DOUG THOMPSON – RISING TO THE TOP AT MOTOWN

Sometimes meeting your heroes can be very disappointing.  They could just be having a bad day or had a fight with their significant other or their manager, or recently received bad news about a pet project…or as is sometimes the case, they could just be an asshole.

On the other hand, some heroes exceed your expectations and then some.

Gary Owens Ringo Starr and Doug

During my over 40+ years of interviewing celebrities (mainly musicians, producers, songwriters, engineers and occasionally actors), I’ve had a few doozies (both good and bad).

Here are a few highlights:

THE BAD

One of my toughest interviews (at least initially) was Carl Wilson of The Beach Boys.  I was in LA for two weeks conducting interviews for a Canadian radio special and prior to my leaving Toronto, The Beach Boys office had promised that Carl would be available during my time in LA.  Well, I called their office just about every day to schedule the interview.  They’d dutifully call Carl, call me back and say ‘maybe tomorrow’, but I was quickly running out of tomorrows.  I wrote about this in a “Don’t Believe A Word I Say” blog titled “Confessions of a Professional Rock and Roll Interviewer: “God Only Knows What I’d Be Without You”.

Motley Crue’s Tommy Lee was tired.  He’d been talking to interviewers since the crack of noon and it was now after 7PM.  I was his last interview of the day and Tommy was anxious to have dinner, then head to the strip clubs of Toronto.  He wanted to cut the interview short to about 10 minutes, but his WEA Canada handler, Roger Desjardins (who was a saint by the way), told Tommy that I was to get a full interview or else (but Roger did it in such nice terms).  Tommy did exactly as requested, gave me a great, candid interview, shook my hand, then he and Roger quickly vamoosed.  Roger told me a few weeks later that Tommy had a GREAT time in Toronto’s strip clubs.  Of that, I have no doubt.

THE GOOD (AND OCCASIONALLY GREAT)

Remember Rupert Holmes?  He had a number one hit in 1980 with “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” and an additional Top Ten hit that same year with “Him”.  Prior to that, Rupert was best known (if he was known at all) as the writer of The Buoys 1971 hit “Timothy”, the most successful song about cannibalism to ever hit the Billboard Hot 100 chart (it went to # 17).  I interviewed him as “Escape” was riding high on the charts.  He had recently appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson performing “Escape” with the Tonight Show band.  I’d seen it and said that I really enjoyed it, especially the brass arrangement.

His eyes lit up.

He asked me to stop the interview briefly, then ran over to his briefcase on the other side of the room and pulled out the lead sheet that he had personally arranged for the Tonight Show brass section.  He autographed it to me and handed me the score.  It’s a wonderful momento from a great interview.

Most of my close friends know that David Foster is one of my all-time favourite people.  I first interviewed the 16 time Grammy and 5 time JUNO Award winner in 1983 (David also has an Emmy and a Golden Globe on his awards shelf, among many other accolades).  The interview with David was for a Canadian radio series on record producers in which he was to be featured.  David was definitely making his mark on the Hollywood music scene by then, having already won 2 Grammies and working as a session musicians with George Harrison and Quincy Jones as well as having produced albums for Daryl Hall & John Oates, Paul Anka, Alice Cooper and Chicago along with Earth, Wind & Fire.

If you feel like reading the full account of my first adventure with David Foster (it was a wild night), you’re welcome to check out “Confessions of a Professional Rock and Roll Interviewer: One Night With David Foster Made My Day.

Gary Brooker, the lead singer of Procol Harum, lived an hour outside of London by train in Surrey.  I had co-ordinated the interview a week before, but reconfirmed with him by phone the day before that I would be on the 10:30 am train the next morning.  He said he would pick me up at the station.  Something happened (my fault) and I missed that train.  I immediately called Brooker’s home but there was no answer, so I caught the next train which got me into Surrey slightly more than an hour late, but…

There was Gary still waiting for me.

