Tag Archives: Berry Gordy

The First Man of Motown – Marv Johnson

25 Apr

Marv Johnson

Here is a good trivia question. What was the first song ever released by the Motown/Tamla label (In 1960, the Motown and Tamla Records merged into Motown Record Corporation)? Miracles, Supremes, Vandellas, Four Tops, Temptations? Nope. Try Marv Johnson, the singer and co-writer of “Come To Me,” which, after it was released in 1959, would go on to reach number 30 on the Billboard Top 100 and number six on the national R&B chart. Since Motown was a fledgling label, Berry Gordy, the founder and king of “The Motown Sound,” sold the rights of this incipient piece to United Artists.

Berry Gordy first met Johnson at a carnival in Michigan. Johnson was performing with a doo-wop group called the Serenaders, and Gordy, a tremendous evaluator of vocal talent, implored Johnson to join his label. “Come To Me” was recorded in February of 1959 at United Sound Studios in Detroit. Johnson recorded with future Funk Brothers bassist James Jamerson and drummer Benny Benjamin. Take a listen to the song:

And, as they say, the rest is history. For good reason, Motown burgeoned like a pandemic. But, for a second, let’s imagine we are back in 1959 and listening to Marv Johnson performing this new song “Come to Me.” The song shares similar doo-wop qualities with the popular music of the time, but, the instrumentation and arrangement is different. It’s, dare I say, modern. More than 50 years later, it is easy to say that such characteristics helped spring Gordy, Smokey, and the talented folk at Motown to the cockaigne of music.

On Saturday, I will venture into NYC to see Motown: The Musical. If you have seen it, let me know what you thought of it. All I know, is that there will be the great music of Motown, and that is all I need.

“It’s the Same Old Song” – No, Really, It Is!

2 Nov

The Four Tops

The Four Tops was a perfect example of a fantastic band. Not just a premier, Motown hit-machine, but a solid, long-lasting band; one that could only be separated by death. The Tops were together from 1953-1997. 1997 is when Lawrence Payton passed away. Today, only Duke Fakir remains. Sadly, both Obie and lead-singer Levi Stubbs have passed away in recent years. But, and I know this sounds awfully corny, the Four Tops created a legacy that transcends time and death.

When I think of Motown, I think of the Four Tops, The Temptations and The Supremes. These bands jump to the forefront of my mind because of their sheer level of success. In Berry Gordy‘s tightly run Motown machine, if you could snap your fingers and harmonize, you could almost be guarenteed a hit. He, and his illustrious group of songwriters and background musicians, pretty much created inevitable success for so many acts. The Four Tops had more success than most.

The reason for this can be boiled down to three reasons. Levi Stubbs’ vocal was distinctive, smooth, exciting, and a whole bunch of other adjectives. He certainly had one of the best lead vocals of all the Motown acts. Seriously, in my opinion, just as good as Diana Ross,  David Ruffin, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye. Perhaps, the two best voices to come out of Motown were a little young during the label’s glory days. That being Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. They would mature. Yeah, they had/have pretty amazing voices. Anyway, Levi Stubbs’ voice fit Motown R&B/Soul exceptionally well, and it worked even better with his bandmates. Number 2: the band was loose, fun, and performed with zany vigor. Number 3: The songs.

Today’s song of the day: “It’s the Same Old Song.” And it really is, trust me:

The dance moves are legit. Let me explain to you how this aptly title song got its apt title. You see, Berry Gordy, like I said above, ran a tight ship. After The Four Tops hit #1 with “I Can’t Help Myself” in June of 1965, Gordy wanted to reap the most out of the band as possible. So, he ordered a new song to be written for them in a day. That’s right, a day. Go! So Motown’s principal production team, the Holland brothers and Lamont Dozier, got to work. As Duke recalls:

“Lamont Dozier and I were both a little tipsy and he was changing the channels on the radio. He said, ‘It sounds like the same old song.’ And then he said, “Wait a minute.” So he took “I Can’t Help Myself” and reversed it using the same chord changes.”

Yeah, that’s it. And, keep in mind, “I Can’t Help Myself” is practically the same song as The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go,” obviously one of the most inspirational Motown classics. The team worked around the clock creating the song, and by 3 p.m. the next day, the song was released and sent to radio stations, where it eventually hit #5 on the Hot 100 chart and #2 on the R&B chart. Yeah, it’s the same old song, but it is awesome.

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