Podcast Transcript

Speaker 1:

Takin’ A Walk.

William Mickey Stevenson:

Our living area was maybe 14, 15 blocks in circumference. You step outside of that line, you got a problem. You only had a certain area to develop in, in the first place. You had to make a decision. When you step out the line know you could run into a problem, but if you want more information, you got to step outside the line. And not just me, Berry Gordy, Smokey, I can name a few. We all in our own way did the same thing.

Speaker 1:

Welcome to the Takin’ A Walk podcast hosted by Buzz Knight, where he speaks with some of music’s most influential people. Today, Buzz’s Guest is William Mickey Stevenson. He’s known as the A&R Man responsible for finding artists like Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and more, the iconic artists that made up the sound of Hitsville U.S.A., Berry Gordy’s Motown label. Now, let’s join Buzz Knight next with Mickey Stevenson on Takin’ A Walk.

Buzz Knight:

Well, Mickey Stevenson, Motown’s first A&R man, I am so grateful to have you on this virtual edition of the Takin’ A Walk podcast. Thank you so much.

William Mickey Stevenson:

Hey, it’s a pleasure being here. Yes.

Buzz Knight:

So Mickey, what did your mother mean to you as far as leadership and mentorship and her inspiration to you?

William Mickey Stevenson:

Her main point was, you have eight hours to work when you get there, eight hours to sleep when you get there, what are you going to do with the other eight? You got to put that into action.

That was a little difficult for us younger, but as we learned, that’s very important. The more of that time that you use to develop desires you have, make it work, the more time you use of that, the better you’ll get. And the more you throw it away and not deal with it, the longer it’s going to take you to do whatever you think you want to do. Are you following me?

Buzz Knight:

Yes.

William Mickey Stevenson:

So that’s the bottom line. So for that, I started using it. Not in a hurry, well, I wasn’t that smart, but as time went on, I started recognizing that this is very, very important. So, my brothers and I, we rehearsed and we did a lot of things. We rehearsed, we wrote songs. We actually used it performing-wise. My mother, of course, was a singer and a writer, and so we would see her doing the same things that she was telling us we should do. So it worked out great.

Buzz Knight:

So can you describe the club and the speakeasy scene as you were growing up in Detroit?

William Mickey Stevenson:

The clubs? Well, the Flame Show Bar, which was the main club that all the artists from around the country would come in and perform there. Then we had a lot of little ones that were going on and my mother, of course, was one of the main attractions at the main club. So she would have to figure out what she’s going to do each week. Couldn’t do the same thing all the time so each time she’d be practicing and working things out, we would watch her and decide, “Oh wow, this is really something.”

And as we go out into the clubs, as I got older of course, and went around and I saw artists and things happening, and I could tell whether they really worked on it or not by the way they were handling it on the stage. I could tell how much time they really put into it. I said, “Wow, this is amazing.” I mean, what she was showing us and what I saw later on in life, it panned out to be absolutely true. I took all that into consideration. Are you with me?

Buzz Knight:

Yes. And I’m thinking, could your mother have been an A&R person as well?

William Mickey Stevenson:

I don’t think so. I say that because when she was coming up, there was no… As an entertainer and all that, in the world of controlling that industry, Blacks were not… They had very little possibilities of making that happen, let me put it to you that way. So she dealt with what she could deal with. A&R and all that was not even in the picture, just getting recorded in her time was a huge job. So that’s the only way I can see that. It changed as time went on and the marches and the development between Blacks and the industry grew a little steps by step at a time. Are you following me?

Buzz Knight:

Yes. But she had an ear for what sounded really terrific though, didn’t she?

William Mickey Stevenson:

Oh yeah. But those are gifts. I tell everybody, “God gives us all gifts, two and three gifts.” And her gift was to hear and recognize. Those that she heard that could do something, she would talk to them about it.

Fortunately for me, I have the same gift that she had and others like of Berry Gordy had gifts and Smokey Robinson has gifts. Stevie Wonder has gifts. This is nothing new. These are things are given to us by God from day one.

Now, what we do with it, it depends on who’s around us and how we develop it. But you have gifts. I mean, that’s just the way it is. We are not here just to be here, we are here for a purpose, in my opinion. Please take that from my point of view and those gifts are given.

Now, if people around you recognize that you have something special going on and help you develop that phenomenon, there are people around you that say, “What are you doing that for? Why are you doing that? That’s ridiculous.” Now, a lot of these gifts are being taken away from… Not taken away, just say blocked out. And when people see people around you that care and recognize it and push it, it’s a wonderful thing.

Buzz Knight:

Mickey, how were you able to stay on the straight and narrow track as you were growing up rather than straight to the dark side of things, which can happen to anybody in life?

William Mickey Stevenson:

Well, I don’t have an absolute answer to that. I do know that fortunately for me, some of the adults at my time had went through changes and they saw me struggling trying to develop whatever I was working on, they were encouraging. So fortunately, I did not lean or work with those who were in a bad position in their own right at that time. That was not attracting to me. I was looking at people who were developing things and moving along.

I wanted to know, “How did you do that? How’d you make that happen? Well, that’s great. Can you show me?” I was in that kind of thinking. That’s again part of my mom’s training. You don’t want to get involved in something that’s not working. You see them in a bad place in life. You want to deal with things that are happening, that’s going in another direction that gives you inspiration, shall we say.

I and my brothers, we would take time and watch things that were really, really happening and say, “Oh, I wish I could do that. How’d you do that?” We was in that kind of a thinking.

