It’s a wonderful feeling to know you are speaking to a living legend of sorts. An individual who has, in his own infinite way, cultivated one of the most influential music labels of the century, Motown. Speaking to the iconic labels first A & R (artist & repertoire) man, Mr Mickey Stevenson, it is a guaranteed step back into the corridors of history into one of American greatest music success stories and one that birthed the music and sound of a genre, a culture and above all else a movement.
Mickey Stevenson is the consummate gentleman, old school and classic to his very core. As he shares some of his most exciting years as the man in charge of signing and developing artists like Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Martha & The Vandellas to name a few, Stevenson also opens up about his early years performing with his brothers The Stevenson Trio from the age of nine, winning music competitions on stage at The Apollo in Harlem before meeting up with the man who would change the course of this budding singers path and hand him the fate as the creative force behind one of the biggest record labels in music history, Mr Berry Gordy. Stevenson and Gordy became a force to be reckoned with in Motown’s glory days, seeking, creating, shaping and defining the sound of artists that would become trailblazers of the RnB and Soul worlds, creating a steady stream of hit makers to soar up the charts.
Speaking to Stevenson about his time at Motown and working with the artists he was able to cultivate, it is easy to see that this was more than a job to him, rather a commitment to excellence and perfecting a craft that would indeed produce the excellence it did. His descriptions about the vibe and energy coursing through the vintage Motown recording studios is almost palpable, where you could almost imagine sitting and watching a young Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye create their magic before your eyes. It is a gift that Stevenson has, seeing the beauty in things, and one that he has utilised to his full advantage over his years where he has worn the hats of Mentor, Creator, Writer and above all else lover of music in its purest forms.
This interview was a definite tick off the bucket list for me and one in which I learnt so much from an individual that has so much wisdom and knowledge and joy to spread. Mickey Stevenson continues to give us life through his love of mixing history and music and bring it audiences today through his love of musical theatre and play adaptations. With a deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame alongside his Motown family, a book that is sharing his journey to the next generation of music stars and a life filled with gratitude, rich memories and purpose, Mickey Stevenson is indeed a living legend!
Hi Mickey, so great to talk to you. How has 2016 been treating you so far?
I am well thank you and I hope you are too.
A young Mickey Stevenson
Such an honour to speak to a man so embedded in music history – known and respected as the First A&R man of Motown’s glory days, a career that started back in 1959 and has helped created and bring to light some of the biggest legends in the music galaxy such as Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye to name a few! How would you best describe who Mickey Stevenson is and the life he has lived thus far?
Hahaha that’s a good question. Well I call myself a hunter. The best writers, producers, singers, engineers, I was always hunting for the best in these fields. You know it was a 24 hour job but to me it never felt like work, that’s the difference…. When you can enjoy what you are doing then it becomes bigger than just a job and you can do it 24 hours a day. I was in that intense mode and I loved every minute of it and finding people that would come to me say in an audition, they wanted to be a singer but when they sang the brought to me I would say “ Who wrote that song?” and they would say “ Me” and I would say “ I tell you what I’ll bring you in as a writer because you are not a singer”, and it would be things like that back then you know, some people would come with the whole nine yards but most often it would be one or the other. My job was to search for the gift that God has bestowed on these artists. These artists brought more multi talents to the table and there in turn we were able to develop the label so much more effectively and efficiently and that was great.
Let’s talk about those early days when you were signing all these incredible artists to Motown, all of them relatively babies in age and not knowing the amazing impact they were going to have on the music world – what was the energy like in the recording studios back then and just the artists various attitudes towards their artistry and place in the music community of the time?
In my book The A&R Man, I break it down very carefully on a few talented people so you could see all sides. Now when a few very talented artists would come in to the studio to audition, sometimes 30-40 people constantly, and that one person walks in that was worth that wait and blows you away you know what I mean. That energy was alive and when I hear the lyrics in their songs, it was truly indescribable the amount of talent and vision they all shared. My job was to put the best songs on the best people and it didn’t matter who wrote the song and wanted to sing it, for me, it was finding the correct piece to the vocal puzzle and it was that formula that made Motown as great as it was and made us all family.
