MOTOWN SPOTLIGHT EXCLUSIVE…
A book I thought would probably never see the light of day was published just recently and it’s all thanks to Vaughn Thornton who, with the help of his family, media folks, stalwart fans and editor Bianca Scott, was able to put together the actual words of his mother. Under the title “A Letter From The Postman” we get the chance first-hand to read the life story of his darling mum, the original lead singer of The Marvelettes – Miss Gladys Horton. My thanks to Vaughn for sending me an advance copy of the book, enabling me to bring you the following words hot off the press.
Before getting into more details, a little back history about the book itself. Motown Spotlight readers may know that I read the original manuscript way back in 1998 when it was given to me by an editor of a British publishing house basically to see if, with a little editing, it would be a viable proposition. Before anything could happen, that publisher went into liquidation or something, and I held onto the manuscript simply because I had nowhere to return it. Subsequently, it travelled with me when I moved house several times. And believe me that was no mean feat, as it was heavy, very heavy. But it was an extremely precious treasure and I certainly had no intention of abandoning it. I also recall having had another wholesome manuscript written by Gloria Jones after the death of her partner Marc Bolan, but, regrettably, I have no idea what happened to that.
Anyway, I haven’t re-read Gladys Horton’s 1998 manuscript for some time and don’t intend to return to it now to make comparisons, because what Vaughn Thornton sent me has proved to be essential reading from page one to page 613: yup, it’s a big read. And, I have to tell you, it’s the real deal, dipping into the highs and lows of a singer who wanted to succeed, fend for her family and ultimately enjoy the life she was given. The fact that Gladys was a founder member of The Marvelettes only makes this read a little more poignant in places, throwing up questions that were never answered. One that sticks out like that proverbial sore thumb is Berry Gordy’s apparent reluctance to recognise The Marvelettes as breaking ground for the company by crashing into the mainstream market, delivering his first Motown number one pop single.
For some reason the years the ladies have received little or no recognition for this achievement; they’ve never been recognised as one of the so-called A-team, and indeed when, in 1989, Gladys visited the Motown Museum, there were no pictures of The Marvelettes on display. In fact, she wrote she was greeted by a large photo of El DeBarge! She asked Mrs (Esther) Edwards, curator of the Museum, why there were no pictures of her group. “She said she didn’t have any pictures of us in her possession. Excuses, excuses.” What an insult. In hindsight though, these ladies aren’t the only acts that Berry Gordy forgot – the list is quite exhaustive now isn’t it? – and without the sheer stubbornness of Motown fans who refuse to be pushed away, many artists have received long overdue public accolade. Long may it last! Before leaving this section, I was shocked to read the vitriol thrown by Gladys in the direction of one singer, vice president and composer. Mmm…who would have thought. Anyway, I digress…
Gladys Catherine Horton was born 30 May 1945 in Gainesville, Florida. An orphan at the age of nine months old, she grew up in a number of foster homes but never once was actually adopted by any one family. The persistent feeling of being unloved or not wanted stung her into adulthood although she does level up her foster experience, weighing the good against the not-so-good. “I believe everything happens for a reason. Maybe my purpose for existence is to give hope, inspiration, and courage to all motherless or fatherless children. To let them know that life is the greatest gift anyone can give you…..Free is what I have always been. That is why it is so easy to be me.” Gladys said this when she was a mere ten years old. After writing about her childhood days as an orphan and growing up as a teenager, Gladys directs us through print on a journey that re-visits her overnight success story at Motown.
It was while living in Inkster, Michigan, that Gladys experienced her first love affair but, probably more importantly in the grand scheme of things, spotted a poster in her high school advertising a talent show with first prize an audition at Motown. With encouragement from her music director, a Mr Phillips, Gladys decided to gather a group of classmates together. There were several contenders to choose from but she finally chose Katherine Anderson, Juanita Cowart, Georgeanna Tillman and Georgia Dobbins, collectively known as The Cassingyettes. “We just had to win,” wrote Gladys. “More than anything else, I knew I wanted to win.” They didn’t: they came fourth. However, through the intervention of a school teacher who believed in the girls’ talent, The Cassingyettes got to go with the winners to be auditioned.
A delighted singer wrote, “It was a warm, pleasant day in April 1961, and it was the day of the grand audition at the only known recording company in the Detroit area, Berry Gordy’s Motown Records on 2648 West Grand Boulevard.” Mary Wells was getting into a black stretch limousine parked outside Hitsville, Raynoma Gordy greeted them, and after marvelling at the black and white glossy photos proudly hanging on the office walls, Brian Holland and Robert Bateman invited them into the studio. It was a successful audition but to ensure them a recording deal, they were advised to write their own material. Georgia and her friend William Garrett had “Please Mr. Postman” tucked away in their back pocket.
