Motown Spotlight, April 2020

Bohannon

Dipping into Motown's earliest releases several names stick out from the others.  I'm not talking about the Satintones, Eugine Remus or Mary Wells, or, over on the Tamla label, the likes of Marv Johnson, The Miracles and Mable John.  But rather the likes of white singers like Debbie Dean, and later on, someone called Connie Van Dyke.

e've previously spent time with Ms. Dean who, with a recording career under her belt, diversified into other areas like songwriting, so I thought I'd dig a little deeper into (Conny) Connie Van Dyke who recorded the solitary single "Oh Freddy" on the Motown imprint.  When analysing why Berry Gordy should spend his limited funds on signing Conny, it's clear he intended to capitalise on her previous high status as winner of the Miss Teen USA competition and the ensuing publicity which was excessive. Alongside continued media coverage, Conny also appeared in her first film; she was extremely glamorous and had a 'decent enough voice'. Perhaps with the thought that as Smokey Robinson elevated Mary Wells' into a major saleable product, Berry felt he could do the same with Conny.  However, despite Smokey's best efforts, "Oh Freddy" sold poorly.  Sure, it was typical of Smokey's work with Mary, with its low-keyed melody, but with its stodgy hooklines, this time, it lacked enthusiasm from the singer.  The flipside, "It Hurt Me Too", penned by Mickey Stevenson, Ricardo Wallace and Marvin Gaye, was also recorded by the latter as B-side to "Stubborn Kind Of Fellow".  Regrettably, Conny's version lacked the essential edginess the song deserved.  Nonetheless, the single (M1041) is now considered to be something of a collectors' item. 

Oh Freddy 45

The delay between actually recording the single and its release date, I think, indicated uncertainty as to its viability as a release.  "It Hurt Me Too" was recorded first in August 1962, while the topside was completed a month later, leading to its eventual release during March 1963.  Anyway, let's pay a fleeting visit to the lady whose solitary single "Oh Freddy", with the recording label credit Connie Van Dyke, was sandwiched between The Supremes' "My Heart Can't Take It No More" and Mary Wells' "Your Old Standby".

Born in Nassawodox, Virginia, on 28 September 1945, Conny Van Dyke spent her early life in CapeCharles.  With her youngest brother, Benjamin, the family relocated to Detroit during the mid-fifties, where their father opened an appliance and repair shop, while Conny headed for the modelling arena. As a fourteen-year-old she modelled on a local television programme Our Lady Of Charm, where she met Soupy Sales  who hosted the station's lunchtime kids' show.  The two became friends, whereupon he later recommended she joined the Dorothy Seifert Agency, a Detroit modelling outfit. From here, she enrolled at the charm school, John Robert Powers, where she was taught etiquette on various levels, from plucking her eyebrows, standing and talking properly, and so on.  This led to her entering, and winning, the Miss Teen USA contest, sponsored by Teen magazine.  Her prize was a date with teen idol Fabian, about which she laughed she'd never forget because "he was the first adult male that I ever saw with hair on his chest….he was about the most handsome thing I had ever seen."  Winning the contest later led to her debut film role in The Young Sinner in 1961, and of course the exposure increased her work load as a model – "I made a lot of money for a young girl in high school!"

Conny was fifteen years old when she signed to Motown, marking the company's first white female singer to be added to the artist roster.  Her introduction to Berry Gordy came via Gordon Bossin and Don Schmitzerle, as she told John O'Dowd in an interview for the August 2001 issue of the excellent Motown Chatbusters magazine:  "Steve Eisner ran…a ‘Miss Teen Night’ in one of the drive-in theatres in Detroit. (He) hired a band…I sang with them and Eisner saw that I was pretty good…I wound up playing piano for him and singing several songs that I had written.  I'd been writing songs since I was twelve years old."  From here, Gordon and Don pointed her in Berry Gordy's direction.  Conny remembered him as a wonderful man and the excitement she felt when first walking into the studio on West Grand Boulevard.  Berry's lawyer sister, Esther, talked the youngster through the recording contract, ensuring she understood its legality.  "Esther was always available to talk to if there was a problem; she became my confidante."   Conny's stay with the company was remarkably short lived; in fact her contract was cancelled by mutual agreement three weeks after her debut single was released.  The reason will be explained a little later on….

