Born Marvin Earl Johnson, 15 October 1938, Detroit, Michigan
R&B / soul singer, songwriter, pianist
Marv Johnson was the very first Motown artist. Berry Gordy started his fabled Detroit empire in January 1959, with the release of Johnson's "Come To Me" on Tamla 101 (the Motown and Gordy labels followed later). The singer is best remembered for a handful of hits in the early 1960s, in particular "You Got What It Takes" and "I Love the Way You Love".
Johnson was raised in a musical environment that mixed the gospel music of the Baptist church with the good time jive recordings of Louis Jordan. By the time of his high school graduation he had acquired rudimentary skills as a pianist and soon joined a singing group known as The Junior Serenaders. Clyde McPhatter, Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke were his three main stylistic influences. In 1958 Marv made his debut as a recording artist with the single "My Baby-O"/"Once Upon A Time" for the small Kudo label from Detroit. At this session he first met Berry Gordy, then a struggling songwriter and would-be producer. Gordy was on the point of starting his own record company, Tamla, and chose Johnson to be the first artist on his fledgling label. Two Johnson-Gordy compositions, "Come To Me" and "Whisper" were coupled for release on Tamla 101 in early 1959. But getting the record distributed outside of Detroit was another matter. Gordy journeyed to New York to secure a national release for "Come To Me" through United Artists, retaining the distribution rights for Tamla in Michigan.
It was such a success (# 6 R&B, # 30 pop) that United Artists signed Marv to their roster, with Gordy acting as his manager. The follow-up, "I'm Coming Home", also entered the charts (# 23 R&B, # 82 pop), but it was Johnson's third United Artists single that really established his name. "You Got What It Takes" was written and first recorded by Bobby Parker (B-side of his first single, Vee-Jay 279, 1958), but Gordy shamelessly credited the Marv Johnson version to himself, his sister Gwen and his friend Billy Davis. Parker couldn't afford a lawyer to fight the case. "You Got What It Takes" went to # 10 on the Billboard pop charts (# 2 R&B) and was a # 5 hit in the UK, where a cover version by Johnny Kidd also charted (# 25). Later on there were hit versions by other British groups, The Dave Clark Five (# 7 US, 1967) and Showaddywaddy (# 2 UK, 1977). And in Australia, "You Got What It Takes" went all the way to # 1.
Chartwise, Johnson's next single, "I Love the Way You Love", did equally well (# 9 pop, # 2 R&B), though sales didn't pass the million mark this time. But the subsequent release, "Ain't Gonna Be That Way" was only a minor hit (# 74). Typical of these early United Artists recordings is the use of a flute in the accompaniment, played by Beans Bowles. But starting with "(You've Got To) Move Two Mountains", the flute was dropped. This was a more pop flavoured effort, which returned Marv to the Top 20 for the last time. It became his second million seller. "Happy Days" (# 58) and "Merry-Go-Round" (# 61) were his last chart entries (1961), in the US at least. Most of the UA recordings were produced by Berry Gordy in Detroit, some by Don Costa in New York City. But instead of enjoying the best of both worlds, Marv was finding himself increasingly stuck in limbo, with no one in either Detroit or New York City to actively look out for his best interest.
When his United Artists contract came up for a second renewal in 1965, in the midst of the British Invasion, Marv chose to sign with one of Berry Gordy's labels instead. Though he recorded more than 20 titles, only three singles were released on Gordy between 1965 and 1968. The last one of these, "I'll Pick A Rose For My Rose", became a hit in the UK at the beginning of 1969 (# 10). To satisfy demand, US Motown dug into what they had in the can on Marv and sent over enough tracks to create a similarly titled LP for the British market. The album was never issued in the USA. Tamla-Motown in the UK issued the second Gordy single, "I Miss You Baby", from 1966 as the follow-up and this was his chart swan song (# 25).
Though his US recording career was over, Johnson never stopped performing and he would remain a popular draw on the oldies circuit. He continued to work for Gordy's Motown empire, but in a front-office job, overseeing promotions. Then personal relationships between Marv and the Gordy family became strained. After being dismissed from Motown in the mid-1970's, Marv affiliated himself with a Detroit-based company called Groovesville Productions. He also wrote songs for Tyrone Davis, Johnny Taylor and other soul artists. After an absence of nearly twenty years, Marv returned to the studio in 1987 (and the two following years) to record 18 tracks for the UK-based Motorcity label, including remakes of "Come To Me" and "I'll Pick A Rose For My Rose", under the supervision of Ian Levine. After performing at a concert in Columbia, South Carolina, on May 14, 1993, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Drifters, Marv Johnson suffered a stroke backstage. He died two days later at Richmond Memorial Hospital, aged only 54.
Interview (1992) :
Discography : http://www.soulfulkindamusic.net/mjohnson.htm
Acknowledgements : Joseph Laredo, Pete Lewis, Mick Patrick.
Dik, January 2015
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