'Money,' Poetry and Philanthropy
JANIE BRADFORD: A SKILL WITH WORDS, A HELPING HAND
For the adults working within the $25,000 house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, the third week of March 1960 must have been brightened by news that Barrett Strong’s recording of “Money (That’s What I Want)” had zipped up the Billboard Hot 100 from 52 to 27. The single’s early chart progress had resembled a yo-yo: up during one week, down for another two. Now, it was inside the top 30 and heading north. Success, and the prospect of further income!
For the youngsters inside 2648, well, they were happy just to be on the premises, according to the co-writer of “Money (That’s What I Want),” Janie Bradford. “It was very exciting to get there, be with your friends and write songs, and do what you love,” she says today. To them, the building was just another house. “It was no big thing, it was not what it is now. It was just another place for us to gather, and hang out, whatever we were doing to be with each other.”
Bradford had already been in that circle of friendship at two previous locations connected to Motown founder Berry Gordy. The first was the home of his sister Loucye, where he lived after separating from Thelma, his first wife; the second was where he and wife-to-be Raynoma Liles lived on Gladstone Street.
“I don’t remember much about that apartment,” says Bradford. “Basically, it was living quarters. We didn’t do that much work there, like we did over at Loucye’s house. That was bigger, had the piano and all that, and we would get there and write songs and so forth.”
Speaking to me for an article in the current issue of Mojo magazine about Motown’s dawn, Bradford was happy to recall the circumstances of co-writing Barrett Strong’s hit with “Mr. Gordy,” as she – like many others from that era – calls him even now. The tale of the song’s creation in the newly-acquired property on West Grand is familiar; she has told it more than once or twice.
What may appeal to you, as it did to me, was the enthusiasm about that time which Bradford retains, and her cheerful willingness to salute others who worked there. She keeps in touch with many, for personal and professional reasons. “It was like a family. We were so close, and still are. Brian and Edward [Holland] and I, golly, we go out for lunch, as old as we are. We creep along. A few of us are still here. It’s unbelievable the way we still cling to each other.” When asked about the distance of her journey from home to Hitsville back in the day, she chuckles. “Fairly near. I used to hop on the bus. Right now, I couldn’t hop on a bus.”
STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING
Sixty years have passed since then – and even more since Bradford was sitting in her literature class at high school, when a surprise guest came to speak. She later remembered him as “a little, unassuming man” with grey hair, who, in the opinion of class teacher Ms. Scott, was likely to interest Bradford because of her passion for writing poems. (The youngster also knew that she would get a bad mark if she skipped class.)
As the visitor, who was in his early eighties, began reading, Bradford saw him in another light: as a man of inspiration, whose poetry was recognised as a foundation of American culture, whose work shone beyond the words he spoke that day: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep/But I have promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep/And miles to go before I sleep.”
It was Robert Frost. “He was my idol,” confessed Bradford in the introduction of her collection of “lyric, rhyme and prose,” a book published long after “Money (That’s What I Want)” reached the Billboard charts. Recalling that day at high school, she said that Frost was the influencer who “paved the road that my life was to follow.”
It was also as a teenager that she met the other person who would shape her life, when a friend visited her family home. “My sister Clea worked a lot with Jackie Wilson,” Bradford told me, “and when he got the hit with ‘Reet Petite,’ he came by the house and asked her to come down and meet the writer of the song. Well, in my mind, since Jackie was a family friend, he was not the star – whoever wrote the song was the star.”
On that day, she met Berry Gordy.
Two years later, Bradford was an employee of his company. “He was definitely a leader,” she says of the man who had explained how her way with words could be alchemised into songs. “He would pass out the punishments or fines or whatever, that you knew not to do that again, because you did not want to pay any fine out of your little salary as it was.”
And of others in that early circle, such as Robert Bateman? “Oh my God,” she says. “He struck me and, I guess, everybody else as a bolt of lightning. He was boastful, he let you know what he did – and some of the things he didn’t do which he said he did. He was not a shy person in any way, but very talented.” Proof of that came in his capacity as the bass singer of the Rayber Voices and the Satintones, then as a writer/producer with Brian Holland, responsible for Motown’s first No. 1 pop hit, “Please Mr. Postman.”
