Motown at 50: A Look at the Record Label’s Under-The-Radar Artists

Berry Gordy’s mega-stars outshone many other talented artists at Motown, but we turn the spotlight on its other musicians as the label marks its golden anniversary
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Surrounded by Motown albums, Berry Gordy, beams during the height of the label’s popularity. Photograph courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

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.

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THE VALADIERS WERE THE FIRST WHITE VOCALISTS SIGNED BY BERRY GORDY IN LATE 1959 // PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF RICHARD BAK

There must be some word today
From my boyfriend so far away
Please Mister Postman, look and see
If there’s a letter, a letter for me

— “Please Mr. Postman,” The Marvelettes (1961)

In the summer of 1961, the Marvelettes really delivered with “Please Mr. Postman.” The bouncy single, written by Fred Gorman (a Motown artist whose “square” job was being a mailman) sold a million copies and became the first Motown platter to reach No. 1 on the pop charts. The record may have saved the cash-strapped company from going under. Gordy was having trouble getting paid for an earlier 45, the Miracles’ “Shop Around” (Motown’s first national hit and its first million-seller), until the orders pouring in for the Marvelettes’ record gave him some leverage with delinquent distributors.

Motown’s first successful girl group was originally the Marvels — five Inkster High School students (Gladys Horton, Wanda Young, Georgeanna Tillman, Juanita Cowart, and Katherine Anderson) whose performance at a talent show had earned them an audition. “That song changed our lives,” Katherine Anderson Schaffner says today. “We weren’t prepared for the response. Neither was Motown. We grew up fast. There were a lot of sharks out there in the water. My mother didn’t like it, but my dad said it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Eager to capitalize on the record’s success, Gordy kept the girls touring and recording. It was an exciting but grueling pace for the teens, three of whom had to quit their senior year of school. “That was devastating to us,” Schaffner recalls at her Inkster home. “We couldn’t go to the prom. There were a lot of things we missed. That’s the reason why, when I had daughters of my own, I kind of overcompensated with them. I was living vicariously through them.”

Despite regularly charting throughout the ’60s with songs like “Don’t Mess With Bill” and “Too Many Fish in the Sea,” by the middle of the decade, the Marvelettes were completely overshadowed by the Supremes. To a degree, it was their own fault. In 1964, the struggling trio of Diana Ross, Flo Ballard, and Mary Wilson took a Holland-Dozier-Holland song that the Marvelettes had rejected — “Where Did Our Love Go” — and turned it into the first of five straight No. 1 hits. That streak made the Supremes America’s sweethearts. Meanwhile, the Marvelettes did the best they could with what they began to regard as mediocre material, backed by skimpy production and marketing budgets. The lineup was shuffled several times, with three of the original members leaving by 1967 because of sickness or marriage. In 1970, after going several years without a hit, the group decided to disband.

Although Schaffner, 65, was one of several Motown artists who successfully sued their former employer for back royalties, she remains a proud alumna. “People will say to me, ‘Oh, you used to be a Marvelette.’ And I tell them, ‘Oh, I beg to differ. I’m still a Marvelette.’ ”

Say goodbye to all your buddies
Say hello to your new friends
You’re in the army now
Your new life has just begun

— “Greetings (This Is Uncle Sam),” The Valadiers (1961)

Early Motown evidently had a thing about the letter V. In addition to the Vandellas (featuring current Detroit city councilwoman Martha Reeves) and the Velvelettes, there were the Valadiers. “I don’t know what a Valadier is,” Stuart Avig confesses. “I think it had something to do with being a brave warrior, brave Roman, something like that. The group was already named that when I joined it.”

That was in the late ’50s at Oak Park High School. According to legend, an integrated version of the group had previously approached Gordy. “Come back when you’re one color,” he reportedly said. They did, and were signed in late 1959. Avig was only 16. Although a Pontiac-based instrumental group, Nick and the Jaguars, had earlier cut a single with Motown, and a handful of white vocal acts (most notably Rare Earth) would come aboard in the ’60s, “we can legitimately say we were the first [white vocalists],” he says.

The quartet — Avig, Jerry Light, Art Glasser, and Martin Coleman — blended doo-wop with early R&B. Avig, a dynamic lead singer, was influenced by such black acts as the Dells, the Flamingos, and the electrifying Jackie Wilson (a native Detroiter for whom Gordy had written several hits in pre-Motown days). “Race relations were different then,” Avig says. “Detroit was a segregated city. We were copying the black sound, which didn’t go over well with everyone. At Motown, people were professional, but not everybody was overly cordial or friendly.”