So now you got to understand, back in the day, all around us, even in our living area, was maybe 14, 15 blocks in circumference. You step outside of that line, you got a problem. You only had a certain area to develop in, in the first place. You had to make a decision. When you step out the line, know you could run into a problem, but if you want more information, you got to step outside the line.

And not just me. Berry Gordy, Smokey, and I can name a few, we all in our own way, did the same thing. I would imagine that happened all around the country. So I was just one of those people that went at it from that point of view.

Buzz Knight:

The book tells such great stories. I could visualize every one of them. One in particular, recount that first meeting in the barbershop with the man known as BG, Mr. Berry Gordy.

William Mickey Stevenson:

Yep. Yeah, that was a place the barbershop, which was then, remember I’m telling you now, we lived in this so many blocks we had in that area. That was it. So Benny Mullen who had a barbershop there and all the artists that would come into city to perform, and the people that lived there, they wanted to look better and all that, mainly the guys, would go to Benny Mullen’s Barbershop.

He only had a few chairs there and a lot of things to keep you occupied so you can stay in the seats and he wouldn’t lose a customer. He had chess games and checker games and he had the phones and he had all that stuff going on. That’s amazing how God works. He made it a point, Berry Gordy would come in and get his hair done and I would get mine done. So Benny Mullen said to Berry, “Man, this guy Mickey Stevenson, you got to meet him. He’s really got a thing going on musically.”

Then he would tell me the same thing, “you know Berry Gordy will be here in a minute and I was telling you about him. He’s got a great thing going with the recording. He got Jackie Wilson and all that. He’s producing him and writing.” And he said, “You guys ought to get together.”

Now, he absolutely set that up and he could make that announcement to others coming into his shop so they could stay. So he was pretty good, thank God for him.

At one point, it absolutely happened. He only had two barber chairs in the whole place. He had Berry in one chair and me in the other. And he said, “Oh, by the way, now Mickey Stevenson, this is Berry Gordy. Berry, this the guy I was talking about.” So Berry again had plans of his own, said to me, “Man, I heard about you and the things you’re doing in the city here with the musicians and all that sort of thing, and the writers.” And he said, “We got to talk. I’ll be back in about two or three weeks. I’m going to finish the project on Jackie Wilson this album, and I would like to have a meeting with you, and I’ll give you a call and we’ll get together.”

And I was excited about that, because I said, “Man, the songs you’re doing, man, it’s incredible. How’d you do that? And by the way, I got a couple for you too, that you can take.” I was ready to get into his deal with the… I forgot the label he was with, with my songs and everything.

He said, “Well, I got my songs together,” he said, “But we’ll talk because I heard about what you got there. We’ll get together.” And that was the beginning of the relationship between Berry Gordy and I.

And really when he came back, it took maybe a couple of months, something like that, he called me and said, “You got to come over to my place for a meeting.” I was really excited because I gathered all my best songs. Now look, I’m going for him to record me with my songs. That’s what I was thinking about. He had a whole nother idea completely with that happening.

I get to his place. He is living in an apartment building. We called it ghetto fabulous apartments building where you push the button and the buzzer would buzz, you better grab the door before it closed or you couldn’t get in. You got to start all over again.

So I’m into his place. I’m walking down the corridor, going to his apartment, and he’s standing there with the phone in his hand and some shorts on. And I’m saying, “Wow, I’m looking forward to this great meeting and a great place and all that.”

Uh-huh. When I get into his place, I’m in his apartment. He said, “Okay, let me hear your songs.” He still got the phone in his hand, talking, and I am looking around. I’m saying, “Where’s the piano?” I don’t see no piano, I don’t see nothing, none of that kind of stuff. And he says, “What are you looking for?” I said, “Well, you got a piano?” He said, “What a piano got to do with it? You sing, right? You write, right?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Okay, well start singing.” So that’s how we hooked up.

I sang about three or four of my songs. And between him talking on the phone and listening to me, I’m saying, “Is this guy, is he paying attention here?” And when I finished about four songs or so, he said, “You got some pretty good stuff there.” I was impressed. I said, “Okay, now let me show you the one that’s going to be the hit on me,” was my line. Remember, I’m still working on him producing me.

So he said, “You?… So, he said, “A song that you… Uh-huh.” He said, “I didn’t bring you here to produce you.” I said, “What? You say my songs are good?” He said, “Yeah, but your voice is for shit.”

So that wasn’t too exciting for me. I immediately started collecting my stuff off the floor ready to get out of there. He said, “What you doing?” I say, “I come to you for I thought you wanted to produce me.” He said, “No, no, no, no, no, no. I hear what you’re doing, I see what you’re doing and I’m starting my own company and I would like for you to be the A&R man, but my company.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. So I said, “A&R man, what is the A&R man?” He said, “Artist and repertoire. You’re going to find the artists, the writers, producers. You’re going to record the session so we are going to make hit records.” And I said, “Wow. Oh, yeah?”

Now, my mind’s turning again. I said, “If I’m the A&R man, can I record myself?” He said, “Yeah, if you think it’s going to be a hit record.” I said, [inaudible 00:14:53] now, I’m interested in whatever this A&R stuff is all about.” So I said, “Okay, who do I report to if something goes wrong? Anything?” And he said, “You and me, that’s it.” I said, “Nobody else?” He said, “No, you and me.” I said, “Okay.”

Then I asked him, I said, “Well, what are you paying for this?” I think he said, $5, $10 a day, something like that, “and all the chili you can eat.” I said to myself, “This guy’s crazy.” I said, “Well, let me think about it. Let me think.” He said, “Okay.”