Mingling and working with Berry's artists easily became a way of life for Conny who, to put it mildly, was often in awe of the handsome young men who frequented the studio, and with whom she travelled on the touring bus.  However, one artist immediately sprang to mind in John's interview – Diana Ross, known as Diane at the time.  "I remember one show in particular that we did together.  I had this long, black velvet shirt and Diana and I shared it.  When she was out front with The Supremes, she wore it, and when they were behind me, I wore it!"   Others who influenced the impressionable young girl included Marvin Gaye who played piano on her recording sessions, and "a handsome guy who always smelled nice named Smokey."

"We cut records 'live' back then" said Conny.  "Everyone was in the studio at the same time.  Big string sections and all…it was an exciting time."  When she was in the studio with Mickey Stevenson recording her single, Stevie Wonder burst through the studio's back door mid-way through the song. It seemed this door led out onto an alleyway which Stevie used regularly because he lived nearby.  "He started making funny faces at me and turned the place upside down with his cutting-up!  He was teasing the hell out of me."  In the end, Stevie played bongos on the session, while Martha and the Vandellas and The Supremes provided backing vocals. 

Little Stevie Wonder

Another Stevie Wonder story that Conny recalled was when she was waiting with her mother outside Berry Gordy's office. The youngster bounded in, heading towards them, shouting as he did so – "Oh, Mrs Van Dyke is here!  I'd know her perfume anywhere – Chantilly!" 

Not only was Conny rubbing shoulders with artists in the studio but also on the road, as she often performed on Motown showcases at venues, including the Michigan State Fair, Camp Grayling, the Greystone Ballroom, Bell Isle Casino and The Flamingo Ember, about which she said "It was a very exciting and popular black nightclub in Detroit. I did a lot of shows there….all wonderful places where people danced all night long."  And, of course, the mischievous Stevie went along too, making his mark in several ways; some not always appreciated by his fellow travellers!  As an example, she recalled his harmonica playing causing problems – "He played it constantly, all the way to the gigs and all the way back.  After a while, I remember my mom, Diana and I wanting to hide that damn harmonica so that the kid would shut up!"

Working with so many of the company's finest, Conny had marvelous memories and anecdotes to share. One concerned a member of the Four Tops which I think is worthy of a mention because…well, see what you think…  During one mid-August, they were smoking outside the 24 Karat Club.  The venue was heaving inside and the heat brutal, so they had stepped outside to catch some air.  Out of nowhere, a swarm of mosquitoes made a beeline (no pun intended) for them, biting at any exposed flesh.  "One of the Four Tops was wearing Dixie Peach pomade in his hair and the mosquitoes must have liked it because they were really going after his face and head."  It was reminiscent of a scene from a horror movie, she elaborated, watching the hapless Top dance about, waving his arms in the air, swatting at the blood sucking, long legged flies.

Another time, a situation concerned The Temptations, when before a particular performance they were riddled with nerves.  To the rescue came Conny's mother with her supply of valium.  The group's anxieties vanished.  Time and again the group returned to her until it became apparent they were unusually tired, moody and listless.  "She had no idea they were wiped out from those happy little tranquiliser pills…in a lot of ways it was a very innocent time."

Like any great experiences, there were others that she preferred to forget.  On this downside, Conny faced the horrors of apartheid when travelling with the Motown entourage. One incident she recalled was during a journey to Lima, Ohio, tomatoes were thrown at their bus.  "Simply because they saw two white people, my mother and me, with all these black musicians…You can imagine how pissed off I was at all these loud and angry people throwing tomatoes at my friends and me." 

Another was a trip to CampGrayling, when she travelled with The Supremes, The Temptations, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye and others. They arrived on time at their designated hotel, only to discover the booking had been "fouled up".  Subsequently, some slept in chairs in the hotel lobby, while others headed for the fire house for the night.  Conny huddled up with Diana Ross on a couch in the lobby - "We started to doze off (and) my mother had one of those faux fox fur coats with her and she draped it over us.  I looked up, saying, 'thanks mom', and then hearing Diana whisper 'yeah, thanks mom'.  God, I can remember that like it was yesterday."  This outward show of racial aggression confused the young Conny, who couldn't fathom the reasoning behind the hatred because - "they sure didn't seem to mind what colour we all were when we were entertaining them."  Fair point.  However, being a member of the Motown family comforted her somewhat, where, she said, she was treated like their kid sister, affectionately nicknamed "Snowball".   "I never had any untoward experiences with anyone at Motown…In fact, all the acts were wonderful," she concluded.