In August 1961, and now known as The Marvelettes, “Please Mr. Postman” smashed its way to number one Stateside, earning them the title of Motown’s first successful female act. It was also during this time that Gladys discovered who her biological parents were. The other girls’ parents had signed their recording contracts, and Gladys needed an adult representative to act on her behalf. Because she was an orphan, a court-appointed guardian was needed but before this could be put into place, Gladys needed a copy of her birth certificate to prove she was an American citizen. When she held it in her hands she knew who her parents were. A complicated process followed but the determined youngster embarked on another adventure to discover her roots.
As you know, by default, Gladys was lead singer for The Marvelettes and her sassy vocals on “Please Mr. Postman” catapulted that tune into a million seller. She was 16 years old. The original intention was that Georgia should take lead; it was her song after all. But when she explained the circumstances behind her not being able to commit to being a full-time group member, Gladys had no option but to invite Wanda Young to replace her. Wanda is referenced throughout the book where love and anger is dished out in equal measures, but it was Wanda herself who stumbled down the alcohol/drug road despite continual offers of help.
The narrative here dealing with The Marvelettes’ Motown stay spans a mere two chapters or so and much of what I read has been in the public domain for awhile now. Like most fans, I hoped to read more about the intensity in competing for hit material, the downside of being a female group, and all those unspoken feelings. It wasn’t to be as Gladys steers well clear of any controversy during her Motown tenure until the last section of her book when she finally acknowledges how mistreated The Marvelettes were. Both personally and professionally. To this end Vaughn told me, “Nothing has been cut or edited about Gladys’ Motown days. If it’s not in the book, my mom didn’t feel it was fit to talk about. Some people, a very few, are scanning through the book looking for all the dirty gossip. It’s there, but you have to read the story in its entirety to understand the positivity it’s conveying.”
Gladys left The Marvelettes after an eight-year stint to become a full-time mother, but thankfully she never stopped writing songs: “I always knew I had some writing ability. When I was only in the fifth grade, I won first place in a novel writing project.” Her honesty about her first and only failed marriage, ended up with her bearing the burden alone of caring her for handicapped son with cerebral palsy. Her life with two live-in partners left her a single parent now with three sons to raise – Sammie, Alphonso and Vaughn.
Each relationship brought its own destructive problems but through sheer determination Gladys and her sons survived. She then takes us through her daily life that includes homelessness, her return to composing, too many adventures, different life styles, her drugs and alcohol dependency, and the several experiences they encountered from constantly moving house while the boys were growing up. Phew! I told you it was a long read, and perhaps in hindsight, a rather laborious one at times.
From the family side of her life, Gladys focuses on her return to the show business during 1988. She details the problems faced while putting the pieces back together again as a performing artist including her battle in dealing with hot-headed session singers, and the awful truth she discovered of the financial rape taking place within the music business.
With no Motown ‘protection’ she was learning the hard way. Working with, and performing alongside, other Motowners like Mary Wells, Raynoma Gordy Singleton, Sylvia Moy, Kim Weston, Syreeta, and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, a new sisterhood of singers was built. Gladys was no longer alone. She was once again in demand; welcomed by fans and media, and when the UK’s Ian Levine invited her to record for Motorcity she had no second thoughts. This was the next phase of her career.
With her own publicist working for her, and her public profile rising, Gladys regularly gigged in the States. She also toured the UK twice and in between times, was writing the book which we now have, with plans for an across-State book signing tour. However, life was cruel. In 2006, Gladys Horton was diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy which caused one side of her face to droop. “My mom got herself well enough to continue performing for approximately four more years,” wrote Vaughn Thornton. “Unfortunately, as her condition continued to worsen, she had to stop performing.” On 26 January 2011 Gladys lost her battle to live, and peacefully passed away in Sherman Oaks, California. She was 66 years old.
“We finally did it! Gladys Horton’s story is finally here after a long journey,” wrote Vaughn Thornton. “I want to thank all of the Marvelettes fans around the world for your patience and support.” Obviously, there’s much that I’ve omitted, but hopefully these few words will encourage you to support this long awaited publication. You won’t be disappointed.
“A Letter From The Postman” by Gladys Horton. Presented by Vaughn Thornton is, after a quick search, available from established online book shops and amazon.co.uk.