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The University of Jobete

Berry Gordy: ‘Talent is all we see when we look at people’

 

Patti Dahlstrom has never forgotten her experiences as a songwriter for Jobete Music. When you read about them – the bitter and the sweet – that comes as no surprise.

      Houston-born Dahlstrom was contracted to Motown’s publishing division in Los Angeles, part of an intake of young creatives in the early ’70s as Berry Gordy relocated more and more of his business from Detroit to California. Her two years at Jobete yielded satisfying work, although, by her own admission, no major hits. Even so, she told me, it was “an amazing time, like going to college for songwriting.” And she learned lessons first-hand from the boss: several about music – and one about his intolerance of prejudice.

      Herb Eisman was general manager of Jobete in 1970, when he heard a tape of Dahlstrom’s material, brought in by a colleague of hers. She said that Motown writer/producer Deke Richards was passing Eisman’s office as her song “What If” was playing. “He stopped, stood and listened, then told Herb to sign me. Deke walked on, having changed my life completely.”

   Patti Dahlstrom (Photo: Norman Seeff)

Patti Dahlstrom (Photo: Norman Seeff)

      Eisman inked Patti Dahlstrom in September that year. “All those star producers, writers, singers, just walking around the halls, dropping in a room to hear what you were doing,” she recalled. One such visitor was a twelve-year-old Michael Jackson, “with a big hat on his head, all dressed in beige from boot to hat. He walked through alone, saying ‘hello’ to everyone, with a big smile on his face. Everyone said, ‘Oh, hello, Michael, welcome – anything you need?’ He replied, ‘No, just coming through, hello.’ He knew many of their names. Just sweet and bouncing along.”

      The Jobete offices were located within Motown’s Los Angeles headquarters at 6464 Sunset Boulevard. “One floor was publishing and producing,” said Dahlstrom. “Publishing on the east side of the building, and producers on the west. Either could just step across the hall to the other.”

      She worked there, at home and at another writer’s house. “Then you’d go to the studios, and all those great musicians like Wilton Felder were just sitting there, waiting for someone to come in and record.” Several of Dahlstrom’s songs were cut by Thelma Houston, including “What If” and “I’m Letting Go,” and were drafted into the singer's first and only album for the MoWest label. “I’m Letting Go” was written with Severin Browne, one of several young hopefuls signed at the same time as Dahlstrom. She also collaborated briefly with Michael Masser, and tried with Diana Ross’ brother, T-Boy. “He was so sweet and beautiful, and had these amazing turquoise eyes,” she said. “Sadly, he lost himself in a forest of drugs.”

      When one of Dahlstrom’s songs, “Wait Like A Lady,” caught the ear of producer Hal Davis, “he called me into his office to hear the track. It was a very big Motown production.” But Davis, who intended the song for Diana Ross, wanted some alterations. “I asked him what needed changing. What he wanted was so corny. I said, ‘No, cut it as is. That changes the whole meaning of the song.’ ”

      In retrospect, Dahlstrom realised how stupid she was. The day after her exchange with Davis, Berry Gordy called, inviting her to breakfast. “There was Berry in this massive living room in his silk pajamas, silk monogrammed robe and monogrammed slippers, sitting in an armchair with a silver platter of breakfast and coffee.” The two talked for a while; she asked about his songwriting, favourite artist cuts, and more. “Then he said, ‘Patti, Hal Davis has spent a good deal of money creating a track on ‘Wait Like A Lady.’ He wants you to make some changes in the lyric.”

      Dahlstrom acknowledged that, but wondered why Davis didn’t come to her before recording it. “Berry said, ‘Well, maybe he should have, but we’re past that now, and he needs some changes made for Diana. Will you do this as a favour to me?’ I told him I would.” But she also asked Gordy to instruct producers that if they didn’t like her songs the way they were, they shouldn’t cut them. “He smiled and said he would tell them that. When I think back on this now, I’m just shocked at my naiveté.”

   Thelma Houston's lone MoWest album

Thelma Houston's lone MoWest album

      Dahlstrom executed a rewrite, “but it wasn’t very good, like all things written without inspiration.” Eventually, “Wait Like A Lady” appeared – as an instrumental – on an anonymous collection, Motown Magic Disco Machine Vol. II.

      Before this incident, Dahlstrom had misgivings about whether her material was being adequately promoted, perhaps because of racial prejudice. She thought, too, that her concern was shared by other new writers at Jobete who were white, like her. She approached an executive there whom she liked, Leroy Lovett. “I asked him if our work wasn’t good enough to peddle. ‘No, no, your songs are good,’ he said.” But she wasn’t satisfied, and felt that nothing changed even after the issue had been raised. “That is when I went to Berry.”

      And so, at ten o’clock one morning, Gordy’s penthouse office at 6464 Sunset was packed with the Los Angeles employees of Jobete: writers, producers, executives, support staff. Some settled on chairs brought in for the occasion. Against the far wall stood Suzanne de Passe, head of Motown’s creative division. The chairman waited at his expansive desk. The room fell quiet as four, white songwriters – Severin Browne and Michael Masser among them – walked in and sat in front of Gordy, facing the gathering. He asked Patti Dahlstrom to repeat to everyone present what she had told him the previous day.

      The forthright Texan stood up and spoke of the prejudice she had encountered from within the company. Not from the smart, successful people there, she emphasised, but from secretaries, assistants and others in non-creative jobs, “who did not see my talent, but only the colour of my skin. A number of the staff were just outright rude and with some other staff, [it was] just an attitude.” Dahlstrom added that her songs were not being promoted diligently, an experience shared by the three colleagues at her side. “I sat down. Then Berry spoke briefly and directly.”

      By this account, Gordy told the assembly that the four writers were hired for their ability. “That is all we see when we look at people at Motown: their talent. If I hear of any one of you being racist, or of any type of discrimination toward anyone at my company again, you will be fired immediately.”

      Having said his piece, the Motown founder called an end to the meeting, but asked Dahlstrom to stay. “He assured me there would be no more issue about this, and there wasn’t,” she concluded. From that moment, her compositions – and those of the other three – found their way into the song sheets circulated to producers for recording consideration.

      Patti Dahlstrom’s time at Jobete came to a close in 1972, by which time she was a recording artist in her own right, signed to MCA’s Uni Records by its chief, Russ Regan. “When I went up to play my first album for Berry, he said, ‘Why aren’t you recording this for us?’ I said, ‘Not only am I not on Motown, I’m no longer a writer of yours. I got a letter from your brother saying you weren’t picking up the option.’ Berry just shook his head.”

Adam WhiteComment