Who's Tommy? The Image Shaper
A SNAZZY DRESSER, A FEAR OF FLYING — AND MOTOWN COLLEGE RINGS
Motown Records’ final years in Detroit were among the most challenging of its existence.
Change was apparent, inside and outside the business. Diana Ross was navigating the perilous start of a solo career. Smokey Robinson was tired of being constantly on the road. An unsettled Marvin Gaye wanted different messages in his music. A maturing Stevie Wonder sought greater control over his work.
Berry Gordy was living in Los Angeles to pursue ambitions in TV and movies. Rumours persisted that Motown, too, would move to the left coast. Gordy continued to exert control from California, but delegated many day-to-day business decisions to others back in Detroit.
For all that, the company’s success continued. It achieved seven No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 during 1970 – the most in its history – and the launch of the Jackson 5 was exemplary. The new Rare Earth rock label scored back-to-back Top 20 albums by the band after which it was named. Abroad, particularly in Britain, Motown was selling singles in the millions, far outpacing previous results there.
Nonetheless, within the record industry, major companies had recognised the potential and profits of black music – largely because Gordy’s accomplishments – and were competing strongly with Motown. Beyond the industry, America’s social and racial strife was more intense than ever, fuelled by the war in Vietnam and a contentious presidency.
For most of the ’60s, Motown had seemed unconcerned about its corporate image. That began to change towards the decade’s end. For example, a 1969 advertisement in Ebony played with the company slogan (“The Sound of Young America”): the word “sound” was struck through, replaced by “soul.” Another ad, in 1971, declared Motown to be aware of societal shifts. This noted that “we put black poets to music, off the printed page, and let them join our singers who are poets also,” alluding to its Black Forum label.
From 1970-72, the man responsible for overseeing the firm’s advertising strategy – and, in part, how Motown was perceived in the media – was the late Tom Schlesinger. Moreover, the album artwork of those fractious years was created on his watch, and he was also heavily involved with two key business events, including one in 1970 at which the company celebrated its tenth anniversary.
Schlesinger’s background, complete with war stories of album sleeves featuring Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Kiki Dee, was the subject of the very first West Grand Blog, two years ago. But there’s more to tell – and, better still, there’s more to show, thanks to the help of Tommy’s cousin, Margo Bloomberg of Detroit. She contacted me after publication of that 2017 post, supplying the accompanying examples of his thinking and his work, created with Motown’s graphics team, including photographer Jim Hendin and art director Curtis McNair.
In March 1970, Schlesinger was hired by Motown executive vice president and general manager Barney Ales as director of advertising and creative concepts. “Tommy was probably the best-known record guy in town,” Ales told me, “and the best promotion man.” He moved into the music business soon after graduating from high school, firstly hired by distributor Pan-American in Detroit, then by Mercury Records in Chicago, where he promoted the Gaylords, among others. “That group was very big in Detroit,” says Ales, “and had their own club. Tommy was there all the time.”
Schlesinger and Ales became acquainted during the late ’50s, when the latter worked for Capitol Records. He thinks Tommy may even have dated Barbra Streisand in Detroit circa 1961, as the singer was playing her first ear-catching cabaret performances outside New York. When Pan-American principal John Kaplan started another Detroit distributor, Jay-Kay, Schlesinger signed on as director of advertising and merchandising. There, he mingled with some of the industry’s top dogs, including Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler and Billboard’s Paul Ackerman.
Jay-Kay and its assets grew in importance when acquired by rackjobbing giant Handleman in 1963. For his part, Schlesinger broadened his experience at Palmer Records, running the label for Kaplan and producing some of its releases. Palmer’s output included singles by Tim Tam & the Turn-Ons and Tobi Lark.
“Tommy certainly was a very colourful person,” recalls Gordon Prince, another Jay-Kay employee who subsequently joined Motown. “He smoked a pipe and had different pipes to match his outfit.” Margo Bloomberg remembers the fashion angle, too. “Tommy was a very snazzy dresser. His pocket square always matched his tie. And he had multiples of the same shirt, or the same shirt in multiple colours!” He also drove with style, owning a grey convertible which was, according to Ales, a two-door Mercury with (what else?) a Gucci top.
The vehicles came in handy. “The story is true,” Bloomberg continues, “about Tommy parking his car on a busy street, cranking the radio up loud when it was a song he was promoting, opening the windows, getting out and watching people’s reactions.” Schlesinger was equally imaginative when helping Margo with homework. “He was always a resource,” she says. “He did photoshop long before it was available, by cutting and pasting, and re-photographing.”
That imagination was evident during Schlesinger’s Motown tenure. “Due to popular demand, you’ll be hearing less of Diana Ross,” declared the ad copy for the star’s “Reach Out I’ll Be There” when it was edited for single release. “Now you’ll be hearing it even more in its new shorter version: easier to play, and the extra play will make it an even bigger hit. Reach out and get it.” In another trade-press ad, the message was, “Someone please tell Stevie Wonder it’s quiet out there, the weather is humid, the market is soft. He doesn’t know. Last week, ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered’ sold 229,476 records. When you see this ad, sales will be past 1,000,000.”