Conny Van Dyke's Motown career spanned a mere eighteen months because her contract was dropped.  The reason had nothing to do with her singing abilities, rather her mother's concern for her daughter's personal welfare. Conny was constantly in the company of 'older' men who she idolised, and unwittingly getting too emotional over, as she explained "…my mother started getting worried that I might decide to get romantically involved with one of those young men at such an early age." Berry Gordy agreed; her recording contract ended to ensure, in Conny's words - "that it wouldn't make for any kind of embarrassment for anyone."

After Motown, Conny headed for another Detroit label, Wheelsville Records, where, with Roger Brown (a Detroit Lions' defensive tackler) steering her career,  she recorded a handful of pop/R&B sides, including "Don't Do Nothing I Wouldn't Do", a later Northern Soul gem, released during 1966. From here, she switched to the Barnaby and  Dot labels. Not one to rest on her laurels, Conny also further kick-started a lucrative acting career by playing Betsy in the biker film Hell's Angels '69, and with Burt Reynolds in the 1975 W.W. And The Dixie Dancekings when she played the police woman Dixie.  Her album "Sings For You Hits From The 20th Century Fox Movie W.W. And The Dixie Dancekings And Other Great Songs" followed.   From the big screen she transferred to television, appearing in popular police crime dramas like Adam-12 with Martin Milner, and Police Woman starring Angie Dickinson as Pepper.

During the seventies, Conny was a regular on countless US game shows (The Hollywood Squares, Match Game for example), and more recently starred in Cold Case and CSI,  with William Peterson playing Gil Grissom in the latter.  (My guilty television secret: totally addicted.)

While Conny's professional life offered successful diversions – recording, modelling, composing, television and films – her personal life was, to be fair, fragmented. She battled through problematic relationships; fell in love too easily, culminating in six marriages.  However, her zest for life included a variety of professions - singing in clubs, being a deputy sheriff, and teaching English. In later years, she worked as a tour guide at the Universal Studios in Hollywood, and was a tireless campaigner for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, among other things.

When you look at Conny Van Dyke's career as a whole, Motown played the tiniest part, yet, it seems to me, was the most significant as it allows us to include her here, and to listen to her (albeit briefly) alongside artists who were just too temptin' for her to stay aboard.

Now I'm sad to say, we've lost two members of the Motown family this month.  The first was Barney Ales who died from natural causes on 17 April in Malibu, California. He was 85 years old.  You don't need me to tell you about this extraordinary guy, who, among other things, was Berry Gordy's indispensable right-hand man and Motown vice president. He was a 'natural' salesman and his charismatic instincts pushed Motown into a multi-million dollar enterprise. When the company moved to Los Angeles, Barney stayed in Detroit, and three years later rejoined as its president between 1975–1978.   "I just thought Barney was the greatest salesperson in the world," said Berry Gordy. "He had the United Nations in his sales department.  When he came in, he said he would build me a great team.  I wanted to sell music to all people – whites, blacks, Jews, gentiles, cops and robbers."  Barney didn't disappoint.  Smokey Robinson also told Billboard magazine – "…The news of (his) passing is devastating.  I loved him so much."

I think it's fair to say, that Barney's role within Motown was admirably reflected in the 2016 book The Sound Of Young America which he wrote with Adam White, who remembers him as a 'people person' and a charismatic man. "It was a privilege to know (him).  If you had told a nineteen-year-old Motown fan who first met him …in London in 1967, that we would eventually collaborate to tell that story, I wouldn't…have believed it."

The Sound Of Young America , a 400-page visually rich publication, was an exclusive peek into the company's workings highlighted by a plethora of exclusive pictures, complimented by Adam's informative and revealing text.  A brilliant piece of work, which is probably the most recent reminder we have of Barney Ales' world of Motown.  Our condolences go out to Barney's family and friends at this sad time.

Diana Ross-Barney Ales-EMI UK staff

(The 1976 picture here shows EMI's Roy Featherstone on the extreme left, Diana Ross, Barney and Motown's Ken East. The occasion was a reception for Diana at London's Inn On The Park)

The second was, of course, a name not usually associated with Motown but rather a hit making soloist who kicked the 'd' into disco with singles like "Disco Stomp" and "Let's Start The Dance".  Yeah, I'm sorry to say, we also lost Hamilton Bohannon on 24 April.  He was 78 years old.