The Valadiers’ first recordings didn’t make it out of the vault, but in 1961 a song about the draft, “Greetings (This Is Uncle Sam),” was a minor regional hit. Avig recalls one show-stopping performance at Cleveland Arena. “The Isley Brothers were headlining. They came on after us, and we got a bigger ovation than they did.” After a couple of lackluster follow-up singles, the group left Motown. Avig received his own draft notice in 1964, serving two years in the Army. After his discharge, he gave music another whirl before marrying and settling into a new career in the precious-metals refining business.

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BARRETT STRONG SCORED AN EARLY MOTOWN HIT WITH “MONEY.” // PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF RICHARD BAK

Today, Avig performs as a member of a blue-eyed soul group called The Shades of Blue. He remains mostly upbeat about his Motown experience. “The Four Tops, the Temptations, the Supremes — they were all pushed to the hilt. As far as promoting us with as much intensity as they did black acts … I have no complaints. I’ll be forever grateful to Berry Gordy for signing us. He didn’t have to do it.”

I’m getting ready for the function at the junction / And baby you’d better come right now / Because everybody’s
gonna be there / We got people coming from everywhere

— “Function at the Junction,” Shorty Long (1966)

When Gordy acquired Tri-Phi Records in 1963, its artist roster included a performer who made up in talent and versatility what he lacked in stature. Freddy “Shorty” Long was a 5-foot-1 singer-songwriter who could play the piano, drums, organ, guitar, trumpet, and harmonica. The Alabama native had worked as a DJ and toured with the Ink Spots before moving to Detroit in 1959, where his early recordings with Tri-Phi went nowhere.

In 1964, Long co-wrote and performed the first single released on Gordy’s new Soul label. “Devil With a Blue Dress On” was an unhurried, bluesy number that caused little excitement, though a couple of years later Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels released a more frenzied version that has since become a rock classic. Long finally dented the national charts with his 1966 single, “Function at the Junction,” and 1967’s “Night Fo’ Last.” In the summer of 1968, he scored his biggest hit with “Here Comes the Judge.” Inspired by Pigmeat Markham’s popular catch phrase on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, the song cracked Billboard ’s top 10 on the R&B and pop charts.

Marvin Gaye championed Long’s cause. The Holland-Dozier-Holland team once brought a new song to Gaye. “Why are you going to produce me?” he demanded. “Why don’t you produce Shorty Long?” One possible reason could be found on Shorty’s breath. According to Motown session pianist Earl Van Dyke, Long would come into the studio loaded with liquid inspiration. “Today we ain’t playing nuthin’ but funk,” Long would announce, pulling a bottle out of his coat. “If you don’t feel funky, take a drink of this.”

On Sunday, June 29, 1969, Long and a friend were fishing on the Detroit River when their boat swamped and capsized. Both men drowned. At Long’s funeral, Stevie Wonder played a harmonica, then placed the instrument upon the 29-year-old singer’s casket. Later, Gaye would describe Long as “this beautiful cat who had two hits, and then got ignored by Motown.”

Girls, those fellas are sly, slick & shy
So don’t you ever let ’em get
you starry-eyed / Well, you may
think their love is true
But they’ll walk right over you

— “Needle in a Haystack,” The Velvelettes (1964)

It’s perhaps telling that in Gordy’s autobiography, To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown, the Velvelettes aren’t mentioned once. Never a priority to begin with, the group felt slightly abandoned by the end of their stay at Hitsville, says lead singer Cal (Gill) Street. “We sounded just as good as the others. The focus was on the moneymakers.”

The Velvelettes came to Motown in 1962 from Kalamazoo, where Betty Kelley and two pairs of sisters — Cal and Mildred Gill, and Bertha and Norma Barbee — were fixtures at local sock hops. Cal was in ninth grade, the others in college. The group was often used as background singers for other Motown acts. The studio released only a half-dozen of their singles between 1963 and 1966, an output that still resulted in some great dance music. Enough copies of “Needle in a Haystack” plopped onto turntables in 1964 to allow it to reach No. 45 on the Billboard Hot 100. The following year saw the release of “He Was Really Sayin’ Something,” a solid R&B hit. However, in 1964, Kelley left to join Martha & the Vandellas and, in 1967, Mildred Gill and the Barbee sisters quit to raise families. Cal, the sole remaining member, found a pair of replacements. In 1969, the group broke up.

“We didn’t live to sing,” Cal says. “We had other options.” For her, that meant marrying Richard Street, who had replaced the troubled Paul Williams of the Temptations, and bringing up their son. (Williams committed suicide in 1973.) The marriage ended acrimoniously. Cal, whose minister father had scolded her about “that devilish music,” momentarily chokes up recounting the heartaches groupies caused artists of both sexes. “If you could somehow take that element out of show business,” she says, trailing off.

