A Prince of Promotion
FROM JACKIE TO MICHAEL, AND REACHING ONE MILLION THREE
Plans change. This edition was to have been about the second half of Motown’s 60th anniversary year, and what lies ahead. Instead, it’s going to pay tribute to Gordon Prince, the firm’s national promotion director during its 1960s heyday and beyond, who died on June 29, at the age of 83.
Prince was one of the backroom believers who helped the music of Motown to become a commercial and cultural force during a tumultuous era. Many of you won’t know the name, nor the face: he spent most of his working life in the company of disc jockeys, programmers and distributors. One of Gordon’s few public appearances saw him on stage at New York’s Carnegie Hall in February 1973, presenting gold discs to Stevie Wonder for Talking Book and “Superstition.”
Seven years earlier, Wonder was just beginning to regain career momentum after his post-“Fingertips (Part 2)” drought at Motown. “I had a list of radio stations, and we had a record player hooked right up to the phone,” Prince once told me. “I’d call these stations with a new release and they would record it right there. I’d say it was coming out in two days – and they’d put it on the air. I had a list of people who wanted it that way so that they’d get their exclusive. And when the record got out there [at retail], everybody was ready for it. Disc jockeys called: ‘Can I get this for Friday?’
“At that time, the Supremes were everything. But Stevie, he was the one I’d try to jump [in this way] because his records varied a little bit in style. The next one didn’t sound like the one before.” With such tactics and more, Motown outpaced the competition, delivering hits and making stars. Added Gordon with a grin, “Eventually, [the authorities] said it was illegal. We stopped hooking up the record player.”
Prince’s skill was attributable to years of experience and to growing up in a family with music connections. His father, Graham, was one of the principals of Cadillac Records in New York during the early ’50s. “My dad was an arranger, he worked with Tommy Dorsey, all the bands. And he was one of the writers of “T’Ain’t Nobody Business.” So I had some familiarity with what it was all like.”
With an office in the Brill Building, Cadillac contracted several musicians and singers, including Ruth Casey. But her original 1951 recording of “Cry” was quickly covered by Johnnie Ray, who turned it into a national smash, and his signature tune. Cadillac was consigned to a footnote in music history.
Gordon Prince got into the game at age 21, hired as a fledgling promotion man in 1957 for Decca’s just-opened Coral Records branch in Detroit. “It was at 85 Selden Street, just off Woodward Avenue,” he remembered, “where most of the independent distributors were located. We used to call that area distributor row.” Fortunately for Prince – and his future – was the fact that Coral’s assets included the Brunswick label, and that one of its new signings was Jackie Wilson. Soon, the young promotion man was working with the charismatic singer, taking him to Detroit radio stations and record hops, together with a member of his management team, Nat Tarnopol. On one occasion, the co-writer of Wilson’s accumulating hits joined them. “Nat asked me if I would mind if Berry Gordy came along,” said Prince. “I had no problem with that.”
TAMLA 101: A MUSEUM PIECE
The Decca group’s output spanned a variety of music genres, but Prince gained more experience with R&B acts when he joined indie Detroit distributor B&H. Among its clients was newcomer Tamla Records with its debut 45, “Come To Me” by Marv Johnson. “I worked with Marv, took him around and promoted the record,” said Prince.
“Many years later, when Esther Edwards was opening the Motown Museum, I had to explain that ‘Come To Me’ was the first Tamla record. Marv was with me, and I showed it to her.” Edwards subsequently had the single displayed in the museum. “It had been forgotten at that point,” Prince continued, “because the Tamla release only came out around Michigan.” (“Come To Me” broke nationwide when acquired and reissued by United Artists.)
As a distributor for local and national labels such as Lu-Pine and VeeJay, B&H was a centre of gravity for many Detroit DJs. It helped Prince develop fruitful relationships. “Larry Dixon [of WCHB] was at B&H every day after he got off the air. He’d bring people in there, and he had a little record store on the side, too. Another was Joltin’ Joe Howard, and there was Ernie Durham, a wonderful guy. You could get your records started with them.”
Prince extended his network by joining Jay-Kay Distributing in 1960, handling promotion for Mercury Records. Disc jockey Tom Clay was among his go-to guys. “Tom was supposedly heavy into payola, but I can honestly say I never gave him a penny. He did me a lot of favours.” After spells at Jay-Kay and another distributor, Merit Music, Prince was recruited to Motown by vice president Barney Ales. The two had met when the latter worked for Capitol’s Detroit branch; they were acquainted with many of the same people in radio and records.
A PRE-RELEASE OPINION
Arriving at Hitsville on October 25, 1965, Prince was put in charge of sales for the V.I.P. and Soul labels. The first releases he worked were the Elgins’ “Put Yourself In My Place” – although the flipside, “Darling Baby,” ended up as the bigger hit – and R. Dean Taylor’s “Let’s Go Somewhere.” Only months later, he advanced to national promotion director, as Motown created a separate department for that purpose. (Previously, promotion had been under sales; the expansion was a result of the firm’s growing success.) Still, there were awkward moments, such as when Berry Gordy asked Prince for a pre-release opinion about “Love’s Gone Bad” by Chris Clark. “Berry said it reminded him of ‘Wild Thing.’ I replied, ‘Well, I just don’t think this has the balls. I just don’t hear it the way you do.’ There was silence. When I got home, I told my wife, ‘I think I’m in trouble.’ ”
The moment – and the jeopardy – passed. Nor were any obvious grudges held. Prince was with Gordy (and Ales) in November 1967 when Clark played a show at London’s Saville Theatre with Gladys Knight & the Pips and, backing her, Bobby Taylor’s Vancouvers. “After Barney left London, we visited several local dance clubs,” he recalled. “We also went to Leeds, where the acts performed.”
