15 October 1938-16 May 1993
Early Rocker and Motown pioneer Marv Johnson,
Hit recorder of “You Got What It Takes” and
“I’ll Pick A Rose For My Rose” – his career and legacy…
He was a bridge leading from authentic early Rock to sweet Soul, the raucous giving way to the smooth. An active ingredient in the evolution of Motown, he died of a stroke following yet another concert, in Columbia, South Carolina, on the sixteenth of May 1993.
His “You Got What It Takes” with fat honking horn and ‘yeh-yeh-yeh’ backing voices, is a ‘personality’ record with a wicked sense of humour – ‘you don’t drive a big fast car, you don’t look like a Movie Star, and on your money we won’t get far.’ Johnson’s abrasive Rock vocals are dirty with energy and sly suggestion, its raunchy R&B assault is sweetened by an infectious Pop sheen, a jive danceability and the ‘you send me’ teen-code. Some say the ‘nature didn’t give you such a beautiful face’ line is insulting. I don’t see it that way. There’s a kind of reality behind the humour. All women aren’t beautiful, it’s a fact. But they’re all equally worthy of love. That’s surely a sentiment worth celebrating? It hit the US no.10 in March 1960, and – issued on the distinctive black-and-silver London American label, despite strong opposition from a powerful Johnny Kidd And The Pirates cover version, Marv’s original soared to a UK no.5 beneath hits by Cliff Richard, Adam Faith and Anthony Newley. To me, at the time, it was just wonderfully catchy Rock ‘n’ Roll, in the way that Lloyd Price, Jimmy Jones or Jackie Wilson were Rock ‘n’ Roll. I knew nothing about how, with this 45rpm single, Motown was on its way! (Flip the record over, ‘B’-side “Don’t Leave Me” carries Smokey Robinson, Berry Gordy and Brian Holland writer-credits).
Born in Detroit at a time when the American economy worked for god and General Motors, Marvin Earl Johnson began singing aged just thirteen when he formed and sang as part of the Gospel Doo-Wop Serenaders. After being spotted performing on a flatbed truck during the Detroit Carnival Parade, he went solo and soon achieved an American no.6 with “Come To Me” in April 1959, falsetto-highs and girls chanting ‘yeh-yeh-comma-comma-comma’ in a back-up groove that’s recognisably in a “Handy Man” style. Marv had a fine Soul voice, sharp good looks, and was an efficient piano-player, but the secret ingredient in the subsequent run of hits was frequently provided by Berry Gordy Jrn. Working part-time and afterhours Gordy was experimenting, defining and refining what was to become the world-conquering Motown ‘Sound Of Young America’ by writing and producing for Jackie Wilson and Etta James, as well as Marv Johnson – then leasing the resulting Tamla masters to United Artists, drawing raw R&B towards the crossover market with Pop-friendly hooks run over sharp handclap rhythms.
He remained on the Motown staff, writing songs for Johnnie Taylor, the Dells and Tyrone Davis, while holding down a nine-to-five in the sales and promotion division. He also recorded new sides slanted at the Northern Soul market through subsequent hook-ups. An album of material drawn from this later period, yet named after his first chart hit ‘Come To Me’, including Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made To Love Her”, as well as “It’s Magic Between Us”, and “Look, It’s Raining Sunshine” was issued by DJ Ian Levine’s Motorcity Records (CD distributed by Charly MOTCLP 37), and it shows that, at moments, Marv Johnson has still got what it takes to satisfy…