Perhaps not too many people were aware of Bohannon's Motown connection, so if you like, here's a few words in tribute about his contribution to the company's early success days. Born in 1942 in Newnan, Georgia, into a working class family, Bohannon mastered the drums from an early age:  an art that later secured him a position as a Motown employee.  "I fell in love with the drums after watching The Bobcats, a Dixieland jazz group with members from the Bob Crosby Orchestra, on television.  The way he played the drums, that was it for me.  That's what I wanted to do" he once told The Newnan Times-Herald.

Moving on a smidge now.  Following a serious car accident that damaged his right foot, Bohannon was forced to change the way he played the drums. However, during this time he hooked up with Gorgeous George, emcee for the Jackie Wilson touring show. Before one particular performance, Bohannon spotted thirteen-year-old Stevie Wonder practising on the piano.  They subsequently became firm friends but when the tour ended, went their separate ways.  "When I got home, the phone rang and it was Stevie.  He begged me to come (to Detroit) and play (for him).  My mom said you can either get back to teaching school, or get to Detroit.  So I packed my bags and went north." 

David Nathan-Hamilton Bohannon-Stevie WonderDavid Nathan-Hamilton Bohannon-Stevie Wonder-Dave Godin

 

(Note from SoulMusic.com founder David Nathan: “These photos of me were taken when Stevie came to London with Bohannon in 1965.  Tamla Motown Appreciation Society (TMAS) founder Dave Godin invited me to come along to meet the two of them at The Cumberland Hotel in London… I was all of seventeen!  Big thanks to Colin Curtis for finding issue #12 of ‘Hitsville USA,’ the TMAS magazine and or sending the photos.”)

Bohannon lodged with his cousin and signed to Motown as a touring drummer.  When not on the road with Stevie, he toured with the likes of The Marvelettes, the Four Tops, and Marvin Gaye. Talking of Marvin, on his "You're The Man" CD, Bohannon played drums on the final track "Checking Out (Double Clutch)" recorded in 1971.  (The track first appeared on the 1995 release "The Master 1961 – 1984")

Photo below is of Hamilton Bohannon, Stevie Wonder and Frankie Valli...

Bohannon-Stevie-Frankie Valli

Several years on, Bohannon tired of being a touring drummer; he longed to head up his own band.  To this end he auditioned for Maurice King, whereupon Bohannon and the Motown Sound was born.  This time he supported acts like The Temptations and The Supremes: he said this of the latter - "I've never been to heaven, but I bet that's pretty close."

Then the bubble burst as Motown relocated to Los Angeles;  Bohannon stayed in Detroit, saying, "I wanted to do something different….something that would break through.  If I sounded like everyone else I would never have made it anywhere."  He formed a new group, The Fabulous Counts,  recruiting top musicians like Dennis Coffey and Ray Parker Jnr.   Briefly now, as space is getting shorter by the line. From here he signed to Carl Davis' Dakar label to release the "Stop & Go" album, followed by five others.  His first British hit, "South African Man" in 1975 was followed by the top six smash "Disco Stomp", "Foot Stompin' Music" and "Happy Feeling" which didn't sell as well.  Moving to Mercury Records during 1976, his biggest seller to date "Let's Start The Dance" featured ex-Motown singer Carolyn Crawford with whom he had worked for over a year.  The single stalled in the UK top sixty in 1978. Signing with a handful of companies thereafter, Bohannon's star continued to shine.  In fact, during the eighties he worked both as an artist and producer. Then with the introduction of hip-hop his material grew legs by being sampled in recordings by Jay Z and Snoop Dogg, among others. Bohannon was honoured by his hometown when, in 2017, Peachtree Street was renamed Bohannon Drive. As always, our heartfelt condolences are sent to his family, friends and fans.  The world has lost one amazing singer, producer and performer. 

Stay safe each and everyone while we fight through this extraordinarily awful time in our lives.  By staying home, we'll not only protect ourselves but  others.  With Motown music at our side, we can do this.

Sharon Davis

(My sincere thanks to Motown Chatbusters August 2001: interview by John O'Dowd ,and "The Complete Motown Singles – Vol 3:1963" which I was playing while writing this)

 

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