In this Motown Spotlight, Sharon Davis recognizes the significant creative contribution of Mickey Stevenson, one of the key producers/songwriters and A&R executives at Hitsville USA, known for his work with artists such as Marvin Gaye, The Marvelettes, Martha & The Vandellas and Kim Weston….
As Motown celebrates its 62nd birthday this year, I thought it might be the right time to talk about one of the company’s early pioneers who recently celebrated his 84th birthday. Yup – Mr William “Mickey” Stevenson. I’m hoping to share some aspects of his time at Motown that you may not be aware of with a bullet point account of events.
So, we start his story in Detroit, 1957 when Mickey acted as an agent, securing gigs for local musicians, including himself performing with Clarence Paul, in nightclubs, some of which were illegally operated on several levels. The police tended to ignore some establishments except to collect protection money and grab a plate of fried chicken before leaving the premises. It was these after-hours ‘joints’ (as he called them) that were money spinners. “I was known for getting the best gigs in the city for musicians and for getting the best money out of club owners.” When not hustling, he penned songs working at an old upright piano, some of which he later took to Motown with him.
In his autobiography “The A&R Man” he wrote he did it all. Sometimes because he wanted to, other times through desperation. Detroit was a cesspool for the black communities; self-esteem was at gutter level with little help of climbing up the pavement, and working long hours for less pay than their white counterparts, the car factories were their prime employers. Housing too was abysmal, buildings often derelict, with white landlords caring little for their tenants’ welfare, interested only in the dollar. “The projects were the same then as they are now; a group of government buildings that house the disenfranchised in the poorest part of town.”
Mickey’s mother Kitty raised her three sons and daughter single-handedly. Being an incredibly talented R&B singer in her own right, Kitty taught her sons all she knew about show business: her daughter Elaine wasn’t interested though. Kitty began their tuition when Mickey was eight-years-old and his brothers Lonnie, seven, and Martin, five. Rehearsing them relentlessly as The Stevenson Trio, her work paid off when they entered and won a talent contest at the Apollo in New York. In demand across her neighbourhood, performing at nightspots like the Flame Show Bar, Kitty attracted a huge following. Through her work she met and later married Ted Moore. However, their life together was tragically cut short when twenty-eight-year-old Kitty lost her battle against cancer. Ted Moore abandoned the family, whereupon their grandmother raised them. The Stevenson Trio performed no more.
Without his mother, the young Mickey Stevenson’s life became a continual car crash with the result of being arrested and incarcerated more than once. However, that life of crime changed when he joined the Air Force where, among his other duties, he organised entertainment events. Once demobbed and now in Detroit, Mickey married Betty Ann Wright and had two children. With a young family to support, he turned his hand to most things to make money until he was offered a position in The Hamptones, working with the jazz icon Lionel Hampton. “It was a dream come true. One minute I couldn’t find a job worth nothin’ and the next minute, I’m lead singer for The Hamptones.” This was a huge and valuable learning curve for the young man as he lapped up all aspects of the music business, learning his craft for the future. His marriage, however, went on to end in a bitter divorce a few years later.
So, from flashback to flashforward now. Mickey Stevenson met Berry Gordy in a barber shop, when Berry mentioned he was opening his own record company and would be interested in Mickey joining him, They exchanged phone numbers before going under the dryers to perfect their processed hair.
It was a sharply dressed, fast-talking Mickey Stevenson who later met Berry Gordy at Hitsville. It soon became clear that Berry wasn’t interested in signing another singer at the time, rather, he was looking for an A&R director, despite not really knowing what that entailed. Nonetheless, Mickey agreed, took up the challenge, where one of his first achievements was sourcing musicians from the locality who would in time form the nucleus of The Funk Brothers. With Ivy Jo Hunter the ad hoc leader, the cream of Detroit’s musicians including Benny Benjamin, James Jamerson, Earl Van Dyke, Robert White and Joe Messina, worked their magic to deliver the Motown Sound. Getting the musicians together was the easy part; ensuring they actually attended recording sessions was an uphill struggle particularly when drummer Benny Benjamin was missing. Mickey would have no choice but to root him out of whatever establishment he was in, and if need be, prop him up in the studio if he wasn’t sober enough to stand alone.
To optimize their output, Mickey ensured the studio was in use around the clock, by either cutting sessions himself or parcelling time out to other producers, while further adjoining rooms were utilized for rehearsals, composing or meetings. A veritable hive of creative activity. Using a small upstairs bedroom as his office, where his desk, a roll-around chair and an upright piano just fitted in, Mickey watched from his front window the endless queue of youngsters harbouring ambitions that would either come true or be squashed underfoot. Auditions were the hardest part of the job, he said, because it was alien to him and, as yet, he didn’t have the required patience, temperament or knowledge to handle young people with dreams of stardom. “Making the decision to reject someone’s writing or singing was very difficult for me. Not knowing or understanding the desperate state of mind some of the people were in did not help.” Auditions were held by appointment only, with no deviation. But thankfully, one group who were oblivious to this rule, were signed. It was a Saturday: The Velvelettes had driven from Kalamazoo to Detroit, to be told by the receptionist auditions were over for the day. As they turned to leave the building, they spotted Mickey on his way to the studio and talked him into hearing them sing. “They sang two songs for me. I signed them up quick fast and in a hurry, and the rest is history.” In his position of A&R director he not only signed artists and producers to the company, but also writers to Jobete – “I signed the writers who wrote all the songs that the producers produced and the artists sang.” His ‘reward’ was receiving a royalty from every record released irrespective of the producer: the more copies sold, the more money he made. “I would even give up my spot on an artist to other producers if I felt it would inspire them to do greater things. As the A&R man, I was in a no-lose position.”