But to move on with that, I accepted the position because I was going to leave. Matter of fact, I was leaving and I was saying to him, “I want to think this thing over.” I’m trying to figure out how can I make this work for me? Could I get him to… ” In my mind says I still get him to produce me as an artist.”

I’m walking away, and I remember my mom telling me, “You want to get into something, you want to make it work? You got to try it. If it’s in your vein, if it’s where you are coming from, the things you are about, you’re going to learn all you can.”

Those thoughts were working in my head as I was trying to get out of the place and it dawned on me that what have I got to lose? This is another thing, the 24-hour time, the eight hours of working, and I thinking eight hours of planning. And I said, “Wait a minute, wait a minute.” I turned around. I said, “Okay, I’ll work this out with you.” I said, “When do I start?” He said, “You already started.”

He had the confidence that I was going to take this position. That was amazing and it brought back the thoughts of you surround yourself with the people doing the right things, making things happen, that energy transfers to you. It’s that you really wanted to get it, whether it’s your educational program, whether you want to be a doctor, lawyer, whatever it is, you got to be in that atmosphere to help make it work and your gifts work. So I settled with that.

And amazingly here comes Smokey Robinson to his place. Smokey is coming down the hall, coming to the door, and he walked up. He told Berry, said, “Man, Mickey Stevenson. Oh,” he say, “Why you got Mickey here?” And Berry said, “He’s going to be the A&R man for our company.”

Now, bottom line is, Smokey and Berry had been talking all the time. They already had this plan in motion, not for me, but to start this new label. So Smokey and I, we knew each other. So Berry said, “You know him?” He say, “Oh man, yeah, this is great.” He said, “Well, he’s the A&R man.” Smokey said, “Fantastic, man. I got a session tomorrow at such and such a time, and I need another drummer and a… “blah, blah, blah. I say, “Okay, you got it.”

Berry said, “He got it?” Smokey said, “If Mickey say I’m going to have a drummer, I’m going to have a drummer.” So Smokey knew about me because of school and all that, we were battling in groups, making deals with different parties. My group would perform, his group would perform, and we had a battle going on so we knew each other and he knew how I operated. If I say I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it. So Berry said, “Wow. I got the right man.” [inaudible 00:18:25] That was the beginning of the Motown Motown operation.

Buzz Knight:

Yeah. And what an operation it became, my goodness. Now, when Smokey further worked with you, he knew you were a man of your word and that you did everything you said you would do even further, right?

William Mickey Stevenson:

Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Never stopped. I only got wiser, more deeply involved, more… And it was a good feeling when I found someone with the gift. Remember I always kept that in my head now. You got to have the gift. Just say you’re a singer is great words, but that don’t mean that you are a singer. You may think you are. Are you working with it? Have you worked with it? I look for that.

Just saying you can sing is one word. Let me hear you.” Then I’d say, “Well, why would you sing out of tune like that? Why wouldn’t you go with someone and show you how to stay in pitch?” I would go that way and, “Just because you heard a record, now you want to sing it. That’s one thing. Development is another.” And I would say, “How much time you spend on working on your voice?” I would say that to people who come to audition for me, and I could not help but to say those things.

Some would say, “Well, I don’t do that much.” I say, “Well, you better start adding that into your daily routine. That’s the only way you’re going to get better.” And I say, “Come back after you’ve done some of that and let me hear you again.”

Now, if I found out you don’t have a voice at all, I would say, “Thank you very much. See you next week. I’m done.” But when people with gifts… I’m sure you’ve heard this and you’ve been around people, you see gifts, they’re just wonderful. Then what do a person do with that gift? And who around them encourages them and who around them that want to pull them down? That’s the battle with talented people in any field, in my opinion.

So with that working, I was fortunate enough to hear some very talented people come in. Some come in as a singer, and I say, “Who wrote that song that you’re singing?” The person said, “I wrote it.” I said, “You wrote the song by yourself?” “Yeah.” I said, “I tell you what, I won’t sign you as a singer right now, but I will sign you as a writer.” He said, “Why would you do that?” I said, “Because that song is good. You got great potential [inaudible 00:20:49]. Your voice is okay, but your writing ability is really special. You want to come in under those terms?” They said, “You’ll sign me as a writer.” I said, “Absolutely.” They said, “Okay.” So it was a whole thing going there with me.

Some came in as writers, but they sang better than they wrote. I said, “Well, your voice is good, but why would you sing that song? Why don’t you find other songs?” Anyway, and it kept going, and I’m talking like 15, 20 people every week, sometimes more, because I was on the hunt. I wanted to have the best that I could get for this company to grow.

It went on and on, and as we went on, it got better and better. Some of the best talent would come in. They would come in as one way, go out as another. They’d come in as singers, be writers. Some came in as singers and writers, which were great.

Buzz Knight:

Tell me about the hysterical story about how Martha Reeves became so fixated on signing with you.

William Mickey Stevenson:

Martha, we met at, I think the club was called… Can’t think of the name of it now, but she sang in the club and she walked up to me and now, I told her… When she sang, there was like maybe three or four acts singing in that club. And I said, “Martha, you got something going here. Why don’t you come by the office and let’s talk?” So she was excited about it.

When she came to my office for that, I would not say an audition, but I wanted to find out more about her as a person. In the meantime, I’m doing two or three things at the same time, and so I didn’t have a lot of time for her when she showed up. And said, “Well, let me get back with you later. Come back on… ” I would name a day something like that.

