DETROIT — Reflecting on a storied career with Motown Records that included discovering some of its most iconic talents and shaping its sound, William “Mickey” Stevenson, its former A&R manager, thinks it was nothing less than a “spiritual movement”.
Stevenson, now 85, said that even amid the divisive and tumultuous climate of the 1960s that included the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam and the deaths of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F Kennedy, Motown continued to grow. But the company was “designed” to do what it did, he said.
“That was crazy, right?” Stevenson said. “And yet, this company was growing. People of all races, creeds and colors – people told me they would be in their bedrooms, with the blankets pulled over their heads, listening to Motown songs. We had wars going on. The soldiers played the records in the trenches. What is that if not a spiritual movement? What else can you say?
Stevenson, Motown’s first-ever A&R manager, is credited with building Motown’s roster of songwriters, musicians, and artists. He also wrote or co-wrote some of his greatest songs, including “Dancing in the Street”, “It Takes Two” and “Beechwood 4-5789”. On Thursday, he was inducted into New York’s Songwriters Hall of Fame, alongside Mariah Carey, the Isley Brothers and Steve Miller, among others.
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Stevenson couldn’t believe it when he learned he would be inducted.
“I was in shock,” Stevenson said, speaking by phone from California where he was preparing to golf with his former Motown pal Smokey Robinson. ” It has been years. I had never thought of that. Everything I did is because that’s what I do. I had no idea I was invited to anything. It just comes from the heart. »
As he prepares for his big day, Stevenson shares some of his favorite Motown memories, from betting Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. that he could get Marvin Gaye’s first Motown hit out of him ( he originally sang jazz) on the discovery of the Four Heights.
Looking back, he’s proud of Motown and its enduring legacy.
“It brought us closer,” he said.
A singer first
Stevenson originally wanted to be a singer. His mother was a singer, and he sang in a band with his brothers, even performing at the Apollo Theater.
“My mum – she taught us to sing and play and that kind of stuff. And she took us to Apollo. That’s another lesson I learned – if you’re aiming for something, go for it with the intention of winning it,” he recalled. “Don’t just do it. She said the best thing that can happen is that you will learn something about yourself and how you should approach something. You don’t lose no matter what.
But when Stevenson sang for Gordy, he didn’t get the reaction he wanted: “He said my voice was for s—.”
Instead, Gordy convinced Stevenson to be his A&R (it stands for “Artists and Repertoire”) man, scouting for new talent: “I had no idea (what the job entailed). And he wasn’t quite sure what that felt like.
$5 per day and unlimited chili
Although he was learning the job as he went, Stevenson remembers asking Gordy who he would report to. He would report to Gordy, the president said. He also asked how much the work would bring.
“He said ‘$5 a day.’ Five bucks a day and all the chili you can eat,” said a laughing Stevenson, who still counts Gordy as one of his closest friends. “That’s how we started.”
Martha Reeves and “Dancing in the Street”
For “Dancing in the Street”, Stevenson was actually looking for a record for his girlfriend at the time, Kim Weston (Weston later became his wife). But after asking Martha Reeves to sing it as a demo, they were blown away.
Stevenson said he remembered hearing the demo and Marvin Gaye watching it, along with fellow songwriter, producer and vocalist Ivy Jo Hunter. Hunter had pledged not to get a haircut until he had a successful record.
“You can imagine what he looked like after six-seven months. When I heard this record (‘Dancing in the Street’), I turned to him and said, ‘You’re going to get a haircut,’” he said. “It was a smash.”
When it came to finding the right people for certain songs, “I would take a song and give it to somebody if that person is going to deliver it better,” Stevenson said.
Working with Marvin Gaye
Stevenson said working with Gaye was “incredible”. But originally, Gaye sang jazz. He remembers Gordy telling Stevenson he wanted Gaye to succeed.
“I took him aside and said, ‘Dude, listen. He’s a jazz singer. What are we going to do with that? He said, ‘I didn’t say I didn’t want a jazz hit”. Are you the A&R man here? You said you could do anything in this business? He said ‘Give me a shot. I don’t care what kind of disc it is.
Stevenson agreed but the two did what they always did. They bet on it – $1,000.
“We always bet everything,” Stevenson said.
Stevenson worked with Gaye, singing and writing alongside him. They started working together, writing songs for someone else at Motown. They recorded a song, each singing a part, Stevenson asking Gaye to change his jazz style.
“I said ‘This is not a jazz record. You come from church. Go back to church,'” he said.
Eventually, Stevenson cut his parts from the song and merged only Gaye’s parts into one song,
“I took out all my verses and closed all his verses together. I came the next day and played this song that he and I wrote, with all my verses gone and his together. He said ‘That sounds pretty good.’ Then I said, ‘Why don’t you do this song?’ “, he said.
After the song, “Stubborn Kind of Fellow”, he remembers giving the song to Gordy, telling him to play it in his office. “He came back down and gave me my money,” he said. “…I learned from dealing with him and others that I have a knack for bringing out the best in you.”
Discovering the Four Summits
Of all the groups he has discovered, Gaye and the Four Tops are among his favourites. He remembers seeing the Four Tops, then called the Four Aims, on an amateur show while Stevenson was on leave from the military.
“It was jazz and R&B all in one song,” he said. “I said, ‘Wow, these guys are awesome.
Later, working for Motown, he saw the group again, now called the Four Tops, but this time in New York. Hearing them play, he asked to speak to them after their set.
“I said, ‘Here’s what you guys do. You come back to Detroit. You come to my office, sign with me, and I’ll make you stars. They looked at me like I was crazy,” he said.
Eventually, the band accepted Stevenson’s offer. They visited him at Motown and Duke Fakir put his finger in Stevenson’s face and said, “You said you were going to make us stars. I hold you responsible for it.
They signed contracts about 30 minutes later. And Stevenson kept his word.
“We became very, very close,” Stevenson recalled.