The Flip Side
Berry Gordy’s mega-stars outshone many other talented artists at Motown, but we turn the spotlight on these neglected musicians as the label marks its golden anniversary
(page 1 of 4)
Amid the swirl of celebratory hype surrounding the golden anniversary of Motown Records, nobody thought to look up Stuart Avig. No Annie Leibovitz to capture his portrait for Vanity Fair’s special music issue. No overseas film crew to record his memories for a BBC documentary. No Parade Company designers to size his noggin for a papier-mâché head to bob alongside Diana Ross’ on Thanksgiving morning. The oversights are unfortunate, as Avig — still performing at age 65 — is a finger-popping footnote of interest to anyone fascinated with the Motor City’s second-greatest gift to the world. In 1959, he and three fellow members of the Valadiers became the first white vocalists to sign with Berry Gordy’s fledgling record company. “It was kind of intimidating,” Avig says at his Farmington Hills home. “We had white faces, but we had a black sound. Today that’s pretty common, but back then it was unusual.”
The quartet of teens rehearsed and recorded inside the now-famous Studio A at 2648 W. Grand Blvd. The two-story frame house with the sign proudly proclaiming itself “Hitsville U.S.A.” today serves as the Motown Museum. Avig admits the group “went over like a fat rat,” releasing just three singles before disbanding. Despite the lack of commercial success, he is pleased to be a small part of the Motown story. “All of that crew — the Contours, the Primettes [who became the Supremes] — all got there within six months of each other. We were part of history.”
This month, Motown turns 50. Although the “Motown Sound” — that unmistakable blend of “rats, roaches, soul, guts, and love” Gordy often joked about — is indelibly Detroit, the company’s actual residency was surprisingly short. Just 13 years passed from the time Motown was incorporated on Jan. 12, 1959, until its move to Los Angeles was completed in 1972. By then, Gordy had relocated to a new home in the Hollywood Hills, having left Detroit not long after the ’67 riot.
Before Hitsville went splitsville, the studio’s output “was just fantastic,” remembers former WKNR (Keener 13) disc jockey Paul Carnegie. As Paul Cannon, he kept favorites like “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” and “Dancing in the Street” in heavy rotation. “For years, the playlist was basically the Beatles and Motown,” he says. Between 1961 and 1971, a total of 110 top-10 singles, many written and produced by the team of Lamont Dozier and brothers Eddie and Brian Holland, rolled off the Motown conveyor belt. Sixty-three of them reached No. 1 on either the pop or R&B chart.
Much of the magic dissipated in the move west, the result of disaffected songwriters, singers, and musicians leaving what was now called Motown Productions, as well as Gordy’s growing detachment as he expanded into movies and television. By the mid-1980s, the various Motown divisions were losing money. In 1988, Gordy sold Motown Records to MCA, then shed most of his interests in the music publishing and film production firms. The aging visionary, who for years could lay claim to running the largest black-owned business in America, later admitted pulling his fabled record company out of Detroit had been a mistake.
Today, the Motown legend revolves around Gordy and his roster of headliners and dream girls from the golden Detroit years: Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, the Temptations, the Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, and Diana Ross and the Supremes. Collectively, these performers account for the bulk of Hitsville’s vintage song catalog. Less fixed in public memory are names like Shorty Long, Brenda Holloway, and the Velvelettes — artists who help make up the B-side of the long-playing Motown story.
Hey, hey, you know I miss you baby
You know that-a I miss-a you baby
Girl, you’ve been gone too long
Tell me that you’re coming on-a home
Girl, I don’t wanna have to be alone
— “Come To Me,” Marv Johnson (1959)
Despite having a string of hit records a half-century ago, Marv Johnson is perhaps best remembered today as the answer to the trivia question: Who recorded the first-ever Motown single? In early 1959, the 20-year-old Detroiter’s “Come To Me” was released on the Tamla label, one of several imprints Gordy would use over the years. A simple song with simple lyrics, it showed off the singer’s gospel-influenced tenor falsetto voice. A couple of instrumental elements — a tambourine and a baritone sax — were signature touches of many future Motown classics. “The result,” one writer said, “was a clean R&B record that sounded as white as it did black.”
At 29, Gordy was an ex-boxer (he had once fought at Olympia Arena on the same card as local hero Joe Louis), a former autoworker, and struggling songwriter-producer. After years of independently producing local singers, including Johnson, and then handing off distribution to the large record companies — a system that made him little money — he had borrowed $800 from his family to start Motown. Because it was still a shoestring operation, Gordy had to rely on United Artists (UA) to get 45s of “Come To Me” out to the rest of the country.
The public responded, with Johnson’s record-settling high on the pop and R&B charts. UA signed Johnson. Over the next couple of years, it issued several of his hits, the biggest being “You’ve Got What It Takes,” which earned a gold record. He became a familiar figure on American Bandstand. Gordy remained his manager, but gradually quit working with him as Johnson’s ego and demands grew. Still, Johnson was an important draw when Gordy launched the popular Motortown Revue in 1962.
After being dropped by UA in 1965, a victim of the British pop invasion, the humbled singer signed with Motown. By now, Gordy’s start-up had grown into the largest independent record-maker in the world. Johnson released some mediocre singles at Motown, the last in 1968, and worked in the front office through the 1970s. He later cut an album in England, where his songs always did well. He never stopped performing, dying of a stroke in South Carolina in 1993.