“Mickey was a street cat, a wheeler-dealer, but I knew it was that same hustling quality that made him the superstar A&R man he was,” Berry Gordy once said. “He could match up any kind of team – writers, producers, artists – any combination. A motivator, Mickey inspired greatness. He was tough but took care of his people.”
One of Mickey’s earliest songs was co-writing “Jamie” with Barrett Strong, for Eddie Holland in 1961, and although I’d like to avoid listing all songs bearing his name as writer, co-writer and/or producer – his catalogue is vast – perhaps just selecting a handful would be acceptable. Marvin Gaye’s “Lucky, Lucky Me”, “Soldier’s Plea”, “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow”, “Hitch Hike”, “Pride And Joy”, and with Kim Weston “What Good Am I Without You” and “It Takes Two”. Considered one of the best in my book, is “Ask The Lonely” by the Four Tops, a song drenched in a combination of emotional angst and a kind of desperation delivered home by the tormented vocals of Levi Stubbs. Pure magic.
Enter Martha Reeves. She first met Mickey at Detroit’s 20 Grand Nightclub after performing “Fly Me To The Moon” and “Gin House Blues”. When leaving the stage, she said – “this real good-looking man approached me.” He asked her name. “Martha LaVaille” she replied. Looking at the business card he handed her reading “William Stevenson, A&R Director, Hitsville USA, 2648 West Grand Boulevard,” she admitted she had never heard of the record company. Then when he invited her for an audition, she couldn’t believe her luck, feeling confident a recording career beckoned.
A bitesize story here. When Martha arrived at Hitsville, he remembered her not, then berated her for turning up outside audition times. Well, you know what happened next as it has been well documented. By accident, Martha became Mickey’s secretary until the time came for her to replace Mary Wells in the studio, after providing support vocals for other artists. One such act was Marvin Gaye, who was the original singer on “Dancing In The Street”. The song, with a few tweaks including a key change, was eventually recorded by Martha and the Vandellas and, as they say, the rest is glorious Motown history. Many believed it was penned for Kim Weston, but according to Mickey when she heard the song, said “I don’t really like it”. However, when Kim became aware that Martha and the girls had recorded it, all hell broke loose. Mickey wrote – “(Kim) was pissed off. She hardly spoke to me for weeks…” Of the other songs he co-wrote for Martha, “Wild One ” and “My Baby Loves Me” spring to mind. The latter title credited with the Vandellas, featured only Martha, with the Andantes and the Four Tops as support vocalists.
Enter The Marvelettes: “Twistin’ Postman”, the follow-up to their charttopping “Please Mr Postman”, was written and produced by Mickey with Brian Holland and Robert Bateman. Employing virtually the same music theme as the number one, Motown intended to exploit the new dance craze before it petered out. Katherine Anderson said in “The Original Marvelettes” by Marc Taylor – “‘Twistin’ Postman’ was one of those songs that we could have very well done without…Of course, we didn’t have any say-so in what was or was not released.” Mickey is also credited as a co-writer on the group’s next single “Playboy” released in April 1962 although Gladys Horton stated, he only penned one line towards the close of the song. “Beechwood 4-5789” was next, this time penned and produced by Mickey with help from Marvin Gaye and Berry’s brother George Gordy. The Marvelettes were touring when they were due to record the song, so as time was of the essence because the Motown conveyor belt was working full steam, the ladies ended up adding their voices to the recorded backing track. Gladys remembered – “Berry wanted things fast…Whoever wrote a song would come to us, find out if it was in the right key, then when we were on the road performing, they were in the studio.” More often than not, the wonderfully versatile Andantes recorded their support vocals with the musicians; the tape was then stored until the required lead vocal could be added, with or without other group members. For 1965’s “I’ll Keep Holding On”, The Marvelettes recorded their vocals in New York instead of Detroit. As Mickey Stevenson was chasing the clock and as the group was performing at the city’s Apollo theatre, he rented a nearby studio and dubbed on their voices to the backing track recorded at Hitsville. His regular composing partner, Ivy Jo Hunter recalled “…Mickey felt strong enough about the tune to go there and get it done (because the song) had to be at the Quality Control (meeting) at a certain time.” Actually, Mickey’s last major hit for Motown wasn’t with The Marvelettes but Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston in 1966 with “It Takes Two”, an easy listening, happy-go-lucky few minutes.
