Nowhere to Run
MOTOWN MYSTERIES, MURDER AND ASSAULT
In 1963, few people beyond Motown Records in Detroit were familiar with the name and skill-set of sound engineer Lawrence Horn. Even so, the 24-year-old had earned credits on the sleeves of two Gordy albums that year, a rare recognition by the company at the time.
Three decades later, Horn became more widely known as the man responsible for arranging the brutal murder in 1993 of his second wife, their quadriplegic son and the boy’s nurse in Silver Spring, Maryland. Oh, and the Detroit hitman to whom he paid $6,000 for the task picked up tips from a freely-available how-to book.
Welcome to a true crime edition of West Grand Blog, documenting the deeds and misfortunes of four men – two perpetrators, two victims – who were once employed by Motown.
Lawrence Thomas (L.T.) Horn is the most-recognised of this unfortunate group, both for his first-class audio engineering, mixing, songwriting and production work (particularly with Jr. Walker & the All Stars), and for the crime he commissioned in pursuit of his son’s $1 million-plus trust fund.
In addition to extensive media coverage of Horn’s arrest, conviction and life sentence in 1994-96, the story caught the attention of writer/director Richard (Donnie Darko) Kelly, and the trade press in 2012 reported a film in development – although nothing apparently came of it. The saga has also been the subject of at least one podcast, namely, last September’s Casefile (Case 94: Millie and Trevor Horn, Janice Saunders). This offers colourful scene-setting as well as graphic detail of the murders, although Horn’s time at Hitsville is thinly sketched. He’s described as “the man behind the Motown Sound,” which is accurate in one sense, but exaggerated in another.
The podcast asserts that Horn’s Motown tenure ran for almost 25 years, until he was fired in 1990. This runs counter to other evidence, including the claim in The Motown Music Machine by Harold Taylor, an engineer who worked under Horn, that the latter was dismissed circa 1967-68 “for secretly recording a session for Holland/Dozier/Holland when they were in this financial dispute with the company.” As we know, L.T. went on to work for H/D/H post-Motown, recording and mixing the work of Freda Payne, the Chairmen of the Board, Glass House, the 8th Day, the Honey Cone and more. When the Hollands returned to favour at Gordy’s firm during the ’70s, producing various artists, Horn was with them.
But this was clearly a poorer man by the 1990s, motivated to recruit gun-for-hire James Perry in order to gain all of his disabled son Trevor’s trust fund (the result of a successful negligence suit against the hospital which had previously treated him). When prosecuted and found guilty in 1996, Horn was imprisoned for life; he died in jail in 2017.
The criminality of Motown songwriter Jack Alan Goga may not have inspired podcasts, but it’s a grim tale, too. He wasn’t part of Jobete Music’s “A” team, but nevertheless co-authored a number of compelling copyrights, including Marvin Gaye’s “You,” the Four Tops’ “Yesterday’s Dreams,” Jimmy Ruffin’s “Farewell Is A Lonely Sound” and – a particular favourite of mine – Martha & the Vandellas’ “No One There.” Among Goga’s co-writers at Jobete were Ivy Jo Hunter, James Dean, Freddie Gorman and Pam Sawyer.
Leaving Motown in the ’70s, Goga continued in the music business in Los Angeles. But his marriage – his second – broke up, and he moved to Chicago. There, he met a woman, Digna Adames, with aspirations to be a recording artist, and the two travelled to California. Her fate, however, was to be killed in 1994 by Goga for reasons unknown, although her death was not discovered by police until after the songwriter had also murdered a man, Charles Evans, whose home he shared in the Woodland Hills area of Los Angeles. Goga was then charged with double homicide.
The truth behind this behaviour never came to court: on March 26, 1996, the songwriter died at age 52 of an apparent heart attack while in police custody, before any trial. Adding to the mystery were the words of his assigned public defender. “He was a very fascinating man,” Dennis Cohen told the Los Angeles Times. “Very well-educated, very well-read and very funny. You could sit for hours with him.”
Motown’s Ralph Thompson was a victim rather than a perp. The Chicago native had joined the company’s sales team in 1970 as a regional manager, then moved west with the firm. He quit in 1974 for a post at Sears, but came back two years later as special assistant to Barney Ales, himself returning to the upper echelons of Motown. “Of all the people I knew, Ralph had the best ears as far as records were concerned,” Ales once told me.
It was on September 18, 1976, that Thompson, 32, was shot to death in South Central Los Angeles, after leaving a local bar. Police attributed the murder to robbery; his wallet was stolen. No one was caught for the crime. “Tragic,” said Ales. “A waste of a life.”
The two individuals who assaulted Motown publicity director Ed Aaronoff on West Grand Boulevard on April 8, 1966, were not caught either. He had joined the company just a few weeks earlier, bringing with him extensive advertising and PR experience gained at Metromedia and MCA TV in New York. His appointment was a sign of Motown’s ambition and expansion, and Aaronoff headed the department to which Al Abrams – a familiar name to Motown aficionados – belonged. (Under his new boss, Abrams continued as press contact.)
The attack on Aaronoff happened on his lunch break, near Hitsville. Two tough-looking teenagers approached, “and they glanced at me as if to say ‘This is it,’” he told the Detroit Free Press later that day. “I felt uneasy, but then I thought this is a main street in a big city in bright daylight. It’s ridiculous to feel afraid.”
He was right to be uneasy: the youngsters, one on either side of him, demanded money, and when Aaronoff decided to run for it, they tripped him, jumped on him, and grabbed at his pockets. “His assailants pulled out ice-picks and stabbed at their flailing victim,” noted the newspaper’s reporter, Van Gordon Sauter. Aaronoff proved helpless when the robbers stole $100 from his wallet and ran off.
Eventually, a car stopped and the publicist was helped, before being taken to nearby Ford Hospital for treatment. Later, he expressed disappointment that eyewitnesses across the street had ignored what was happening. “I don’t blame anyone,” he said. “I don’t expect a citizen to run out and engage two people with knives. But they could call the police!”
Whether attributable to the robbery or not, Aaronoff’s career at Hitsville was brief. By the following year, he had moved into the film business, and away from Detroit. His legacy may lie in the liner notes he wrote for albums released by Stevie Wonder and the Isley Brothers, while several of the latter LP’s song titles certainly seemed to reflect his misfortune: “Baby Don’t You Do It,” “Stop! In The Name Of Love,” “Just Ain’t Enough Love.”
Four Motown men, caught up in crime by choice or circumstance. Nowhere to run, indeed.
West Grand Blog is taking a short break, and should be back on the boulevard very soon.
Music notes: Lawrence Horn’s work at Motown as a sound engineer and studio magician spans too many recordings to recite, but his co-writing credits include Jr. Walker & the All Stars’ “Shake And Fingerpop” and “Shoot Your Shot.” He co-produced Walker’s “Shotgun,” “Shake And Fingerpop” and “Money (That’s What I Want)” with Berry Gordy, and most of the sax master’s album, Hot Shot, with Brian Holland. And those 1963 credentials? Horn edited Rev. Martin Luther King’s The Great March To Freedom album, and was listed as recording engineer for The Great March On Washington, released a few months later. Jack Goga’s finest co-writes are those cited above; others include “Remember When” and “Your Love Is Wonderful,” both cut by the Four Tops. Finally, the names of Horn, Goga and Ralph Thompson all appear on the most recent “Motown Alumni” list published on the Motown Museum website, but not that of Ed Aaronoff.