'Reet Petite' is 60
Berry, Billy, Jackie, Al – men of a milestone
What would have happened to Berry Gordy if “Reet Petite” had not been a hit?
His determination to make a mark in music seems unstoppable in retrospect, and yet success so often depends on good luck. If that song which he wrote with Roquel (Billy) Davis had not made a splash, would Berry have had a second shot at writing for Jackie Wilson?
Such a thought, and its implications, come to mind on this day, July 12, because it’s when Jackie recorded “Reet Petite (The Finest Girl You Ever Want To Meet)” with producer Dick Jacobs at New York’s Pythian Temple studio. That was in 1957, so welcome to the 60th anniversary of a milestone in music history.
But stay with me on the “what if?” for just a little longer.
“Reet Petite” was released by Brunswick Records one month or so after the Pythian Temple session. In the interim, Berry the promising songwriter would have continued to be welcome at the Detroit offices of Pearl Music, the publishing company of Jackie’s manager, Al Green. He would have been at Pearl on the August ’57 day when the Matadors were auditioned, and would surely still have approached a young Smokey Robinson after the group was dismissed as a poor man’s Platters by Green’s assistant, Nat Tarnopol, and Alonzo Tucker, a musician close to Jackie.
(By the way, it’s tough to reconcile Smokey’s recollections of that occasion with other facts. He has so often said that he was thrilled to make Berry’s acquaintance at Pearl because this was the man who had written “some of Jackie’s biggest hits,” as noted in his autobiography, Inside My Life. And yet the first of those hits was barely out of the starting block at that point, so something else must have drawn the young Robinson to the architect of his future.)
But back to the point. Berry’s working partnership with Billy Davis (a/k/a Tyran Carlo) surely would have survived for a time if “Reet Petite” had failed. The partnership seemed firm. “He was a good writer,” Billy told me in 1988, “but some of [his] things were a little jazzy, not quite as commercial, and I tried to explain that to him. He listened, but he didn’t want to listen. So I said, ‘OK, you know, I don’t think we can use them as they are.’ He went away, and came back again a few days later, came up to the office. I let him hear some of the things I had written, and that day we decided to try something together.”
Actually, it was Davis who began work on “Reet Petite,” so any commercial shortcomings of the record might not have separated the pair, but simply strengthened their union. Besides, they had collaborated before. One of their pre-“Petite” efforts, according to Gordy, was “Jim Dandy Got Married” for LaVern Baker – although it must be noted that other names have also been attached to the song, including that of Al Green, Baker’s manager.
Berry and Jackie had common ground, too. Both men were boxers in and around the Motor City during their younger years, before hanging up their gloves for music. Their shared centre of gravity was the Flame Show Bar, one of Detroit’s magnetic music venues, managed by impresario Green. A vital figure in the 1950s Detroit music business, Green was astute enough to discern talent beneath the hustle, and knew that the Gordy family had skills as well as connections. Didn’t Gwen Gordy hold the hatcheck and photo concessions at the Flame, assisted by sister Anna? So even the slightest hint of ability on Berry’s part would have encouraged Green to keep him close.
Even if “Reet Petite” had fallen short, let’s also remember that Billy Davis was romantically involved with Gwen Gordy. For a while, all three lived in her apartment on St. Antoine. One night there, Davis explained to me, “I couldn’t sleep and [Berry] couldn’t sleep, and we both ended up...roaming into the living room, and [the result] was ‘To Be Loved.’ It wasn’t bad for the middle of the night!”
So enough musing over whether Berry Gordy’s path to creating Motown would have been tougher without the finest girl you ever want to meet. Let’s close instead with a quick look at Detroit on that all-important date. What would the future Chairman have been doing while Jackie was making magic in New York?
At Gwen and Anna’s workplace, T-Bone Walker was performing, held over for a final spell at the Flame Show Bar. Detroit was very warm that night, with scattered thundershowers, so it was just as well that the club was air-conditioned. But Berry’s well-known aversion to the blues means it’s unlikely he was at the Flame. Nor at Windsor’s Elmwood Casino across the Detroit River, even though the Will Mastin Trio, “starring Sammy Davis, Jr.” was playing. Back then, Sammy wasn’t so much to Gordy’s musical taste as Nat “King” Cole.
If we have to speculate, let’s go for the Dave Brubeck Quartet, pulling customers that week to Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. To this day, Berry declares his deep devotion to jazz, so the pianist – in his first Motor City gig in three years – might have attracted him to Baker’s at Livernois at 8 Mile, especially with sax man Paul Desmond in Brubeck’s group.
So, happy anniversary to the Chairman, wherever you were on July 12, 1957.