Our resident Motown columnist and expert Sharon Davis reflects on the recent passing of Wanda Rogers, one of the original members of The Marvelettes and songwriter/producer-turned-artist R. Dean Taylor…
If you’re like me, you’ll have sipped your glass of wine or cup of tea at midnight to welcome in a promising 2022 with the hope that things will get better for us and the world. And certainly after the two years we’ve experienced and been fortunate enough to live through, the new year seemed full of promise for several reasons. Huh. We haven’t got off to a good start so far. Shortly before Christmas, we lost our Marvelette Wanda Young (Rogers) and this month R Dean Taylor, a man of incredible talent. In between, other untimely deaths in the music business saddened our lives, with the most recent being Ronnie Spector, who passed last week. Once again, we’re mourning artists who helped define our lives through their music and the year has only just begun. So, this month, we say farewell to two Motowners……
Born on 9 August 1943 and raised in Inkster, Michigan, with ambitions to be a nurse, Wanda Young (Rogers) was persuaded by Gladys Horton, fellow classmate at Inkster High School, to replace Georgia Dobbins in her group The Marvels. As such they joined Motown, changed their name to The Marvelettes and released Georgia’s song “Please Mr Postman”. The single was Motown’s first pop chart topper, while the group became company royalty almost overnight. The rest is music history with all the good and bad times that went with being a young, naive female group in a somewhat volatile business. The Marvelettes’ career has been publicly acknowledged over the years, so I won’t repeat it here. Rather we’ll remember Wanda Rogers in our usual style with random snippets from her career and fellow artists.
I’m heading first to the 1970 Tamla album “The Return Of The Marvelettes” which wasn’t, of course, what it was hyped up to be. By now, Wanda Rogers was living in an alcohol and drugs nightmare, but Smokey Robinson believed this album would be a lifeline to re-establish the group’s popularity after a shaky few years, and that Wanda’s voice which had steered them through their biggest hits should front the tracks. Remaining Marvelettes, Katherine and Ann, subsequently refused to participate, so the company’s beloved Andantes (who had previously worked with the girls) took up the challenge, whereupon the project became a vehicle to launch Wanda as a solo artist. Fans realised something was very wrong as soon as they saw the album cover. While it was a new picture with Wanda (pregnant with her third child) sitting on a white horse, her two companions were airbrushed beyond recognition, yet fans, including myself, attempted to convince ourselves they were Katherine and Ann. It didn’t work obviously. Thankfully our minds were put to rest when it was revealed some time later, that the couple were The Undisputed Truth’s Brenda Joyce Evans and Billie Rae Calvin, despite them not being included on the album as far as I can establish.
As for the album’s contents, well, it was primarily a collection of cover-versions (and having played my scratchy vinyl album in the recent past) it’s not as bad as some reviews suggested. “A Breathtaking Guy”, “Fading Away” and “Someday We’ll Be Together” were among the covers, while one of the superior tracks “Marionette” was lifted as a single. “The Return Of The Marvelettes”, produced by Smokey, was scantily promoted as the group’s final album although in reality 1969’s “In Full Bloom” was, itself a super release, utilising the talents of several company backroom names across tracks like “Too Many Tears, Too Many Times”, “Sunshine Days” and their take on “That’s How Heartaches Are Made”, issued as a single. Unfortunately, Wanda’s name wasn’t sufficient to shift “The Return Of The Marvelettes” album. Motown lost interest, sales petered out but not before it hit the US R&B Top 50.
The 1963 single “Locking Up My Heart” was a highlight in The Marvelettes’ stage shows where, Marc Taylor wrote in his book The Original Marvelettes, “Wanda (stretched) out the finale, in which she sang like a woman possessed; scatting and ad libbing such lines as ‘you should’ve treated me right’….and often ‘working’ the front row of the audience.” Gladys Horton – “Wanda used to wear that song out in the end…whoever was down front in the audience, she would sing to them and (they) loved it.” Brenda Holloway toured with the ladies several times, telling Marc Taylor that she liked them a lot. “They seemed to be down to earth. Wanda was almost the most beautiful woman I had ever seen….their stage act was fabulous (and) they worked hard on their craft.”
Another touring partnership was Martha and the Vandellas when, Martha recalled, they learned a great deal about being on the road, particularly about the calibre of stage gowns. One time on an early tour, Martha and the girls had worn homemade outfits run up by their mothers, which, of course, paled by comparison to The Marvelettes’ glamorous gowns. Sensing their dilemma, Gladys gave Martha three of their own gowns which Martha adjusted to fit herself and her two Vandellas. “….For the first year of our success with ‘Come And Get These Memories’ we were wearing Marvelette hand-me-downs. I wasn’t too proud to beg because they knew more about the business (than us).” In another interview Martha said The Marvelettes were “The Temptations of the girls. They did wonderful moves…they had lovely costumes. Wanda and Gladys had nice legs. They danced and showed their legs. Wanda was always a character. (She) would always say things to make you laugh.” On the other hand, Martha added, she was also “sort of quiet and into herself.”
