"It was a coup for us," said Valerie, "because most people only got to contribute a song or two to an album, so for him to give us a whole important project was one of the biggest things we did as a production team. Creatively, he left it all in our hands. Once he gave you power he let you do it. He didn't hear it until it was all done." At which point the professor had a minor quibble with their slow-building, Isaac Hayes–influenced, extended version of the 1967 Marvin and Tammi hit "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," which Diana introduced with a sexy monologue. "Berry thought we had gotten it wrong with all that talking in the front," Valerie said. "He thought the build was too slow and he encouraged us to change it around, put the big part in the front. We told him no, we wouldn't do it. Then he told us he wouldn't release it as a single."
By 1969, the rule book of decorum was basically out the window in polite society, let alone impolite rock society. About the only place it was still posted on the wall of the cafeteria for all the employees to read was at the Motown commissary.
"The manner of grooming a group certainly helped prepare them for what they were going to encounter in the outside world; Motown was strong about that," said Valerie from her vantage point as a staffer based in New York City. "But nobody has control over anybody when they close the door. It really comes down to the values you're raised on and how crazy fame makes you. Some succumbed to demons and that's going to happen in all genres of music. The tremendous exhilaration an audience can give you can push you into places that are not real and it's like, can you come back to reality and find your footing?"
That year Motown scored a total of fourteen Top 10 singles and the label showed no outward signs of losing its mojo. "We were such an insulated world," Valerie recalled. "Motown had its own scene, its own clubs. Everybody was doing well, at the height of their popularity. Everywhere people went they were treated like royalty. So you were part of a very special inner circle. The average person in Detroit, working for Ford, might have been going through a very different thing."
Like the town's resident automakers, however, Berry maintained an assembly-line approach. "Everyone had a cubicle, so you could almost literally hear the music coming out of everyone else's room," said Valerie. "We all worked with an ear to the door, listening for what everybody else was doing, just to make sure your stuff sounded stronger. You were always amidst creativity; it was like going to college." And Berry Gordy was the cool but demanding professor whose class was always filled to capacity, even if he was stingy with the As.
"We were really lucky because in the first batch of songs we sent in was 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough,' which was recorded by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell," said Valerie. "So we got music on the street right away. After 'Your Precious Love,' when it came time for the third single, we kind of realized we had sent them great demos and they were pretty much following them, so maybe we should produce as well. So that's when we asked for a production deal."
But Berry always believed his writers should be well schooled in the fine art of competition. Said Valerie, "He decided we should cut 'Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing,' and Johnny Bristol and Harvey Fuqua should cut it as well, and whichever version came out the strongest would be released. So we were lucky again that ours turned out stronger. And that's how we started off as producers, thanks to the indulgence of Marvin and Tammi, since they had to pay for both songs."
Adding to the pressure during that particular production were a couple of unannounced visitors to the studio, Smokey Robinson and Norman Whitfield. "They were standing in the control room watching us," said Valerie, "so it made us a little nervous, but it was also reassuring, like whoa, this must be important here. We gotta get this right." That they did. "Once it was determined you could write a good song and produce it well, we had total creative freedom."
Marvin and Tammi remained their biggest clients until Tammi's death in 1970 from a brain tumor. "When she got sick, I was always doing the demos anyway," said Valerie. "I would sing with Marvin and then we'd bring her in and we'd kind of put together a vocal and doctor it up a bit. That's been perceived as I did the singing, but basically it was her singing and it was just doctored."
Marvin Gaye was a particular favorite of Valerie's. "The studio was a place where he was totally free of whatever demons he might have been dealing with on the outside. So we got to see him at his happiest," she recalled. "He was always my favorite artist, because his gift was so tremendous, his sensibility as to how to bring out a lyric. In duets, he excelled on making a singer better. He didn't have a lot of ego, where he tried to outshine anyone."
In 1970, reeling from Terrell's death, Gaye was on the brink of retirement. Shortly after the murders at Kent State, he went into the studio with a heartfelt message song he helped Al Cleveland and the Four Tops' Renaldo Benson write, called "What's Going On." He thought he might give it to the Originals, the group he was producing, whose "The Bells" had just peaked on the pop charts at No. 12. Then he decided he wanted to do it himself. Just one thing stood in his way: Berry Gordy, who didn't think the track's antiwar sentiments conformed to Marvin's sexy image. Marvin threatened to leave the label if Gordy didn't let him release it. Gordy threatened to let him. A legendary impasse ensued.
"He was the most charming man," Valerie said of Berry. "He could talk you into anything. Even if you didn't agree with him, he was still charming."
But Marvin Gaye was equally staunch in defending his passions no matter how charming his antagonist; he eventually prevailed in his standoff with Gordy, releasing "What's Going On" eight months after it was finished. On the Detroit Metro Times list of the 100 Greatest Detroit Songs, it ranks No. 1
Excerpted from By the Time We Got to Woodstock: The Great Rock 'n' Roll Revolution of 1969 by Bruce Pollock (Backbeat Books).
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