A WALKING ROLODEX
Another with strong opinions was Billie Jean Brown, who began coming to West Grand – at first, to write press releases – in 1960, then joined the staff as tape librarian the following year. “She was very firm [for someone] so young,” says Bradford, “and she just got right into her work. She was more on the administrative end.” Brown, of course, rose to oversee the Quality Control department, a post celebrated in countless Motown books. And Billie Jean today? “She doesn’t keep up with anybody, or respond to anybody, I don’t know why.”
No one has more information about the circumstances and whereabouts of former Motown employees than Bradford, who is effectively a walking Rolodex. “That’s what Ralph Seltzer once said,” she laughs, referring to her time in charge of the publishing wing, Jobete Music. “He was the attorney back then. He said, ‘We’ve got to get some files and put some of these songs in those files and get the company out of Janie’s mind.’” (Seltzer is another who has disappeared: “We’ve all been trying to find him.”)
Of the first Motown singers and musicians, Bradford mentions Louvain Demps who was there “almost from day one. She was doing just a lot of background, but without the Andantes, because they hadn’t come along yet. She had a sweet personality, she was a cute girl.” She adds, laughing, “I didn’t like her because she was too cute.” Competition, perhaps, when it came to flirting with the men at Motown.
But it’s more than those early ties which keep Bradford in touch with so many. Almost thirty years ago, she created the Heroes & Legends Scholarship Awards, an annual event which raises money for promising students to advance their education in the entertainment business. The celebrity dinner in Los Angeles has honoured the stars of Motown and many of its backroom believers, while drawing guests from that circle – including the boss himself – and beyond.
The 2018 edition last September recognised Suzanne dePasse, Switch, Keith Washington, McKinley Jackson, the Undisputed Truth, Art Stewart and Deniece Williams. The HAL Awards’ executive committee includes Bradford and Donna Caldwell; the dinner “chairs” are Claudette Robinson, Miller London and JoMarie Payton.
Bradford is passionate when talking about Heroes & Legends and about the students it has empowered, who have become music industry executives and full-time performers, among other occupations. “Some of them do good, some of them don’t,” she says, “but we give the money to the school in their name. If we gave it to them, they may go buy a new wardrobe or whatever!” The next fundraising dinner will take place in 2020, leaving room this year for the Motown 60 festivities, which include a major Detroit event in September.
For all that, Bradford has not allowed her skill with words to languish. “I still write lyrics. I wrote a lyric just the other day and sent it to a friend, and he put the melody to it. So, yeah, I play with it every now and then. I don’t have an open door like at Motown: you’d write it one day and give it to one of the producers – and then two days later, you’d hear the recording of it on one of the artists. I don’t have that opportunity [anymore] but when a song comes to mind, I don’t suppress it. I go write it anyway.”
West Grand Blog is taking an early Easter break. Back soon, with luck.
Book notes: Janie Bradford’s poetry collection, cited above, is Rolling! Take One! and it was published by Mountain Goat Press in 1996. If you’re lucky enough to find one, be prepared to be moved by the likes of “Good-Bye Melvin Franklin” and “My Hero And Legend.” Powerful, too, are “What’s In A Name?” and “Black History,” while “I’m A Songwriter” speaks for itself. There are also endearing recollections of Janie from Levi Stubbs, Mable John, Claudette Robinson and more. In addition, a Q&A with Bradford can be found in Susan Whitall’s insightful Women of Motown, republished in 2017. Among others mentioned above, Billie Jean Brown gave a rare interview to Don Waller for his The Motown Story.
Music notes: much – if not most – of Janie Bradford’s songwriting can be found on digital music services, including numerous versions of “Money (That’s What I Want).” One of her first recorded copyrights, Jackie Wilson’s “The Joke (Is Not On Me)” from 1958, is also available there, but not the Oak Ridge Boys’ rendering of her “Plant A Seed” from 1975. Janie won’t admit to her favourite song, but “Your Old Stand-By,” co-written with Smokey Robinson, is close, and available for streaming in the usual places. “I love that song,” she says, “I don’t know why it wasn’t a bigger hit.”