Martha was determined to be with this company. She would come constantly try to get me to meet with what she’s doing, her songs and her way of singing and all that. What happened was, my secretary was leaving and she saw Martha all the time because her and Martha got to be friends and I come into my office and one of the days in that week and there’s Martha on my phone, in my office, I said, “What are you doing?” She said, putting the finger on, “Just a minute,” like she’s handling a call, took the information down with the person, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I said, “What you doing on my phone?” She says, “Well,” her friend who was my secretary,” she said, “she had me come in here because she had a lot of things going there and would a lot to help her out and all that?”

I was watching her talking and I’m saying, “Wait a minute.” I know my secretary was leaving. I said, “Are you pretty good at this?” She said, “Just a minute.” A call came in again and she went through the conversation, “Yeah, well, Mr. Stevenson will do this for you,” blah, blah, blah. “Give me you number,” put that down. While she’s talking to me now she’s [inaudible 00:24:12] my secretary of the phone, and I said, “You know what? My girl’s leaving. You know that?” She said, “Yeah.” I said, “Okay, I take it you want this job?” She said, “Absolutely.” She said, “I come to be an artist though, to sign with the label.” I said, “Hold it. Hold about the signing part.” But I said, “You’re pretty good at what you’re doing, so we may work something out.”

Bottom line is, she had her plan for me, but she was very good though. She was very good. So of course it got around to me recording her, but she was, “I had no plans of leaving that building” and she was going to make it through that building. She was that determined and I liked that. I liked that part about her.

When she got to be my assistant secretary, shall we say, she would say to me, “Don’t call me a secretary. Call me your assistant.” She didn’t like the word secretary. I said, “Okay.”

But when the artist came in, whether it was Smokey or somebody that she admired and all that, she would still keep the respect of what her position was while other people working around say, “Oh my God, he’s Smokey,” or, he’s so-and-so, and they get out of the job and start getting involved. Martha never did that. She stayed, kept it business. She kept respect for the position that she was in for me. I loved that about her.

And eventually I got around to recording her, as you know, but she had that in her mind as part of what she wanted to do, and I liked that about her. At the time that I did record her, we did the dancing and the street song. When I called her, she would never leave… If I stayed till 11:00 or 12:00 at night, she would stay. I mean, when she came in, she would stay there and her deal was, “I’ll stay here as long as you’re here.” I said, “Wait a minute.” She said, “Hold it. I don’t want to know. You ain’t got pay for no overtime.” I said, “Okay, you got a deal.”

Buzz Knight:

What a great lesson that is for anybody coming up the ranks in any business to just be resilient and steadfast that you’re going to get what you want, right?

William Mickey Stevenson:

Yeah. Oh, yeah. How else are you going to do it? I mean, it don’t work otherwise. You got to be lucky for somebody to grab you and you don’t spend the time and the determination to be what you want to be. You got to have that. That’s important.

Not only for when you get into that position, but to make it grow. You see that same feeling and thoughts got to be with you. Not just to get the job, whatever the job is, but if you want to make it happen, you get the job and you keep that energy and that desire to be the best you could be at it, so it never stops.

Buzz Knight:

But we’re going to get to talk about what you’re working on with your two musicals because you never stop, so we will touch upon that.

Speaker 1:

We’ll be right back with more of the Takin’ A Walk podcast.

Welcome back to the Takin’ A Walk podcast.

Buzz Knight:

Can you tell us that beautiful story that would result in the Four Tops coming to Motown?

William Mickey Stevenson:

Well, that was amazing. The Four Tops. I came home on a furlough, and we had a theater like Apollo, like I told you, was the Warfield theater in Detroit, and I’m coming in and I’m going to the theater on my furlough, because I want to have some fun. I got my uniform on and I’m coming in the place and I’m looking around to see what the best girls and who I could talk to and all that, like soldiers do.

At the theater, they had an amateur show and they had the movies. The amateur show were like the Apollo was going on and these acts were coming out performing. They were terrible, and then one or two was reasonable. Then the Four Tops came on. They were called the Four Aims at that time. The Four Aims come on, and these guys started singing. They were doing a combination of jazz and R&B all wrapped up in one song, and it was (singing). And they were singing, and Levi was taking those notes and taking, that was the lead singer, to a whole nother level, and I said, “Man, these guys are great. They’re going to be stars one day.”

And in that process and listening to it, looking at them and watching them sing, remember what I did with my brothers in the Apollo and the determination and all that, I said, “Wow.” I was supposed to, at that time, reenlist in the army where I was at, and I decided right then and there, “I’m not going to stay in the Army. I’m going to go deep into this business.”

That was before Berry, so I had my mind as an artist and all that. When later on when I was asked to come back and sign up to do some more years, the Colonel asked me, “Man, we’ll put you in officers training school and you’ll be a great officer for your people,” that line didn’t knock me out, and I said, “Nah, I’m out of here with the Army.” And of course I got with Berry and blah, blah, blah as I went along.

Now, years later, I [inaudible 00:29:52] and Berry said to me he wanted a jazz label, and I said to him, “Jazz label? [inaudible 00:29:57] the jazz label? It have less than 15% of the market.” He said, “You the A&R man here?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Get me a jazz label.” I said, “Okay, okay, okay.” So I said, “I got to go to Chicago and New York, brother, and see what musicians we can sign up to be on our jazz label.”

I go to New York. I’m wandering around, all the jazz musicians there, very, very, very good, but they didn’t want to be locked down into a label. They all played with each other on different sessions, and you couldn’t build a star in my mind, on our line.

