Rocket Engineering, Motown Propulsion
A KILT (AND PISTOLS) IN SAN FRANCISCO, WAITING AT HEATHROW
The splashiest music movie of the summer is opening in cinemas across North America, fuelled by a kaleidoscope of reviews from the Cannes Film Festival and from its theatrical – what better word, given the subject matter? – opening in the U.K. last week. Yes, it’s Rocketman, the fantastical account of the rise, fall and rehab of singer/songwriter/superstar Elton John.
And why, you might reasonably ask, should the readers of West Grand Blog be interested?
Because a primary character in the film once was, in real life, the Tamla Motown label manager at EMI Records in London, before he became intimately involved – in several senses of the word – with the extraordinary life and times of Reg Dwight, alias Elton John.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet John Reid.
This particular subplot began in EMI’s modern, multi-storey headquarters in leafy Manchester Square, London, during the summer of 1970. Reid was a 20-year-old Scotsman from Paisley, newly appointed as label manager for one of the British company’s most important business partners, Motown Records.
“I had a corner office on the first floor of Manchester Square,” Reid told me one dozen years ago, when interviewed for the liner notes of the 1970 edition of The Complete Motown Singles, “to go with the annual salary of £1,650. That was bloody good. I was three or four years younger than the other label managers, apart from David Croker, who had the office next to mine, running Harvest Records.”
Reid had, indeed, done rather well to secure the job. After moving to London at age 18, he joined EMI’s Ardmore & Beechwood music publishing unit as a song plugger circa late ’68. When EMI acquired another publisher, Keith Prowse Music, the following year, he switched to offices in London’s own Tin Pan Alley, in Denmark Street. “I used to spend a lot of time running backwards and forwards to Manchester Square, and got to know people there.”
When the Tamla Motown position became vacant, Reid went for it. “The whole reason I left Scotland when I was 18 was because of Motown, really. I was at college, doing a marine engineering course, and Motown seemed to have exploded in Scotland and the Midlands slightly before anywhere else. It was mainly this passion for Motown that led me into the business.”
Reid did not get the job, but when the successful applicant, Brian Hopkins, left for another EMI post in 1970, he tried again, and prevailed. It helped that, by then, Reid had the approval of EMI Records’ managing director, Ken East, and Motown’s European representative, John Marshall. “John was very good with people, very energetic,” said Marshall. “He was very young, but you could see he was going places.”
One of those places was San Francisco, where “Motown 10/70 Shanghai” was staged as the company’s extravagant celebration of its tenth anniversary (during its eleventh year of business) from August 28-31, attended by its business partners from around the world. “I had become very friendly with [executive vice president] Barney Ales and his wife Mitzi,” Reid remembered. “I’m from Scotland, and Barney said I could only come to the convention if I wore a kilt. It was an amazing event, very lavish. They had a party on that island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, there was a casino, they gave you money to play. And they gave everyone a box of duelling pistols!”
Rocketman registers Reid’s first encounter with Elton as taking place at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles, where the singer made his now-legendary American concert debut in August 1970. In fact, the two men were already acquainted. Elton was a familiar figure at EMI, known as a session musician and an avid record collector. He was also friendly with David Croker, in the Manchester Square office next to Reid’s. “[Croker] came in one day and said, ‘This is my friend Reg.’ He was scrounging Motown American singles. I can’t remember what I gave him.” Elton returned the favour. “He said, ‘I’ve made a record,’ and gives me a white label of what then became the Elton John album.”
The new movie seems unfair to Reid, with a cartoon characterisation as calculating, even carnivorous. He was in California when Elton played that life-changing show at the Troubadour – but a few hundred miles north at the Motown convention. “I get this phone call one day: ‘Oh, hi, it’s Reg.’” Reid was puzzled: “Reg? Reg?” Came the reply, “Elton.”
“He said, ‘I’m in Los Angeles, I’ve just played the Troubadour and I’ve got all these great reviews, and I’m going up to San Francisco. Do you want to get together?’ So I said ‘Sure.’ I was there for the convention. He came up, we came back [to London], I carried on doing this job.”
It was a job Reid loved. “Every Tuesday morning, all the label managers sat around in the boardroom, played their releases, and it was kind of a Juke Box Jury-style thing. They would vote for what records you could release, because there were only so many you could release every week. I would always get my records released…and then I had to go out and plug them. It was an amazing learning curve.”
