjaminson’s thorough, absorbing biography of the singer, she was set to be the first Motown act booked into the Copa.
And yet, soon after turning 21 in 1964, she quit.
Wells’ walkout is a familiar tale, of course. Her decision to go elsewhere reverberated around the company, perhaps tarnishing its “family” ethos, and certainly toughening Berry Gordy – who was no pushover to begin with. He took the departure personally, judging by the melancholy recollections in To Be Loved about a particular meeting, held in the living room of the singer’s home. But if Wells’ ex-husband, Herman Griffin – who was still in charge of her career, despite the divorce – had been present, the outcome might have been worse. Griffin had a habit of packing a pistol. That same summer, he shot Detroit music man Robert West in a New York hotel suite where Mary was also present. Talk about beating someone to the punch.
BARNEY'S BUSINESS CONNECTIONS
On the subject of tough, there is Barney Ales, the first-born of this May 13 birthday club. The son of a Sicilian immigrant to Detroit, he began in the music industry in 1955 – the year he turned 21 – in the stockroom of Capitol Records’ local branch. He earned sales and promotion stripes there, at Warner Bros. Records, and at a Detroit distributorship which handled two of Motown’s labels. In 1961, Gordy hired Ales directly to run its sales and promotion efforts, and he set to work building a formidable, motivated and long-term coalition of business partners at radio, retail, distribution and more. Through them, Motown was able to capitalise on baby boomers’ appetite for everything that was fresh, distinctive and boundary-breaking, regardless of race. This rang the cash registers of the pop – for popular – music business, helping to reset how that industry operated during the 1960s, and beyond.
That Ales was Italian-American made a difference, too. Eddie Holland once told me, “I remember saying to Berry, ‘Is Barney part of the Mafia?’ It didn’t bother me, because I liked Barney. I wasn’t a bit concerned. To me, it would have been fun, which shows you how naïve I was.” Gordy was relaxed about those rumours in retrospect, at least when I asked him. “You know, [Barney] never really minded that too much, because we got our money a little quicker from distributors. While I was screaming, saying, ‘This is not true,’ yet there were people who said, ‘Boy, you’re awful cool, man, you get away with this stuff, and other Mafia figures are getting caught.’ Young black cats would come to me and say, ‘Man, you’re a bad dude, baby, you can get away with it.’ So I said, ‘You don’t understand, I’m not…you know [connected to the Mafia].’”
By the time he left Gordy’s side in 1972, when Motown quit Detroit for Los Angeles, Ales had risen to executive vice president and general manager. Rehired three years later, he advanced to become the record company’s third president, after Gordy himself and Ewart Abner. When I once asked Barney whether he minded being called Berry’s hatchet man, he said, “That didn’t bother me as long as I had a hatchet.”
A TIME 2 DELIVER?
The youngest member of our May 13 honourees is Stevie Wonder. As he had done in 1964 for Mary Wells, Gordy threw Stevie a 21st birthday party in 1971. (Barney Ales was at both.) And as with Wells, the shindig was followed by an attorney’s letter disaffirming all the now-adult musician’s contracts with Motown. The difference was that he decided to stay – but everything else changed. In the new deal, effective from July of ’71, Stevie acquired unprecedented creative control over his music, and earned a king’s ransom for it.
We have all bowed down before the body of work which followed. So what else to say? This is a man and magician whose activity and energy belies his age, even though there is still no sign of the two – or is it three? – albums that he’s been working on for years. (Stevie’s last, as if you needed reminding, was A Time 2 Love in 2005.)
We’re awaiting Through The Eyes of Wonder, the project referenced during his “Celebration of Life, Love and Music” performance at the Peppermint Club in Los Angeles this past Wednesday (9). Wonder told Gail Mitchell of Billboard that the album is close to being finished, laughing when asked to be more specific.
Then there’s When The World Began, on which he is – or was – teamed up with producer David Foster and a symphony orchestra. “I played some things in a different way and he did some arrangements,” Stevie said to Rolling Stone in 2013, “and there’s some new stuff that I wrote that was never released.” Another Wonderwork in the making is Gospel Inspired By Lula, his mother. “I promised her I would do it,” he told the magazine’s Steve Baltin. "She always wanted me to do it before she passed away, the untimely passing away. We’ve been working on some songs and some ideas. So we’re going to complete that as well.”
Meanwhile, Stevie got married last year for the third time, and “took a knee” at the 2017 Global Citizen Festival in New York in September. Since then, he’s defended the talent of Bruno Mars, contributed a new song to the series finale of Scandal, criticised the “choice” words of Kanye West, and made an appearance on the new album by Janelle Monáe.
More unexpectedly, Stevie has joined Twitter, doing so on the 50th anniversary (to the minute) of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. This was accompanied by the launch of a series of short videoclips offering #DreamStillLives messages from prominent figures in politics, entertainment, culture and sport. The project was conceived by Wonder, and directed by filmmaker Candice Vernon. Berry Gordy is among those with something to say about MLK. “My dream,” he offers, “is that his dream will live in our hearts forever.”
Given Wonder’s vital support, decades ago, for the campaign to make Dr. King’s birthday a national public holiday in the United States, how better to finish these May 13 meanderings than to say “Happy Birthday”?
Music notes: the work of Mary Wells is easy to find, although some albums contain public domain material, with sourcing and quality issues. The Definitive Collection from 2008 contains most of her best. Meanwhile, a Spotify playlist reflecting the narrative of Motown: The Sound of Young America, my book with Barney Ales, can be found here. And as for Stevie, there is abundant choice on CD and reissued vinyl, on streaming services and YouTube. One unimpeachable set is Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I, about which you can also read here. Enjoy.