West Grand Blog

 

Wall of Fame

SALUTING THOSE WHO SERVED THE SOUND OF YOUNG AMERICA

 

Those among you who saw Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration on TV will recall the moment when fallen heroes – Flo and Tammi, Levi and David, Marvin and Mary, and more – were acknowledged, their faces and names filling the screen as Stevie Wonder sang “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer” in front of the Microsoft Theater audience in Los Angeles.

Motown movers and shakers…

Motown movers and shakers…

      There was also a welcome salute to the musicians whose alchemy helped to shape the Sound of Young America: captioned photographs of James Jamerson and Joe Hunter, Benny Benjamin and “Beans” Bowles, Earl Van Dyke and Eddie Willis, and others. Departed producers and songwriters were honoured, too, including Hank Cosby, Hal Davis, Johnny Bristol, Norman Whitfield, Clarence Paul, Sylvia Moy and Ron Miller.

      There were music makers missing from the Motown 60 tribute. West Grand Blog reader Alan Warner, for one, noted the absence of Gladys Horton, Freddie Gorman, Harvey Fuqua and Robert Bateman. Fortunately, those four and many more were given their due recently in London, at the theatre which staged the U.K. production of Motown The Musical.

      In fact, an entire interior wall of the venue was devoted to “The Motown Legacy,” with an alphabetical listing not only of Hitsville artists, but also producers, songwriters and other “key employees.” A welcome surprise on my last visit to the Shaftesbury Theatre, the display may have taken its cue from the Broadway playhouse which hosted Motown The Musical – although I don’t recall seeing this “wall of fame” at either location during earlier visits.

…and magic music makers

…and magic music makers

      Regular readers know of my inclination to write about Motown’s backroom believers, so the appearance of their names was as fascinating as it was unexpected. But first, the artists. The Shaftesbury list ranged from the Andantes to XIT, covering almost every singer and performer associated with Motown Records from the 1950s to the 1980s.

      All the major names were present, of course, and plenty of obscurities and surprises, too. For example: the Fayettes, who sang background on the flipside of a 1962 Hattie Littles single, before being renamed the Vandellas; Isela Sotelo, the young, Los Angeles balladeer who cut a Spanish remake of Rosie & the Originals’ “Angel Baby” for Motown Latino in 1982; and Dwight David, who recorded the title song of Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, years after he was (better) known as Spyder Turner, offering vocal impressions of David Ruffin and Smokey Robinson, among others.

      Also impressive was the fact that many groups’ individual members were identified on the wall. So, for instance, Chico Leverett’s name appeared twice: as a solo singer (as he was for “Solid Sender,” released on Tamla 54024 sixty years ago) and as one of the Satintones, with James Ellis, Sonny Sanders and the afore-mentioned Robert Bateman.

A legacy like no other…

A legacy like no other…

There were even the names of the Abbey Tavern Singers, whose Celtic harmonies were heard on We’re Off To Dublin In The Green, the live album issued – improbably – on Motown subsidiary V.I.P. in 1967. The wall featured other groups whose names, like theirs, do not exactly leap to mind today, ranging from the Allens to Apollo, Hearts of Stone to Howl the Good, Platinum Hook to the Power of Zeus. (It should be noted that most of the line-ups posted at the Shaftesbury can be found in Graham Betts’ thorough Motown Encyclopedia. Perhaps the book was source material.)

      The theatre’s tabulation of songwriters and producers was more extensive than the equivalent roll-call on Motown 60, while the TV special – quite understandably – had no interest in celebrating the Hitsville salesmen and secretaries, attorneys and accountants, arrangers and art directors. Yet they comprised the 165 “key employees” listed on the London wall.

      There were the names you’d expect, such as Ewart Abner, Barney Ales, Cholly Atkins, Mickey Stevenson, Suzanne dePasse, Esther Edwards, Maxine Powell – and in his vice president’s role, Smokey Robinson. The Gordy family, too, was well-represented across several generations, as were Berry Gordy’s former in-laws, Robert and Hazel Coleman, and his second wife, Raynoma Singleton.

      If your interest lies in sound crafting, you would have recognised the names of engineers Jane Clark, Guy Costa, Mike McLean, Art Stewart and Russ Terrana (but no Lawrence Horn). The list also included arrangers Johnny Allen, Wade Marcus, Paul Riser, Willie Shorter and David Van dePitte, and those who worked at Jobete Music, such as Janie Bradford, Archie Levington and Jay Lowy.

…and some of the backroom believers

…and some of the backroom believers

      The wall logged gatekeepers such as Edna Anderson and Rebecca Jiles, who were on Berry Gordy’s personal staff, and Billie Jean Brown, the queen of Quality Control. Also, Gordy confidants like the Noveck brothers, Harold and Sidney, as well as George Schiffer, Junius Griffin and Ralph Seltzer. Not to mention the all-important sales and promotion players: Irv Biegel, Al DiNoble, Eddie Gilreath, Phil Jones, Miller London, Weldon McDougal and Gordon Prince, among others.

      Many of these movers and shakers are familiar to me from research and interviews for Motown: The Sound Of Young America. Their names occasionally appear elsewhere, but most music fans couldn’t care less about fixers or gofers, managers or money men, pluggers or bag-carriers. That said, perhaps a few of those Motown The Musical ticket-holders were curious as they passed by, wondering who was, for instance, Lillian “Miss Lillie” Hart (she cooked the lunchtime chili at 2648 West Grand), or Leonidas “Lee” Young, Sr. (he played drums for Nat “King” Cole, and later served as a Motown official in Los Angeles, as did his son).

      The backroom believers helped many talented youngsters become stars for a moment, or for a lifetime. They contributed to a company whose place in history – in music, culture, race and politics – is sealed. They deserved their place on that wall of fame, just like those who were hailed and remembered during Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration.

Adam White8 Comments