Among Motown’s U.K. hits during Reid’s tenure were Stevie Wonder’s “Never Had A Dream Come True” (Top 10, and bigger than in the U.S.), Marvin Gaye’s “Abraham, Martin And John” (also Top 10, and not a U.S. single), the Temptations’ “Ball Of Confusion” (the group’s highest-charter to that date), Martha Reeves & the Vandellas’ “Jimmy Mack” and “Forget Me Not” (both as reissues), and two by Jimmy Ruffin, “I’ll Say Forever My Love” and “It’s Wonderful,” which were both Top 10.
Plus, of course, the chart-topping “The Tears Of A Clown,” lifted from Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ three-year-old Make It Happen album. “You could put out a record one week, it’d be in the charts the next,” said Reid. “The speed, that was the excitement.”
So was the steady flow of visits to Britain by Motown artists, aware more than ever of their transatlantic appeal. “It was their second home,” remarked Reid. “It was easy for them to come here for two or three weeks, promote the record, do some gigs, make some money.”
Not every path was smooth. “One of the hardest records I ever had was ‘Indiana Wants Me’ by R. Dean Taylor. I flogged away at that for about five months.” Eventually, the single spent six weeks in the Top 10, peaking at No. 2. The No. 3 record that same week? A reissue of “Heaven Must Have Sent You” by the Elgins.
Once, Reid made his way to London’s Heathrow Airport to meet Stevie Wonder, who was touching down for a series of U.K. concerts in early 1971. The car borrowed for the trip belonged to Elton; he wanted to come along. “We get to the airport, out comes Stevie, I say ‘hello’ and introduce him to Elton. Stevie immediately says, ‘Are you the Elton John who has [sings] It’s a little bit funny…?’”
Reid’s relationship with the new star delivered more. “If you think it strange that I am writing liner notes for the Supremes album,” mused Elton on the back of Touch, “then all I can say is I am probably their original British fan.” The Supremes’ LP with those words (and more) made its Billboard chart debut while the Briton’s own 11-17-70 was in the Top 20.
Soon enough, Elton’s rapid rise – particularly in America – required Reid to extend his personal relationship with the star into a parallel, professional role. He joined Dick James Music, where Elton was signed for recording, publishing and management. “I went to work for Dick James on the understanding that I was the day-to-day manager, because I didn’t know anything about management. I was young, so I went to see Dick…and said ‘Tell me what the job is.’ I was being pressured by Elton, pressured by his mother.”
Reid quit the Tamla Motown post in mid-1971. “I didn’t want to leave, I was having such an amazing time. I was friendly with Sir Joseph Lockwood and all the senior EMI management, and I was terrified of telling them I was leaving. In fact, I was more terrified of telling Barney.” For a moment, Reid reversed his decision. “Then Elton’s mother talked me back into it.” At 22 years old, the former marine propulsion student finally opted for rocket engineering.
Rocketman offers music and drama, distortion and showmanship – not to mention the resequencing of history – but it’s highly entertaining. In contrast to the colour and excess of the narrative, however, Reid’s relationship with Elton is reduced to black and white. He managed the superstar for more than 25 years, but eventually it all ended in separation and litigation. Rocketman, executive-produced by Elton, was never going to tell that story.
How it’s told in Elton’s forthcoming autobiography will be interesting. And Motown is sure to make an appearance there, given Elton’s love for the music. When John Reid and I talked in London years ago, he reminded me of that. “When we were recording one of Elton’s albums, [producer] Chris Thomas said, ‘What we need here is the harmonica played kind of like Stevie Wonder.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ll get Stevie Wonder.’” And he did.
Music notes: The Motown originals cited above are easily sourced on digital music services, as is Elton’s “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues,” with Stevie Wonder on harmonica. Hard, if not impossible, to find are the ’60s budget-priced LPs (sold in Woolworths stores) which featured Elton – when he was still Reg Dwight – anonymously singing hits of the day, including several Motown tunes. Meanwhile, Elton’s Rocket Hour on Apple Music’s Beats 1 channel has included an episode devoted to Motown. On iTunes, Nina Myskow’s Too Late To Die Young podcast featured an interview with John Reid this past February. There, among other recollections, he chuckles about how Dolly East, wife of EMI managing director Ken East, called him “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” upon his arrival in London from Scotland.