So I said to Berry, I said, “Enough of this, man, I got to do this another way.” He said, “What’s your game plan?” I said, “I’m going to get me like a Nancy Wilson. Then I’ll had a jazz musicians play on her and that will cover the jazz line, but we got an artist on our label.” He said, “That’s a good idea,” and he’d say, “How are you going to do that?” I said, “Well, I’m going to Chicago for that. So today I’m just quitting right now. I’m going to go down to the village and have myself a little fun and prepare to get out of here tomorrow and I’m going to Chicago.” He said, “Okay.”

I’m in the village down in New York, and I’m walking in thinking where I’m going to enjoy myself, and I’m passing this club, and I hear these guys singing. I’m standing outside. I looked. They were under the name of the Four Tops and I’m looking at them, I’m seeing and I said, “Wow. Those guys are really good. It reminded me of the group that I heard at Warfield, and it was singing really good.” So I said, “Man, these guys are great.”

I walked in the club and sure enough, it was the same guys. They had changed their names to the Four Tops, and I said, “Wow.” So I sat down and watched them and I told the owner of the club that come over and I said, “Listen, when they get off the stage, would you have them come over here? I want to talk to them” Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. He said, “Sure.” He said, “Who are you?” I said, “Mickey Stevenson, Motown.” [inaudible 00:31:48] Gave him a little history stuff.

And sure enough, the show was over, they’re part of us. They were singing now behind Billy Eckstine, his backup, but they were the opening act. And I really went down to see Billy Eckstine, but when I’m standing outside and hearing these voices, this group, I said, “This is great.”

Anyway, I’m in there, the guy, the owner tells the Four Tops about me and Duke Fakir, who was the head guy with the group, came over and he said, “Well, who are you, man? I heard you wanted to talk to us.” I said, “Yeah, man.” I said, “I saw you guys. I see you changed your name from Aims Brothers,” because there was a White group called the Ames Brothers, I might add, and I said to, now to the Four Tops. I said, “But I saw you in Detroit,” and I told him when it was, and I sang the song that they did to win the contest.

He was in shock. He said, “How’d you know that song?” I said, “I heard you guys sing it, and I thought you were great.” And I said to myself, “These guys are going to be stars.” And I said, “And I’m in the position to make that happen for you.”

Now, I’m talking like this. Now, Duke looked at me as if to say, “This guy who is the guy,” and he called the owner over. He said, “It’s Mickey Stevenson with Motown.” He said, “Motown, Detroit?” He say, “But yo man, but y’all just doing that R&B stuff. We are not R&B singers.” I said, “We don’t do R&B stuff. We do music, and you’re not just singers. You sing songs of any kind of song. So you take that one style out of your thoughts and become an artist who sings songs and we’re a company who make music. Then we can come together.”

And he said, “Man, you’re very determined about this thing.” I said, “When you leave this place, you come to Detroit. Come home, come to my office, we’ll get together and I’ll make you stars.” He looked at me, he said, “Man,” I said, “Before you… Stop right there, I’ll be back in two weeks. When are you leaving this place?” He said, “Well, if you’re going to be back in two weeks, we are going to come by and see you.”

Sure enough, about two weeks later, he’s knocking on my door at my office and my secretary says, “These guys, Duke Fakir the Four Tops are here.” I said, “Bring him in.” And we just hooked up right then and there. I brought out the contracts too. I didn’t waste time with a whole lot of dialogue. I said, “Man, you made the best move of your life,” and I pulled out the contracts. I said, “Now, you take these contracts to your lawyer to whoever you work with and get it straight. Come back, sign them, you’re on.” And he said, “Take them to our lawyer?” I said, “I’m going to tell you right now. I ain’t changing nothing on the paper.” And Duke looked at me and pointed his finger he said, “We are going to sign this contract, and I’m holding you responsible for everything you said about making us stars.” I said, “You got a deal.”

Buzz Knight:

Oh, and everything worked out pretty well, I would say.

William Mickey Stevenson:

Absolutely, absolutely. Berry Gordy said to me, “Man, we got another group.” I said, Berry, “This is not just a group. They’re very special.” He said… I said, “Hold it. Am I the A&R man here?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Okay. Then I signed this group.” I said, “Before you say anything else, come over to the studio.” Because I had them in the studio area. We’d talk meeting the musicians and everybody.

I walked over there with Berry. I said, “Okay, Four Tops, Levi sing a song.” They said, “What kind of song?” I said, “I don’t care what kind.” I said, “Just sing a song.” When they started singing and Levi started hitting those notes, and the group was right behind him, all the producers just left the room and Berry said, “Wow, man, these guys are something.” I said, “Oh, I told you.” They all left the room because each of the producers and writers went to their rooms so they started writing some songs for these guys. Berry just looked at me and walked away.

Buzz Knight:

Now, you had some hard and fast rules when you went into the studio with players and bands and musicians. What were some of your rules of discipline that needed to occur when you had a studio session?

William Mickey Stevenson:

Well, first of all, you can’t bring anybody with you, no friends and all that kind of stuff. Each person knew exactly what their position was. I had two guitar players, and most of the time I had two. One was rhythm, one was lead. All your chords and stuff for your songs that you’re dealing with when the writers and producers bring their music in, and I had people to work with them so these things are written out, so we don’t guess at nothing. If you want to make a change, you can make a change while you’re writing it down. Everybody had to have their pencils at hand keep it in order.

If you’re producing a song or writing a song, I didn’t want anybody changing your stuff because you spent time to develop it like it is. So bottom line is, all my musicians had to be able to read. That’s number one. When they came in… And I picked them one at a time. I mean each, every musician was in there as individuals, they wanted to be great at their thing. You take people like that together, you really got yourself a unique sound. So each one of these musicians, [inaudible 00:37:21] the Funk Brothers that we call them, each one of them wanted to be great at what they did on their instrument. Period. So when they all had the same calling as they came together, they only got better.