We hopped in his car and headed for his farm.  It was a beautiful day so we conducted the interview in his barn.  After we wrapped, he asked if I was heading back to London right away as he and a couple of his neighbours were planning a jam session at the local pub.  “It might be fun.  I think you’ll enjoy it” Gary hinted.  So I stuck around town and headed for the pub that night.  What Gary DIDN’T tell me was that his neighbours in that little jam session were Phil Collins and Eric Clapton.

It was quite a night.

All of this is leading up to a television documentary I wrote and directed last year called “Hitsville U.S. Eh!”  It’s a look at Motown (from a Canadian perspective), the 1967 Detroit riots and CKLW’s importance to Motown and the city of Detroit in the 1960’s and ‘70’s.  It played on Hollywood Suite cable channel throughout July and August.

In the doc, we interviewed Martha Reeves, Smokey Robinson (both were absolutely fabulous as you might expect), National Sales manager (and later President of Motown) Barney Ales, Quincy Jones (for a historic perspective), Funk Brothers guitarists Joe Messina and Dennis Coffey as well as twins Carvin and Marvin Winans (of the gospel family The Winans, who both grew up in Detroit.  Carvin has lived in Toronto for the past few years and Pastor Marvin has his ministry in Detroit).  Carvin Winans narrated my documentary.

All of those Motown legends were wonderful to talk to, and, thanks to kindness of the Motown Museum, we even filmed an interview in the legendary Studio A, the nicknamed ‘snake pit’ where hundreds of Motown hits were recorded.

But the interview I was really looking forward to for this project was with Paul Riser, Motown’s dean of arrangers.  Not many casual Motown fans know about Paul, but he’s been one of my musical heroes for quite a few decades.  Paul arranged the strings and horns for many of Motown hits, including “My Girl”, “Tears Of A Clown”, “Dancing In The Street”, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours”, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (both the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell version as well as a 1970 number one for Diana Ross), “What Becomes of The Broken Hearted” (which he also co-wrote), “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and my all-time Motown fav, “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”, for which Paul shared a Grammy Award with writer/producer Norman Whitfield.

I interviewed Paul Riser at the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center.

DOUG THOMPSON:  Paul, you went to work at Motown originally as a session trombone player right out of high school [Cass High School In Detroit where he studied classical and jazz composition and arranging].  Motown was only a year or two old at that point.  How were you feeling when you were first hired?

PAUL RISER: “I have to say this honestly, I hated R&B music prior to comin’ to Motown.  I was just strictly Jazz and classical music…and not necessarily in that order.  Classical music was always at the foundation of everything I do.  So, when I went in, I went in with a little disdain and a little reservation.  But once I sat down in that, what they call the hot seat, you have to have great stamina, to sit there and get through to take 10, take 15, take 20 sometimes.” 

DT:  What was Motown paying session musicians back then?

PR: “I remember we got only 2 dollars and 50 cents per song in the beginning. No time limit, per song. No time limit per session. Just go until we got it. But it was really fun. It was really an experience.  We enjoyed being in each other’s company. We would crack jokes back and forth across the room and time just went by. Before we knew it we were into take 15, take 20, you know, but see that was the beauty of it though. We never had pressure on us to get in and get out.”

DT:  I read that when you’re writing an arrangement, you don’t use a piano.                                                    

PR: “I never do, never do. I feel like if you can’t hear it in your head first, it’s just not there, you know because arranging and music is spiritual in itself. So I like to get a feel for the song and I hear things immediately, I get a picture of what I want to do, an actual picture is presented in my mind of the music itself, where it’s gonna go…the next stage.”

DT:  Your first real success as an arranger was “My Girl”, which Smokey Robinson wrote and produced on The Temptations.  It went to number one in 1965, smack dab in the middle of the British invasion.  What do you remember about “My Girl”?