All but one of the original Velvelettes live in Michigan and have professions. They occasionally reunite — not for the money, Cal says, but to thrill a crowd and maybe recapture a little of the innocence of five girls harmonizing to Motown songs on the radio.

Well now give me money
A lot of money
Wow, yeah, I wanna be free
Oh I want money

— “Money (That’s What I Want),” Barrett Strong (1959)

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THE GLAMOROUS BRENDA HOLLOWAY APPEARS ON THE COVER OF HER 1964 ALBUM, “EVERY LITTLE BIT HURTS.”

If a singer is going to be a one-hit wonder, then it may as well be one of the great booty-shaking songs of all time. Barrett Strong, a self-taught pianist whose family had moved to Detroit from Mississippi, co-wrote and sang “Money (That’s What I Want)” over a driving piano beat. He was 18 and working at a shoe store at 12th Street and Clairmount, the future epicenter of the ’67 riot. “Smokey Robinson, all of us, all doing amateur contests at theaters around town,” he remembers. “Everybody tryin’ to win $25.”

Recording the song was riotous — in a good way. It was “one long party,” recalled Gordy, who saw some needed cash roll in as “Money” charged up the R&B chart in 1959, stopping at No. 2. “We recorded everything together, the singer, the band, and the background voices. That gave it a raw, earthy feel.”

Strong admits today that he “wasn’t crazy” about working on stage. “It’s too demanding. You owe yourself to the public. I preferred to be behind the scenes.” That’s where the reluctant vocalist really left his mark. As a staff lyricist, he paired up with producer Norman Whitfield to create songs every bit as enduring as “Money.” These classics included “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (a hit for both Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & the Pips), Edwin Starr’s “War,” and the Temptations’ “psychedelic soul” tracks: “Cloud Nine” (1968), “Psychedelic Shack” (1970), and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” (1972). The latter earned him a Grammy.

Strong chose not to follow Motown to L.A. He recorded for other labels, including a pair of albums for Capitol, and recently released a digital album. In November, the 67-year-old was laid up at a family member’s house in Detroit, recovering from a stroke. He doesn’t care to linger too long in the past. “Talk about what I’m doing now,” he says. “Yesterday’s gone.”

What are you gonna do when I’m gone
Whose shoulder are you gonna cry on
What are you gonna do on the day
When I turn my head and just walk away

— “When I’m Gone,” Brenda Holloway (1965)

Brenda Holloway, a stunning young singer with an ache in her voice, seemed a sure bet for stardom. After recording the pop hit “Every Little Bit Hurts” as a 17-year-old in the spring of 1964, there was talk of having her replace Diana Ross in the then-hitless Supremes, or of teaming up with Smokey Robinson, who had just seen his duet partner, Mary Wells, quit Motown over a contract dispute.

Holloway grew up in the Watts neighborhood of L.A. and had been a backup vocalist for local R&B groups since she was 14. Gordy signed her after hearing her sing Wells’ “My Guy,” making her the first West Coast artist to record for Motown. To pop music critic Nelson George, Holloway “was the most beautiful woman ever signed to Motown. In any dress, but particularly the tight gold-and-silver sequined outfits she often performed in, she was a head-turner.”

Holloway was a regular on such TV shows as Shindig!; opened for the Beatles at New York’s Shea Stadium during their 1966 tour; and charted with the singles “When I’m Gone,” “Operator,” and “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy.” Holloway soon grew frustrated with her stalled career. She poured out her grievances in a 1967 letter to Gordy: “As you very well know there are numerous singers that have not had a hit record or as much experience as myself working on club engagements and concerts, that are constantly touring Europe … also performing in Las Vegas and making good salaries and names for themselves. Again I cannot understand why I haven’t had any of these opportunities.”

Some think Holloway simply fell through the cracks as executives grappled with the logistics of a rapidly expanding corporation. She left in 1968 as she was working on her second album. Ironically, the disgruntled singer cashed in when Blood, Sweat & Tears covered “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” which she had co-written, and sold 2 million copies. She put music on hold to concentrate on her marriage to a pastor, another union that ended in an unhappy parting of the ways.

Today, the 62-year-old singer lives in New Jersey. She continues to perform. Like other artists of the era who were squeezed out of studio time and radio play by Motown’s mega-acts, she’s a favorite in England, where the music genre is known as Northern Soul. At last look, Holloway had 604 friends on her MySpace page. There is no booking information, just a grainy video clip of a sultry young woman singing in soulful anguish.

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