Buzz Knight:

I’m going to mention some of the great artists from Motown and get your reaction to this amazing roster that shaped music history. First person is Stevie Wonder.

William Mickey Stevenson:

That was a gift from heaven. I was singing with Clarence Paul, Clarence Paul and I were like the Sam and Dave, shall we say, in Michigan, because Clarence was, he was an incredible blues singer. Me, I’m in a whole nother world of my mom singing pop and jazz and all that. So he got me singing with him.

We sang around the country, Idaho, Michigan and all that. We do clubs, and that was my income, was working with Clarence. When I took the job as the A&R in Motown, we’re doing, while recording product and coming out with the hit records, I hated the albums because they were just one or two songs on there and nothing else was happening. So I told Berry, “This is not working for me me. We got to have good songs in the album, not just songs, just because we got a hit.” He said, “Okay, that’s your job. You figure it out.”

So I hired Clarence to work with me in Motown to check on all the albums that were coming out. His job was to make sure the songs are really on the one in there. It’s like first release and second release in the album. Now, the other songs got to sound as good, not stuff that was worked on and thrown away, now just stick it in the album. Uh-uh. The album’s got to be good. That was his job and I’m saying it to say how we got to the Stevie one.

At a certain point, Clarence, after about a year, year and a half, Clarence said, “Man, can I produce some of the main artists?” I said, “Clarence, I can’t take Smokey off of the Temptations and [inaudible 00:39:22] and Doge away from Supremes and put you on. It don’t work like that. These guys are coming up with hip product.” I said, “I’ll sign some of my artists for you to work with.” He said, “Okay, man.” He said, “But let me tell you, I found this kid, I’d like to bring him in and do some work with him.”

Because I’m saying to myself, “I got to let Clarence go, because I can’t change my roster here, but this is an opportunity for him so he can let himself go, take me off the hook.” So I said, “Okay, why don’t you let me hear what you’re talking about?” He said, “Well, one more thing, man.” He said, “He’s about 11 years old.” I said, “Hold it, Clarence. You’re bringing an 11-year-old kid in here?” He said, “Mickey Stevenson, your word’s your bond. You said I can do it so this is who I want to do it with a 11-year-old kid. Can I bring him in and work something out so you can listen to him?”

I said, “Okay, man, do that.” He said, “One more thing.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “He’s blind.” I said, “Clarence Paul, have you lost your mind? You’re going to bring an 11-year-old kid in here, blind and going to produce?” I said, “Okay, you can bring him. Every time I see that kid, I want to see you hand in hand. If he falls down these stairs or do something, Berry Gordy is going to kill me and I’m going to kill you.” So he said, “Okay.”

So two weeks later, Clarence comes in and he brings Stevie with him. The session’s about to close, so the musician’s kind wrapping up. Clarence takes Stevie over to the drummer and give Benny Benjamin a hint. Benny got up and Clarence set Stevie down on the drum. Stevie pushes his hands around, touched all the drums and the cymbals. Now, the band is still kind of, he’s still kind of in his pocket. Stevie jumps right in on the lick. [inaudible 00:41:08]. Then he makes a run. [inaudible 00:41:12].

I’m in shock. Everybody else look. Stevie gets off the drums. Benny Benjamin sets back down on the drum. Now the band is cooking up again. Clarence Paul takes Stevie over to the organ. The organ player gets up, Stevie feels the organ, and he’s right into the pocket with the organ. Clarence takes him off the organ. Earl Van Dyke sits back down the organ in shock so now he’s cooking.

All of a sudden, the sound that they were closing down with is lifting up in the space, and then the groove is cooking. They’re all amazed at this kid, but they’re loving what the feeling is, that he’s giving them.

Stevie goes over to the microphone. Clarence got him, pulls the mic. Stevie takes a harmonica out of his pocket and starts blunting. Now the groove is cooking, and Stevie [inaudible 00:42:10]. Bam. Puts the harmonica back in his pocket and starts singing, (singing). Now, the band is cooking like a big dog, and he’s singing, words coming out of his mouth, but you hear the tone of his voice.

I left the studio, went to my office, told them to call a lawyer friend of mine and ask him, “What is the deal signing a kid at 11 years old?” Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. He gave me the information what I had to do. Legally.

Now, they’re still in the studio. I go over to Berry’s office. I said, “BG, going to sign this kid we got over here.” He said, “Well, you can sign anybody you want to. [inaudible 00:42:51] That’s your job.” I said, “Wait a minute. This is a little bit different.” He said, “What’s that?” I say, “He’s about 10, 11 years old.” He said, “What?” I said, “Wait a minute, and he’s blind.” Berry said, “You crazy?” I said, “No.” I said, “I have never seen gifts like this before. Now, you know we all got gifts out here, but he’s got some special gifts and I want to sign him.”

I said, “Hold it before you see anything else. I already called a lawyer and found out what things we had to do when you take on a kid like that. You got to make sure that he gets some schooling. You got to have breakfast people with him. He got submit schoolwork. You’ll be responsible for that, and we got to pay for that and all that.” He said, “You know what you’re saying?” I said, “I know exactly what I’m saying.” I said, “Am I the A&R man here?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Then I want to sign this kid. This is as simple as that.” He said, “Okay, I’m holding you responsible for that.” I said, “Okay. That’s my job. I’m responsible.” I said, “now, come on. Come with me.” He said, “What?” I said, “I want you to see what I’m talking about.”

He comes over to the studio and Stevie’s still in a little bit of his musical thing like that, and he said, “Wow.” I said, “Now, this guy is going to be phenomenal. We just got to stay with him.” That’s how Stevie got there, and we stayed with him and everything that he said he could do, or I heard he could do, he did. Those are gifts that are amazing, and I made sure that nobody interfered with that, and he took off.

Buzz Knight:

Oh, that’s a beautiful story. Wow. When I mention Diana Ross, what do you think about when I mention her name?

William Mickey Stevenson:

Same thing, special gifts. And she was determined, and that idea of working four or five hours above that, she would spend more time than that. When we had the artist development area where you had to come in, get your, once you had a song, how you going to perform it, how’s it going to look on stage? I got that from my mom. Just don’t stand there and sing. Unless you’re going to sing opera, you better do something else.

So we had a what we call artist development area, where we had teachers would show you how to perform with the microphone and make yourself look, just don’t stand in front of the microphone to sing. So we had dance routines and all that.

Diana was the kind of artist that was determined. She would even come into the rehearsal area, where we work out the choreography, and she would stay. I mean, you only had an hour or two in there, she’d stay as long as she could. She had a whole determination of being as good as she could possibly be no matter what. If someone else was late, she would say, “Can I take that time?” Say, “Absolutely.” I mean, she had a whole nother direction.

But back to my mom’s teaching, as many hours as you could spend on your gift or your talent that will pay off. The less you spend, it’s going to hit a wall

Buzz Knight:

More. Great lessons. How about Marvin Gaye?

William Mickey Stevenson:

Marvin was a whole nother case. I heard Marvin Gaye singing, and I loved his voice. I didn’t like his songs, but I loved his voice. So I told Berry. I said, “Okay, I’ll do something with him.” He said, “What do you mean something?” I said, “I’m going to get some hits on him.” He said, “You going to get some hits on him?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Okay, what’s the deal?” I said, “What do you want the deal to be?” He said, “Well, it’s a $500 bet like we do.” I said, “No, no, no, no, no. A thousand on this one.” He said, “A thousand. Why?” I said, “Man, I got to change this guy’s mind.” Instead of looking like Andy Williams, I got to change his thinking. I love his voice and he’s creative.” I said, “It’s going to take some time and I’m going to make it.” He said, “You going to make it happen?” I said, “Yeah, but the bet’s $1000. Now, what’s the deal?” He said, “You got a bet.” I said, “Okay.”

Now, we talking like this, and Marvin’s right on the side of it. He could hear this conversation. So when Berry left and Marvin walked down, “What is this? What’s your plan you got to do with me?” I said, “Hey, man, first of all, let’s become friends. So let’s get to know each other.” He said, “How you going to make that?” Because he’s kind of pissed off. He said, “How you going to make that happen?” I said, “I see you write songs.” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Why don’t we write some songs together?” And he said, “You’ll write some songs with me?” I said, “Sure. You got gifts, man.” He said, “Okay.” [inaudible 00:47:33] get to know each other?” He said, “Okay.” Because he was surprised that I said that, but I really meant that, because I saw some of his writing. So I said, “Oh, yes.”

So we started writing songs together, and then we were writing songs, I’d tell him it would be for maybe the Contours or something like that, so we’d be writing a song. So I would sing a line and, (singing) whatever I’m doing, and then he would say, (singing) I said, “No, no, no, no, no, no. You can’t go that way. You got to sing it like I’m singing that. Go to church.”

So I’d sing my line. (singing) And he’d say, (singing). I say, “Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.” So, we’d do the lines. I do my lines. He do his lines. So we worked out about two or three songs. And each time I slipped back to the same one to make it better.

So I go to my place and I take a razor and I splice out all of my lines and tape all of his together. In those days, you had a tape recorder. You’d take a little razor and you cut down. You take the tape out. Remember that?

Buzz Knight:

Yep, yep, yep.

William Mickey Stevenson:

So I put all of his lines together. So I came to the office and called him. I said, “Come, I want you to hear something.” He said, “What’s that?” I played the song and all of his lines consistently stayed in order and very soulful. He said, “Wow, man. How’d you do that?” I said, “I cut all mine’s out. Put all yours together.” I said, “Now, do me a favor. Why don’t you sing this song? It’ll take me off the hook with Berry, and then I’ll do the jazz album on you.” He said, “You’ll do a jazz album?” “Of course, I come from jazz, so ain’t no big deal.” I say, “But I got to get off the hook with Berry with you.” So he said, “Okay.” I said, “Now, anything that don’t sound right… ” In those days, you could put your earphones on. I could be in the studio and I can sing it. You could hear me while you are out recording. You follow what I’m saying?

Buzz Knight:

Yep.

William Mickey Stevenson:

I said, “Anything that don’t work right, I’ll just sing it to you, you can sing the same thing I’m doing. You got a better voice than me, so it’s going to sound better automatically, but you’ll know where we’re going.” He said, “Okay.”

So we were in the studio and we did just that. I think I did maybe two stop. I sang it where he said, “Go back,” and then he would do it better. But after that, he didn’t need me, because he got the whole thing in his head. He finished it, and so I got the record.

Berry’s coming down, “How you doing with the Marvin Gaye?” I said, “How am I doing? Get my thousand dollars.” He said, [inaudible 00:49:55]. What? You crazy? I ain’t heard nothing.” I said, “Here, take this demo back to the office. I’ll wait right here.” He said, “Are you sure?” I said, “Just take it back to the office.”