PR: “’My Girl’ has a very deep history to it.  First of all, when Smokey brought it to The Temptations they said ‘Okay, ‘My Girl’, it’s a pretty good song’, and you know they had an obligation to record it, so they went in and did it.  They enjoyed it and whatnot, but as the story goes, when Smokey put it in my hands, and I was able to do what I do, and put that sweetening on top, they [The Temptations] say that really made the song come to life.  I’m proud to be a part of that.”

DT:  Over and above all of your Motown arrangements, you also had a hand in co-writing “What Becomes of The Broken Hearted”.  How did that come about?

PR: “’What Becomes of the Broken Hearted’ started as a title and a group of chords. The writing team of James Dean and William Weatherspoon, were doing a session on Jimmy Ruffin. Sessions usually ran for three hours. So they had 2 songs that we finished within the first 2 hours of that 3 hour segment. And they had an hour left over. And I said, “Well, let me try these chords”. I just had some chords that I wrote out, and that was the beauty of Motown, you were allowed to come in and experiment with whatever you had, as long as it was a decent, plausible idea, so I pull these chords out and they ran it down, we got it done in maybe about a half hour, 45 minutes. Great musicians, see, the Funk Brothers. Little did I know that this writing team of Dean and Weatherspoon, would take that song and mold it into what the song we know of as ‘What Becomes of the Broken Hearted’. And it was like a magical thing.”

DT:  There was a distinct musical change at Motown when Norman Whitfield came on board.  Did he bring a new political sensibility to the Motown sound?

PR: “Yes, absolutely he did, but remember, both Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye had been making social statements with their music too.  Norman Whitfield was one of the most prolific writers that Motown had and he was very socially conscious about what was going on politically.  So he wrote accordingly. And the people he was around, they were impacted by a lot of things that went on socially. So he had good subject matter to write from, [laughing] okay. Norman was a great interpreter of the times that we were in.  A great interpreter. And what Norman did was history, he just wrote a string of hits, ‘Ball of Confusion’, ‘Cloud Nine’, ‘Psychedelic Shack’ with The Temptations…and of course, ‘Papa was a Rolling Stone’.  A lot of great music came out of that time.”

DT:  Paul, 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Detroit riots.  When we were talking earlier, you said you had a story to tell me.  Did you get caught up in the riots?

PR: “Oh yes, you see after the riots started, my wife and I, she was 7 months pregnant, and we were comin’ from church right there at Dexter and Rochester streets.  We just got curious and got out of the car, and went and watched these people just destroy this store. And at that moment, the Governor gave the call to clear the streets at all costs. So the National Guard just leveled their guns at us and locked my wife and I up [laughing].  My wife was in for one day. I stayed in for two days. We were the first two to be released from the lock-up because she was 7 months pregnant with my daughter.”

DT:  In late 1967, Motown’s hit songwriting/producing team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland abruptly left the company.  [Holland/Dozier/Holland had had ten number one hits for The Supremes from 1964’s “Where Did Our Love Go” up to 1967’s “The Happening”] Did panic set in Motown?

PR: “Not panic exactly, but you have to remember that Holland/Dozier/Holland was Berry Gordy’s premier writing/producing team. I mean, let’s face it, the world hasn’t known too many great writing teams like Holland-Dozier-Holland. So, naturally it kind of put a kink in the flow of things because they were right at the top. But Motown, having depth to its creative department, was able to continue on.”

DT:  That’s when Gordy put together Motown writers Frank Wilson, R. Dean Taylor, Deke Richards and Pam Sawyer and called it The Clan with a ‘C’.  Weren’t you were part of that little creative group as well?

PR: “Yes, I was and I’ll tell you why the Clan was formed. Berry Gordy looked at the latest record charts and said “We don’t have any hits on The Supremes. We need some hits on The Supremes, immediately.” So we were, sequestered, like a jury, lock ‘em down [laughing]. We were sequestered at the, what was known as the Pontchartrain Hotel at that time [now the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Centre]. And if I’m not mistaken, I think it was about 4 days we were there, until we came up with a hit. And that was ‘Love Child’. The rest is history.”

