An array of exuberant and sometimes tumultuous personalities graced Motown during it’s glory years. Berry Gordy Jnr. was determined to maintain the squeaky clean, unoffending and respectable image of Motown, and for the most part, he ran a tight ship and avoided bad press. However on some occasions, some rather obscure and crazy stories did surface. While we’ll never know the true extent of the drug fuelled tour parties and orgies that undoubtedly occurred, here are a few of the best stories that we do know:
#4 – Stevie Wonder’s Introduction To Life On Tour.
Stevie Wonder was introduced to Berry Gordy Jnr. at the age of eleven as ‘Little Stevie Wonder’. By thirteen, he was already being hailed as a child musical prodigy, blowing audiences and industry folk away with his voice and skills on multiple instruments. He first toured with the ‘Motortown Review’, a tour of the chitlin’ circuit organised by the Motown Label, at twelve years of age. He continued to tour well into his teens, but at age sixteen, the backing band and fellow touring artists thought it was time to introduce the young Wonder to what life on the road truly was about. While the tour manager was under strict orders from Gordy Jnr. to ensure Wonder stayed out of trouble, he one day found him passed out on the tour bus being propped up by the band members with his head in a paper bag, complaining about a severe migraine. This was the result of a bender the night before organised by the band members, which involved heavy drinking, smoking and apparently Stevie Wonder losing his virginity to one of the Soul Sisters. Needless to say, he wasn’t ‘Little Stevie Wonder’ anymore.
#3 – Berry Gordy Jnr. Summons Smokey Robinson & The Miracles To The Studio At 3am.
The Miracle’s 1960 hit ‘Shop Around’ was the first number one single for the Motown Label. However, the version that everyone knows and loves today isn’t the one that was initially released. An early version of shop around had already been released and was beginning to receive extensive air play. But after two weeks, inspiration struck Berry Gordy Jnr….at 3am. He immediately called Smokey Robinson, waking him and his wife. He ordered the band to meet him at the studio right away to re-record ‘Shop Around’ with a new beat that he had just thought of. Everyone arrived at the studio except the pianist, which is why Gordy Jnr. ended up playing piano on the final version that eventually went to number one. Smokey Robinson describes the whole situation quite comically on this radio interview:
#2 – Marvin Gaye Tries Out For The Detroit Lions At Age 31
Marvin Gaye was the undisputed rock star of Motown. However, for a while following the death of his fellow Motown artist Tammi Terrell, he took a break from music for a few years, during which he spiralled into depression and heavy drug use. Perhaps as a result of one too many coke binges, he decided that trying out for the NFL at age thirty-one seemed like a good idea. He managed to score a try out for the Detroit Lions as he was close friends with players Lem Barney and Mel Farr, and according to all accounts, he didn’t do too badly. However, he didn’t make the cut, as the coach put it – ‘Marvin had a lot of heart, a lot of will and stick-to-itiveness. He just didn’t have the skills.’
#1 – The Mynah Birds And The Supergroup That Never Was
The Mynah Birds were an R&B folk rock group from Canada who signed to Motown in early 1966. The band were ready to release their first album when, what we can now view as fate, intervened. The band alerted Motown to their manager having misused their advance money, and he was subsequently fired. In return, the manager informed Motown that the lead singer, Ricky Matthews, had gone AWOL from the navy. As a result, Matthews had to spend a year in jail. This was bad press that Gordy Jnr. didn’t need, so he promptly dropped The Mynah Birds from the label. The band then went their separate ways. The guitarist went on to become the now legendary Neil Young, while the remaining band members went on to form the psychedelic rock band, Steppenwolf. What ever happened to the lead singer, Ricky Matthews? After his brief stint in jail, he went on to become an accountant in Ontario, Canada.
Just kidding, he became Rick motherf***ing James, b**ch!
If you’re curious as to how this odd combination of musicians sounded, their work was finally released in 2006 as part of a ‘Motown Special’ compilation. Here it is: