Breaking the Motown Sound Barrier – Part III Lady Sings The Blues And Berry Gordy Too!
December 10, 2006
Diana Ross As Billie Holiday
The following is Part III of Breaking The Motown Sound Barrier Series. If you haven’t read Part I, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, click on to https://artiewayne.wordpress.com/2006/08/14/breaking-the-motown-sound-barrier-aint-no-mountain-high-enough/
If you haven’t read Part II, “What’s Goin’ On?”, click on to https://artiewayne.wordpress.com/2006/09/23/breaking-the-motown-sound-barrier-part-two-in-the-series-whats-goin-on/
In 1972, Ed Silvers, President of Warner Brothers music was losing his patience with me because he thought I was spending far too much time at Motown. Although I was getting our songs covered by some of their biggest artists, they were only album cuts. Ed was convinced that I would never get a single released by them. I didn’t say much, but I had spent over a year infiltrating the company, and I knew it was just a matter of time before I scored big with them!
I started to notice a change at the company when CEO Berry Gordy, Jr. became interested in producing movies. When production costs soared, record production budgets were cut and fewer records were released. I remember hanging out at Motown one day when I ran into producer and song writer, Michael Masser. He played me a song he had written with Ron Miller and produced on Diana Ross, that was being canned again! When he played me “Touch Me In The Morning”, my mouth dropped open! I couldn’t believe such a phenomonal record could be in the can for over a year, but Berry had his own plans for Diana. He and Paramount pictures had started production on “Lady Sings The Blues” and he was determined to make Diana a movie star!
For the first time, I heard complaints from usually loyal employees about all the money that was being wasted on Diana’s film. I heard that Berry had shot a scene for the film using an integrated chorus line at the Cotton Club, which had to be reshot with only Blacks to maintain historical accuracy. This mistake cost $50,000! Athough the record company was still on top, it couldn’t keep absorbing such costs without suffering in the process.
The only new artists who were given the “Motown Push” were the Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson who now was having hits as a single artist. I knew at this point that the only way I could have a chance for a hit with this company was to get a cover by the Jacksons or Michael. There was only one staff writer at Warner Brothers music who could write in a classic R+B style, George Clinton, Jr. ( not the lead singer of Parlement, but the one who later scored the three Austin Powers movies.) The two producers who loved Georges writing the most were Jerry Marcellino and Mel Larson, who just had big hits with 12 year old Michael on “Rockin’ Robin” and “Little Bitty Pretty One”. “Ben”, from the movie of the same name was racing up the charts and Berry Gordy asked each of his producers to start recording new sides with him.
I sat with Jerry and Mel and we talked about what kind of song they should record with Michael. I suggested A Christmas song…one so commercial that it could be the follow up to, “Ben”. When I saw their eyes light up, I told them that George Clinton, Jr. and I had started such a song! When they asked to hear it, I told them we were still working on it ( when in fact we hadn’t even started! ) I couldn’t tell them the title (’cause there wasn’t any!) I did tell them, however, that it was a true story of how my girlfriend left me out in the cold like the last tree in a lot which was left unsold on Christmas eve. They freaked out and said they had to have the finished song by Monday. I said, “No problem”
I called George, who knew nothing about any of this as soon as I got back to my office. He couldn’t believe I’d told them we’d have a finished song to them by monday, when it was friday and we hadn’t even started it! Saturday morning we met at my office, which was on Hollywood Boulevard across from Grauman’s Chinese Theater. It was the middle of summer, about 90 degrees, but we had to get in a Christmas Mood. As I told George my sad story, I started throwing Ivory Snowflakes around the room…and after a few hours we had the verse and chorus of, “Little Christmas Tree”
Little Christmas Tree
words and music by George Clinton, Jr. and Artie Wayne
I watch the snowflakes fall against my window pane
and wonder if you are watching snowflakes too?
I take a walk downtown to where you used to meet me
There’s joy everywhere but all that’s waiting there…is just a
Little Christmas Tree..Lookin’ sorta’ sad and lonely just like me
No one seems to care… They just went away and left him standing there
All alone on Christmas Eve!
Copyright 1972/ 2006 by Warner Brothers Music
On Monday morning George did a piano voice demo, and I got it to Jerry and Mel that afternoon. They loved it so much that they knocked one of their own songs off the date and cut ours on thursday! I was almost in tears when I heard the finished record the following week with the news that it was being considered for the follow-up to “Ben”, which had just hit number one! You can imagine how I felt a few weeks later when Berry decided not put out any follow up to Oscar nominated “Ben”, until the Academy Awards were given out…after Christmas! A few days later I came up with a plan and presented it to Motown. Put 2 albums worth of previously recorded Christmas songs by all of their hit artists along with a new song that Marvin Gaye recorded and of course, Michael Jackson’s, “Little Christmas Tree”. I’m proud to say that “A Motown Christmas” has sold many times platinum over the years…but there was a dark cloud loomng on the horizon!
( To Be Continued)
Copyright 2006 by Artie Wayne
To hear a sample of Michael Jackson’s, “Little Christmas Tree” from “A Motown Christmas”, just click on to http://www.amazon.com/Motown-Christmas-Various-Artists/dp/B00000JPBZ/sr=1-1/qid=1165772884/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/105-5725259-3053219?ie=UTF8&s=music