DT:  Indeed it was.  Went to number one for two weeks…and the hits just kept on comin’ out of that funky Motown studio.  At least until the early 1970’s.  How did you feel when Berry Gordy decided to move the company’s headquarters to Los Angeles in 1972?

PR: “It was demoralizing when Berry left Detroit for LA, because many of us didn’t know. For sure the musicians didn’t know. I think the engineers knew because they were there to break down equipment and get it shipped out, but the musicians, yeah, we were disappointed. I believe that when Berry left it was a big mistake. When he left and didn’t take the cohesive sound of The Funk Brothers with him, ‘cause that’s what made Motown, let’s face it. We all say to this very day that I think that was the demise of Motown. It started falling apart at that point. Sure, he went to the West coast and there were great musicians out there, I’m not gonna discount them and their abilities, great musicians. But they didn’t have the cohesiveness of The Funk Brothers. The Funk Brothers were the Motown sound.”

DT: Motown was a source of black pride for many African Americans, but you were telling me earlier that inside the company, you didn’t see it the same way.

PR: “Right, we didn’t at all.  When we were at Motown, we didn’t know colour.  Race was not an issue at all.  We just knew music, good songs, good relationships.  While we were known pretty much throughout the world as a black company, we were not a black company.  We were a people company.”

When Motown left for LA, Paul Riser remained in Detroit, but he racked up frequent flyer miles jetting back and forth, creating string and horn arrangements for such artists as Bill Withers, Luther Vandross, Martina McBride, R. Kelly, Carly Simon, Michael McDonald, Was Not Was, Carpenters and Aretha Franklin among many others, all while continuing to arrange for Motown artists of the day.

In his 2012 autobiography, “To Be Loved”, Berry Gordy called Paul Riser, ‘one of Motown’s all-time great arrangers”.  Anybody wanna argue with the founder of Motown?  Not me.  I couldn’t agree more.

=DT=

Doug Thompson has spent his entire adult life in radio and television, both in Canada and the U.S.  He’s won a shitload of awards for his creative efforts, over 150 at present count.  He’s interviewed as well as worked with, such celebrities as Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, Randy Bachman, producers David Foster and Bob Ezrin, Wolfman Jack, Jim Henson, Graham Nash and John Candy (with whom Doug created multiple radio series).

Doug began his radio career at CJCA, Edmonton, at the time, the number one Top 40 station in Alberta.  Less than a year after that, he was hired by CHUM Radio, Toronto, where he eventually became Production Manager.  For over a dozen years, Doug was Creative Director for Telemedia Network Radio, creating dozens of nationally (and internationally) syndicated radio programs.  He also created award winning radio projects for Rogers Radio as well as the ABC and NBC radio networks in the U.S. Starting in 2011, Doug created, wrote and directed for the Hi-Fi channel in Canada, “Hi-Fi Salutes”, a series of 28 episodes that profiled legendary Canadian musicians, producers, managers and DJ’s.  An episode from the first season won a Platinum award at the World television Festival in Houston, Texas. Also for the Hi-Fi channel, Doug also wrote and directed “Pressed In Canada”, a one hour television documentary on the early independent record companies in Canada.   Doug’s latest television documentary, 2016’s “Hitsville U.S. Eh!” is a one hour look at Motown from a Canadian perspective.  It aired on Hollywood Suite cable channel in Canada.

Doug has created and produced projects and programs for Sirius/XM Canada, NFL Canada and many other companies.  Since 2008, Doug has been a part time professor of broadcasting at Seneca College @York. At the moment, Doug has no plans to sit in a rocking chair in his backyard sipping Vernor’s Ginger Ale and growing old gracefully.

One Response to “DOUG THOMPSON – RISING TO THE TOP AT MOTOWN”

  1. Dave HITMAN Charles Says:

    Wow. I’m a fan, just a fan. I loved reading all of this Dougie. Proud to be working with you on radio projects still. Your history is amazing and so is your soul. YOU’RE the best.

    Dave Charles (still crazy for great music….)

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