Another occasion was more challenging. During the summer of ’69, the National Association of Television and Radio Announcers, the 14-year-old trade body for black DJs, staged its annual convention in Washington, D.C. Gordy was to attend and make a donation, as in previous years. This time, there was a threat to his life, thought to be made by the criminally-connected Fair Play for Black Citizens Committee of New York. Accompanied by FBI agents, Prince and fellow Motown exec Ewart Abner checked the hotel suite where Gordy was to stay. “There was even a phony run from the airport that we were going to do,” said Prince, “with someone else instead of Berry.” Discretion proved to be the better part of valour: Gordy cancelled, while arranging for a $25,000 NATRA donation that year.
A more pleasant Prince memory was of the time that Michael Jackson manned the aging lifts in Motown’s downtown corporate HQ on Woodward Avenue. “The elevator had a little seat in the back for the operator,” he recalled. “Michael sat there, and asked, ‘What floor?’ ‘Four,’ I said. To me, he was just a normal little kid. Taking the elevator and riding up and down, that’s normal.”
Jackson and his brothers were the stars of Motown’s most accomplished year on the Billboard Hot 100, with four of the seven No. 1 singles which it scored in 1970. “When they made ‘I’ll Be There,’ Berry called me from Los Angeles,” explained Prince. “He would call about every other week. All he’d want to know was sales and charts. He said, ‘This record, I want you to put a million records out. I don’t care how you do it. I want this record at No. 1.’
“We used to give 200 [free copies to distributors] on 1,000. So I did it. When he called the next time, I told him I’d talked to the pressing plants, got the records ready, ship date and everything. He said, ‘That’s good, how many did you get out?’ I replied, ‘About a million three. You wanted a million, so I had to give away about a third, to make it special.’ He said, ‘You had to do that? Well, I guess that’s OK.’ ” And in the week ending October 17, “I’ll Be There” reached the Billboard summit, remaining there for five weeks. Mission accomplished.
When Gordy moved Motown’s centre of gravity to Los Angeles, Prince was on the team. “I think about that flight when we all went: Norman Whitfield, Harry Balk, myself, a bunch of us. Our cars went by train. Everything about the move was done well, and we all had our own apartments in the same place on Sunset.” Yet for many of those from Detroit who had helped to fuel Motown’s growth, the change was difficult. “You talk about the family spirit fading when we went from West Grand to Woodward. When we moved to California, all the spirit went.”
Since Barney Ales had quit the company, staying in the Motor City, it was only a matter of time before his lieutenants fell out of favour with Ewart Abner, whom Gordy had then installed to run Motown Records. Prince was fired in March 1974, and returned home to Detroit. Soon enough, he and Ales were reunited in business, forming Prodigal Records before the year’s end. “It was fun for me,” said Prince, “even if it was a gamble.” Some of the label’s output sold relatively well, such as records by Shirley Alston and Gaylord & Holiday; others did not. “Gary Bonds stiffed.” The most popular proved to be Ronnie McNeir.
Towards the end of 1975, Gordy lost faith in Abner and brought Ales back to Motown. Prince was again on the payroll, but still in Detroit. He set up a new distribution arm, Hitsville, and later oversaw Motown’s country music offshoot. “We had some success with T.G. Sheppard and Pat Boone,” said Prince, “but I was the wrong guy for that one.” He also recalled writing a specific memo to Ales. “I recommended dropping the label because we spent more money entertaining [radio programmers] than we made off the 40,000 or 50,000 singles we sold to go Top 10 on the country charts. I was used to selling millions.”
Results on that scale are perhaps how Prince is best remembered. Like Ales, he left Motown once more in the late ’70s, but continued in the industry. Motor City Music Distributing, which he formed with jukebox kingpin Angotts, prospered for years: its lines included hip-hop hitmakers such as Priority Records.
Gordon Prince and Berry Gordy met once more during Motown’s 50th anniversary, at an alumni party held at the Roostertail in Detroit. There, too, were some of the singers and songwriters whose work Prince had so effectively pitched to programme directors and disc jockeys, record distributors and rackjobbers, during that half-century. It was a warm occasion.
The names of the first Motown labels Prince promoted seem right for this remembrance. He was a V.I.P. with Soul.
Personal notes: I first met Gordon Prince in London, after that Saville show with Gladys Knight and Chris Clark. But it was Barney Ales who insisted that I should spend time with him in Detroit while researching our book, and he was absolutely right. Gordon’s detailed recall was remarkable, providing anecdotes, colour and context of the highest order, only exceeded by his modesty and, clearly, the strength of the two men’s friendship. At Hitsville U.S.A., Gordon was truly a backroom believer.