By the end of 1964 the group was reduced to a trio – Katherine, Wanda, Gladys – and this was when personality clashes developed, some caused by Wanda who felt as lead singer she was more important than the others. A despairing Katherine accepted they now worked more like acquaintances, or co-workers, instead of the friends they once were. Behind scenes there were heated arguments between Gladys and Wanda, while on stage their smiles were sometimes forced. “Wanda was a Jekyll and Hyde….(She) was at a point where she was out of control” said Katherine. Incidentally, each Marvelette had a non-singing role to play within the set up of the group. For instance, Gladys undertook the role of choreographer, taking on the task when Katherine and Wanda married. However, if either lady disagreed with what she presented to them, they’d work the routine out together. “If, for example, Wanda came up with something better, we would do that. Wanda had a lot to do with the wardrobe too because she loved clothes.” As for the group’s lead singers; Gladys had that role until “You’re My Remedy” in June 1964 when Wanda took over. Gladys then returned on “Too Many Fish In The Seas”, leaving Wanda to front their singles until the group disbanded in the early seventies.
The girls’ single “I’ll Keep Holding On” in 1965 was unusual inasmuch that their vocals were recorded in New York, not Detroit. They were appearing at the Apollo, and as Mickey Stevenson was working against the clock, he recorded the backing track at Hitsville and dubbed the ladies’ vocals on in New York. Ivy Jo Hunter, who produced the song with its composer the said Mr Stevenson, felt Wanda had a type of singsong voice. It lacked a soulful element, he thought, but had that quality of youth that communicated well. “If you had a good song, she gave you a good performance. Wanda was easy to work with. She was a quick learner and….her voice (was) very commercial…..Wanda was a beautiful person.”
Of another single “Don’t Mess With Bill” in late 1965 it was said to be a musical marriage between Smokey, the song’s composer, and Wanda who had just the right voice for him to work with. Katherine Anderson: “Wanda’s voicing and the tone of her voice allowed for it to be good.” That comment stands for her delivery on the group’s only UK hit in July 1967 – “When You’re Young And In Love”, a beautiful adaptation of Ruby and the Romantics’ 1964 song penned by the marvellous Van McCoy. I remember this single, with The Andantes on back-ups, so well because it was a summer hit alongside Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me” which, believe it or not, was criticised for being erotic, thus denying it airtime. Please!! As far as I was concerned, the two singles went hand in hand in the sunshine and summed up everything I was feeling at the time. Anyway, talking of The Andantes, reminds me of something Lamont Dozier once said about the role they played in The Marvelettes’ career. If, for some reason, he was dissatisfied with their performance in the studio, he would wait until the ladies left, then called in The Andantes to put right the wrong. By all accounts, The Marvelettes never cottoned on at the time.
Back to 1967, the year when Gladys left the group. She had worked for a time during her pregnancy but once she began showing Motown wanted her out. It took a while to replace her as the company didn’t consider The Marvelettes a priority any more, but eventually it was announced that Ann Bogan had been recruited. From the group Challenger III who recorded for the Tri Phi label, Ann had duetted with Harvey Fuqua on “What Can You Do Now” and sung lead on The Andantes’ “(Like A) Nightmare”. The first single to feature her as a Marvelette was “My Baby Must Be A Magician” with Temptation Melvin Franklin speaking across the song’s introduction.
A year later, around the time of their eighth album “Sophisticated Soul”, Wanda’s life had spiralled out of control which had a knock on effect on the group’s career as Katherine reluctantly recalled “Wanda would be going off, way out into left field with everybody that was working with us and I would have to keep it together…You didn’t know if she was going to perform or not.” As her professional life seemed to be crumbling around her, Wanda suffered a huge personal tragedy that would haunt her for the rest of her life. Briefly, a friend had collected Wanda’s two sisters, Dora and LaMona, from her home to drive them to work. Unbeknown to them, Dora’s estranged husband, armed with a gun, jumped out from across the street. He shot the driver first, then LaMona, mistaking her for Dora. It was a fatal tragedy which almost destroyed Wanda.
With “In Full Bloom” in 1969, the dream was over. The Marvelettes weren’t touring and Motown’s focus was now squarely focused on launching the Jackson 5, Diana Ross’ solo career as singer and actor, and the company’s move to Los Angeles. Unsure of their future, the ladies asked Berry Gordy for help. When there was no reply, they sadly accepted The Marvelettes were no more. Earlier on, Katherine had also asked Motown for help with Wanda’s addictions and mental health issues. They didn’t and then it was too late.