For advertisements in the so-called “underground press” of the early ’70s, Schlesinger concocted clever copy, such as that in the Wonder example seen here. Buying ad space in the programme for a United Jewish Appeal fundraising event, he tweaked the then-popular “black is beautiful” catch-phrase, illustrated below. Further below is the artwork draft of an advertisement for Valerie Simpson’s first Motown album.
Motown’s success encouraged Schlesinger to splash out on large billboards in and around Detroit, such as the Miracles and Diana Ross examples pictured above. And since he was a huge fan of ice hockey and, in particular, of the Detroit Red Wings’ Gordie Howe – one of the game’s all-time greats – it was natural that “Mr. Hockey” should figure in local advertising bought when Motown marked its tenth anniversary in 1970. The ad copy paired them up: “Detroit’s two best known crowd pleasers: Gordie Howe/Motown.”
That summer, the company threw a three-day party in San Francisco for family, friends and business partners. Schlesinger was intimately involved with this “Motown 10/70 Shanghai” event, the little touches reflecting his attention to detail. Guests were given personalised woodblocks bearing the name of the 19th century trading ship on which some of the Bay Area festivities were held (it was moored by a city pier) and a replica pistol from the era. When the party was over, Schlesinger caught the train home to Detroit. “Tommy was terrified of flying,” says Margo Bloomberg.
Fortunately, another event which Schlesinger helped to organise meant a shorter rail journey. This was in June 1971, the venue a hotel in Montreal. The record company brought together its promotion staff with those of its distributors, plus select radio programmers and the trade press. “Motown University: The Class of ’71” was the theme, complete with lectures, seminars, diplomas and a hat-and-gown graduation ceremony.
“Tommy never went to college,” explains Bloomberg. “All of the guys he worked with did, and had college rings to show. He came to dinner one night and said something like, ‘You know, I’m tired of being in a room with all these college grads, wearing their college rings, so I came up with something.’ He showed us the Motown University rings he had made.” Every guest in Montreal received one with their “graduation” diploma. What’s more, the rings impressed the boss. “[Berry] wanted them made up for people in the office,” says Barney Ales.
Schlesinger displayed idiosyncrasies as well as inspiration. “He showed up for dinner once with a metal box with two rows of little flashing orange lights,” says Bloomberg. “None of us knew what it was: just a conversation piece with absolutely no function. Today, he would probably be arrested. It could have easily been mistaken for a bomb.” His other passion: Christmas. “He lived for it,” she adds. “He spent Sundays combing through the New York Times and catalogues, looking for unique gifts. He kept a file box with everyone listed in it, and what he had bought for them through the years.”
When Motown moved to Los Angeles, according to Bloomberg, Schlesinger refused to go. “He wouldn’t fly and, more importantly, I think it was because we were his only family – and we were in Detroit. Berry Gordy and Barney Ales begged him to reconsider. At the time, my parents had a place in Palm Springs and my mom convinced Tommy to visit and to fly there! That was it. He did it for my mom, and never flew again.”
There were likely other factors in Schlesinger’s adieu to Motown, including Ales’ own exit. The controversy surrounding the Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder album covers (as outlined in the first West Grand Blog) can’t have helped, either. But the outcome was fine: Schlesinger returned to the Handleman business in Detroit, becoming a senior buyer with one of the record industry’s most powerful entities. “He did all the buying across the country,” says Ales. “He was the guy that Billboard used to call to collect sales information for the charts. Tommy always gave me a break.”
Schlesinger died unexpectedly of cardiac arrest on March 22, 1982 in Detroit. He was 52. “Billboard called, Variety called, I’ve had calls from everywhere,” Handleman’s John Kaplan told the Detroit Free Press that week, adding that his colleague was simply one of the best in the business. “Tommy had a big funeral,” adds Gordon Prince, by way of validation. “I saw a lot of people there. Barney was one of the pallbearers.”
Margo Bloomberg has more personal memories, including her cousin’s fascination with the “British invasion” of the 1960s, and his collection of Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens books. “Of course, with Tommy working in the record business, we all got record albums from him,” she says. “When I was in high school, he gave me promotional copies of Introducing The Beatles and Hear The Beatles Tell All.” These were VeeJay releases, the latter subsequently made all the rarer for a mistake on the original pressing’s label copy – and all the more pristinely valuable for Schlesinger’s instruction to Bloomberg. “Tommy told me not to play it more than ten times.”
Once a music business insider, always a music business insider.
Music notes: in addition to Motown, there’s other music available on digital services from Tom Schlesinger’s past, including “Wait A Minute” by Tim Tam & the Turn-Ons, their modest 1966 hit, and “The Ship That Never Sailed” by David Carroll, a peculiarity which Tommy promoted while at Mercury Records. Oh, and there’s that other Mercury act he worked: if you will, try The Gaylords Sing American Hits In Italian.