He turned around, went back upstairs to his office, came back downstairs, about five minutes later, opened his pocket and the wallet took out the thousand dollars he gave to me, said, “How did you do that?” I said, “You don’t want to know.”

Buzz Knight:

Oh, that’s great. Oh, man.

Mickey, let’s talk about what you’re working on now, and I want to know where you get all your energy from as well, but tell me about your two projects that you’re so passionate about that you’re working on right now.

William Mickey Stevenson:

Oh, man. It’s wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. I’m doing the Sing It From the Heart. I took Billie Holiday, Josephine Baker, Diana Washington, Mahalia Jackson, Bessie Smith, Dorothy Dandridge, Eartha Kitt, and Lena Horne. These women made history at a time where it was unbelievable, the prejudice, garbage going on and all that kind of stuff, but they still became great artists. I put them together so they can kind of tell their stories in music.

It’s Sing It From the Heart. And I have a young girl who’s studying to be an actress, artist, and she has to find out. She auditioned and had got the part for one of these ladies, but she don’t know the history of them. She could just do the part because of the writing of the script, but she’s got to put the feeling in it.

So her boyfriend tells her, “Why don’t you get your computer and look up these ladies, which whatever you want to be, and study them? Because they went through some changes. It didn’t just happen. You want to know what that’s all about.” And he’s White boy, she’s Black, of course, and she says to him, “How you know about these ladies?” He said, “My mother was in crazy, in love with Billie Holiday. They called her Lady Day. I had to listen to that stuff all while I was growing up. So I know them because of my mom.”

So of course, the young girl tooks it and she starts studying. In the process of studying, of course, she’d going to a whole other trance, and she would meet these ladies one at a time as they told their stories in the history. It is an incredible story, and the songs that they did and why and how. It gave her knowledge and information so when she went back to audition for the part, she had more than just words to say, she had feeling and the whole nine yards. So that’s what the show is about.

So I’m bringing you the history of, and whatever you do, again, you got to come from the heart. Just to do it means nothing. When you bring it from the heart, it encloses and brings in everything, and that’s what that show is about. And Sing It From the Heart.

Buzz Knight:

Tremendous, tremendous.

William Mickey Stevenson:

The other piece which is special is, I was given the rights to do the Azusa Revival where the Holy Spirit came down in 1906 in Los Angeles on Azusa Street. William Seaworth, Black minister, was in charge of the church there, and in his term at that place where the Holy Spirit came in and had people being healed by the thousands.

As they came into his area, they walked in to this, we call it Chicano glory vibe. And he came in, they came in and were healed. The blind began to see, the lame began to walk. It got to the point that they would get out of the crutches. The moment they got in that feeling of that space, they would get out of their crutches, move the wheelchairs. Unbelievable.

It went on. It is the Pentecostals, we call them, and they went from a few Pentecostals to so many millions of them today and all over the world.

What they would do is and why it kept growing is, once you came in and you couldn’t see and now when you leave, you go back home and you can see. Somebody would wonder, how’d that happen? You tell them. So they go. Some came in a wheelchair and you come back walking, they come… and if people see, you can’t deny that the person is walking.

Buzz Knight:

Right.

William Mickey Stevenson:

They would go in. So it kept growing. Of every race, creed, and color. And look it up, Azusa Revival. [inaudible 00:54:31] the computer. I didn’t make it up.

And I was called by the Japanese who owned that area. They owned most of the property in that area, and they were some of them in my Pentecostals as well. The ministers called me in one day and asked me, they’ve got something they want me to take a look at. And when they brought me in, they explained what it was all about, and they said, “We’d like to bring this moment back, and in doing that… “

I’m in shock, mind you. I had no idea what they were talking about. As they explained it to me, and I looked and read the books and the whole nine yards, I had to go back to church and find out through the ministers, is this really [inaudible 00:55:10]?” It happened in the upper room with Christ. This was another time here on Azusa Street.

I actually went back and got re-baptized, because I wanted to speak in tongues, because that was just taking me to a whole nother level. When I got it all together, I went back to the Japanese for a meeting and I said, “Okay, I will do this.” They said, “How are you going to handle it?” They said, “I’m going to turn it into a musical, because with the music, I can bring people into the theater, then they can get the real story.” They said, “Great, perfect.”

I said to them, “Why did you call me? We are in Hollywood. You’re in California. You got the best writers, producers, and directors in the world here. Why me?” And they said to me, “We saw what you did with Motown and all the people you worked with after Motown, and everything you’ve learned to do was for this reason.” Took my breath away. So that’s how we got to Azusa, which I’m working with as we speak.

Buzz Knight:

Oh, Mickey. Mickey, oh. I want to wish you well on those projects, and I just have to tell you, when I think of this podcast, I’m so grateful for it every day, but I really hit the jackpot talking to you, Mickey Stevenson, and I’m so blessed and so grateful, and just I love talking to you.

William Mickey Stevenson:

Oh, man. Pleasure talking with you, man. I like to stay as realistic as possible. Some of this may sound like, “Wow, how did that happen?” And I say it happened because these are the gifts that God gives us. And if we recognize that and work with them, I mean, we cannot lose, but we can win. And some of us can win greatly, because we help others. I mean, that’s what makes it work even more important.

Buzz Knight:

Oh, you’re so special. I’m so appreciative, Mickey, thank you so much.

William Mickey Stevenson:

Thank you for having me.

Speaker 1:

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About The Author

Buzz Knight

Buzz Knight is an established media executive with a long history of content creation and multi-platform distribution.

After a successful career as a Radio Executive, he formed Buzz Knight Media which focuses on strategic guidance and the development of new original content.