Before closing, Wanda Rogers was a remarkable, witty and talented woman with a voice to melt ice and warm hearts. The fact that she fought her demons and won wasn’t only remarkable – it was truly astounding! The Andantes’ Marlene Barrow-Tate said “Wanda was just as cute as a button and, oh my God, what a voice” while Jackie Hicks remembered “There were some unique voices at Motown. I really liked….Wanda (and) enjoyed the sessions we did with her. That was a good era of songs – ‘Don’t Mess With Bill’ and ‘The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game.'”
Wanda Rogers died from COPD in Garden City, Detroit, on 15 December 2021. She was seventy-eight years young.
When you hear “Gotta See Jane”, “Indiana Wants Me” or “There’s A Ghost In My House” one name immediately springs to mind – R. Dean Taylor, who the British press called “The Great White Hope”. But there was so much more to this guy wasn’t there? However, I won’t go into too much detail here as I dedicated a Motown Spotlight to him in November 2019, if you want to check it out. But I couldn’t bear to let Dean’s passing go by without once again mentioning his exceptional talent.
So briefly then, born on 11 May 1939 in Toronto, Canada, Richard Dean Taylor kicked off his career in the early sixties with local country bands. During 1962 he made his first recordings for the Audio Master record label; “At The High School Dance” on Amy-Mala Records and “I’ll Remember” for the Barry imprint, followed. Pleased with his modest success so far, Dean headed for Detroit and Motown, where his first scheduled single in March 1964 was “My Ladybug (Stay Away From That Beatle)” written by Holland, Dozier, Holland and Dean, cashing in on the success of our supergroup from Liverpool. However, someone had second thoughts because it was pulled from the release schedule. Thankfully that single wasn’t a reflection on future material. Next was “Let’s Go Somewhere” in 1965. Released on the VIP label and with The Andantes on board, the subtle war protest song which be wrote and produced, passed by almost unnoticed. “It sounded good” said Dean at the time. “But once The Andantes came on the record, their voices carried the whole thing.” Unfortunately that wasn’t enough to convince the public to buy it.
Another single that failed to create waves the first time around in 1967 was “There’s A Ghost In My House” because Motown concentrated on promoting their established acts who were guaranteed to generate hefty pay days. “Windshield wiper splishin’ splashin’..” hah, that phrase needs no explanation really as it’s swiped from “Gotta See Jane” from 1968, a top twenty UK hit, and a top fifty entrant when re-issued in 1974.
“‘Indiana Wants Me’ was a big hit for me,” said Dean about his 1971 single on the newly established Rare Earth label, which he penned after watching the Bonnie And Clyde film, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. “I wrote and produced it…..We had to remove the police siren to get airplay in California. That’s why there are some versions without the sound effects. Motown hired an independent promotion man, Al Valente, to work the record. He decided to release promotional copies for radio stations in red vinyl…I started off overdubbing everything myself (on the single). I dubbed in Bob Babbit, and Dave DePitte put the strings on.”
As you know, the company’s background contingent like musicians, arrangers and so on were given no public recognition but Dean changed this for David DePitte, when he demanded a gold disc be given to him as well. “I got my gold record and Dave got his….He was delighted.” His other Rare Earth singles you may recognise include “Candy Apple Red” (a personal favourite) and “Taos New Mexico” (which wasn’t).
From what I’ve read, Dean appeared to be more interested in working behind the spotlight with other artists. To this end, he’s credited on The Temptations’ “All I Need” and the Four Tops’ “I’ll Turn To Stone”, and when Holland, Dozier, Holland left Motown, he rose up in the ranks to join the composing/production team “The Clan”. Pam Sawyer, Frank Wilson and Deke Richards were the others, until the team was later replaced by The Corporation to write for the newly-signed Jackson 5.
Of the material he wrote for Diana Ross and the Supremes, their “Love Child” immediately comes to mind as Dean once recalled that Pam came up with the concept, leaving him and the others to build the story around it. When Frank Wilson and Berry Gordy were in the studio working on the song, the backing voices weren’t gelling for some reason; the atmosphere getting frayed. Dean came up with the “love child, wait, wait, wait…” refrain. The Andantes leapt in and put it to bed in two takes. “I felt wonderful that I could contribute.” The phrase wasn’t actually intended for this session but rather another song he was working on titled “Hold On”. Before the Rare Earth label folded in 1976, Dean released the album “I Think, Therefore I Am” where the bulk of the tracks were his compositions. A big silence followed. “Most of my work was bigger in England. Thank God for the English people who embraced me. There are people over there who really love my music.”
R Dean Taylor died on 7 January 2022 after contracting Covid-19. He was eighty-two years young.
Our thoughts and condolences go out to the family, friends and fans of both artists who brought so much into Motown’s family of music and into our lives. You will be greatly missed but your legacy will live on in our hearts.
(My sincere thanks to Marc Taylor’s The Original Marvelettes, Vickie Wright’s Motown From The Background and www.rdeantaylor.com)