Mickey Stevenson & The Lovetones
More than an A&R man, you are also a celebrated songwriter and have penned some truly significant hits in the RnB world such as “Dancing in the Street”, which he co-wrote with Hunter and Marvin Gaye; “It Takes Two” (Gaye and Weston), “Ask the Lonely” for the Four Tops, Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” to name a few. What do believe it was that made these songs the timeless successes they are and what are the ingredients to writing the perfect song?
In all honesty when I write and I am sure this is for a lot of writers, I write from the heart. So I am not too concerned if the song is going to be a smash or anything like that, I am just in the moment and it will come out in whatever it is I am writing. When I write it comes from the feeling in my heart and before I hand it over to a singer I have to then decide who can deliver this feeling and now I got to pick that person and work with that person, so if I know that artist and their style it makes my writing job that much easier you feel me. The rest I leave it God, like I tell most writers, do all you can to your piece and then leave it alone, he will take care of the rest.
Looking back at your life in the entertainment industry Mickey and through so many different eras and trends in music, what would you say in your experience has been the most significant change that the RnB music industry has gone through since the Motown days and why?
I think the most significant change, which is odd, has been the marriage of the visual that is now drawn to the public. The visual gives the public more now than the lyrics did then, you feel me. It doesn’t have to be a great song to make you love an artist, it can be the way that they appeal to you, so I think the combination between visual imagery and of course the internet’s power and well there you go. Now I am neither for or against it but like I have always said, talents are given to you and it lies within your power as to how you use those talents and how you devote your time to mastering that talent. It is all different now, which is great, but it has definitely changed how artists become stars.
What is Mickey Stevenson doing today and what are your thoughts of the music industry as it stands today?
Well at the moment I am doing musical; plays and theatre, which is a great love of mine. I have some wonderful shows like “Singing from the Heart” which is the history of Billie Holliday, Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, all the great ladies of that era. You will love it. Smokey Robinson and I did some of the music together and it is just amazing. I love writing shows where history and music combine and thrive together so I write a few of those types of plays. And of course my book ‘ Motowns First A&R Man presents The A&R Man’ is doing great ( available on Amazon.com) and I have been offered some interest in turning it into a movie so I am thinking about it and I am happy about it all, things are looking good and I am very happy.
Can I ask you what your working relationship with Berry Gordy was like and how you both got along in those developmental years of Motown?
I never came up in the RnB world, my influence was more of a pop background so I brought an element of light and sound and an almost live theatre type feeling to Motown and I was blessed that Berry Gordy gave me the freedom to use my gift freely. Our relationship was very special and I remember when we first met I had come in as a singer looking to be signed to the label. Berry was looking for an A&R man, which I had no idea what that was (laughs). During our first meeting I played him some of my songs and I thought he was digging them you know (laughs) so at the end I say to him “so which song shall we put on my first record”? And he looked at me like I was crazy (laughs) and says to me “record? Look I like your music man but your voice is shit”! Oh my gosh I nearly fell to the floor when I heard him say that ( laughs), but that was what we did you know, sought out the best talents in our artists and pushed their god given gifts to the forefront.
Smokey Robinson, Berry Gordy & Mickey Stevenson
What advice would you give to artists today that are wanting to become entertainers and be respectable music artists instead of one hit wonders?
My advice is you must make up your mind to absolutely devote the time to becoming great. You try it great, you will fall among the stars. Now to make that work you must know what you are doing with your time, be devoted and know that it will cost you but it will pay off in the end!
For more information on Mickey Stevenson and his work visit: www.motownsfirstaandrman.com
Buy Mickey Stevenson incredible book on Amazon.com or click here: http://www.amazon.com/Motowns-First-Man-Presents-The/dp/0692366334
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