However, Motown was changing; artists and staff were coming and going, attitudes alongside expectations were altering course, and Mr Stevenson was one employee who suffered. Quite out of the blue he was promoted to the office of the president where, Berry Gordy explained, he wanted him to oversee plans for future Broadway musicals, an area he was keen to break into. Eddie Holland was the new A&R director. “I called all the writers, producers and musicians together to make my farewell speech…I could see the strange looks on everyone’s faces, from shock to confusion….It wasn’t easy turning everything over to Eddie….” Working away from the wonderful chaos that was the beating heart of Motown’s music, Mickey found it difficult to settle into his new position, knowing also that Eddie wasn’t a dedicated A&R leader. During a later meeting with Berry Gordy, Mickey explained he felt he had no meaningful place in Motown any longer and was considering resigning. When a shocked Berry asked what it would take to change his mind, Mickey replied – “stock in Motown and a share of Jobete”. Berry offered him a salary hike. With two weeks’ notice given, Motown’s first A&R director left Hitsville. Berry said, “I will always remember Mickey Stevenson for his loyalty and dedication. He was one of the greatest creative forces during our formative years.”
Phone lines burned as the news travelled around the industry. Record companies clustered for Mickey to head up A&R departments; Quincy Jones, then with Mercury Records, wanted him, while Clive Davis over at Columbia Records offered to finance him opening a new label in the style of Motown. Unfortunately Clive’s proposed investment was unrealistic.
Enter MGM Records: Following a meeting with the president Mort Nasatir a deal was struck to open a new label, sealing one of the first between an African-American and a major record company. With this in mind, Mickey believed Venture Records was an appropriate name and planned for his first signing to be Kim Weston who had left Motown with him. Mort Nasatir had other ideas: he wanted Kim for MGM so that was that. Under the deal Mickey was provided with a new studio, and lavishly furnished offices in Beverly Hills, and it was here that he began fielding artists sent to him by MGM. The majority he rejected but every now and again a gem came along, like the Righteous Brothers, who he signed immediately.
As time passed along, word hit the street that MGM was being bought out with plans to sell the record division to finance a casino in Las Vegas. “When I heard that I knew there was no way for…Venture Records to succeed. My deal was doomed from the start.” When MGM finally folded, Mickey left with the studio and all his unreleased masters. He also married Kim Weston. (In the end, the marriage fractured as Kim left her husband for a younger singer/musician. That relationship didn’t last either). With the tools of his trade around him, Mickey opened his own production and recording studio business, where his clients included Ike and Tina Turner.
Briefly then, the future looked pretty good. Mickey found he was in demand as a writer, producer – and a singer. He cut his only album “Here I Am” for Jeffrey Kruger’s Ember Records during 1972, after working with Linda Thorson from the hit television series “The Avengers”. “When Jeff heard me singing on the tape (for Linda) he…asked if I ever thought about recording an album…he would love to record me.” Mickey refused but changed his mind when Jeffrey presented him with a financial incentive. So, from recordings Mickey moved into theatreland, following a request from the Inner City Cultural Centre in Los Angeles, to score a stage production. Working with under-privileged kids and young adults was, he said, an amazing experience for him. “The look on their faces whenever I spoke to them was a reward in itself….I was from Motown, and what it stood for meant the world to them.”
With this under his belt, he went on to write and produce other successful shows, including “Showgirls” and “The Gospel Truth”. His other major projects incorporated pulling together the “Motown 45” television show, and working with Berry Gordy and others in building the Motown Museum in Detroit. Indeed, there’s a helluva lot more to Mickey Stevenson than meets the eye, and it’s all soooo good.
“He is definitely one of Motown’s unsung heroes” – Berry Gordy.
(In December 2020, Downtown Music Publishing bought the rights to his catalogue of music. In a press statement Mickey said, “I’m beyond excited to partner with Downtown. Our partnership covers many songs that are near and dear to me, and I have full confidence that my creative legacy is in good hands.”)
And finally.. There’s a number of albums celebrating their 50th birthday during the first half of this year, so we’ll be re-visiting a handful in the coming months. Let me tempt you with titles like Stevie Wonder’s “Where I’m Coming From”, Eddie Kendricks’ “All By Myself”, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, and Valerie Simpson’s “Exposed” on the Tamla label. Over on Gordy I noticed “Sky’s The Limit” from The Temptations, while on Soul, Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “If I Were Your Woman” takes centre stage. As expected, the Motown logo boasted the most releases incorporating “Diana! TV Special”; “The Motown Story” box set; “Maybe Tomorrow” from the Jackson 5; The Supremes and the Four Tops’ “Return Of The Magnificent Seven”, and a couple of “various artist” releases thrown in for good measure. I’ll also mention titles on the smaller labels although, to be fair, their significance in the history of Motown does appear to be minimal. And no, I haven’t forgotten that I promised a flashback to Motorcity Records. So it sounds like a busy year ahead for us, and I very much hope you’ll stay with me as we set out on our 2021 adventure.
(Grateful acknowledgements to “The A&R Man” by William “Mickey” Stevenson, from which his quotes are taken and is highly recommended; “To Be Loved” – Berry Gordy; “Dancing In The Street” – Martha Reeves, and “The Original Marvelettes – Motown’s Mystery Girl Group” by Marc Taylor)