Just as I started planning this Spotlight, an email hit my inbox advertising a hot August night at the Ford Amphitheatre, Hollywood, Los Angeles with Thelma Houston. Wow! How amazing she looks – beautiful, quirky and overflowing with fun. The planned show features ninety minutes of twenty-plus Motown songs that are the backdrop to Thelma’s life, and a little peek-see is available via her website www.thelmahouston.com and it’s so good. Berry Gordy loves her show, saying “It needs to be everywhere”, while the owner of the jazz club glowed, “I have owned this club for twenty-five years and I have never seen a show like this before.” The actual hot night is 27 August and the booking office is now open. You lucky Americans: Thelma is a phenomenal entertainer, with a voice to move mountains, and she’s gorgeous. Let me tell you, ladies born during the forties were made to last! Any chance for us in the UK I wonder?
One of the most regularly requested singles on my Saturday evening radio programme on Hailsham FM isn’t by one of Motown’s A-line acts, but rather from an unassuming singer who bypassed the general public through no fault of her own. I’m talking about Debbie Dean who I’ve mentioned before and who, among other things, recorded the wonderfully upbeat “Why Am I Lovin’ You”, released in February 1968 which bears as much resemblance to the Motown Sound, as chalk does to cheese. I think it was because of this that it grabbed me, and, of course, in later years, the attention of our beloved Northern Soul fans. But, who was this Debbie Dean? Well, during her stay with Motown, information was scarce, and no matter how much journalists like myself scratched around for a few titbits, even asking other artists for a snippet or two about her, nothing was forthcoming. Thankfully that has now changed, and if it’s alright, would now like to spend some time with this lady who really deserved more than she received. To ensure the composing credits are correct, have consulted two volumes of “The Complete Motown Singles” , while other details I’ve collected over the recent past.
Born Reba Jeanette Smith in February 1928 in Corbin, Kentucky, she moved with her family to Chicago during the fifties. She was the fourth child of Alma and Walter. It’s unclear what persuaded her to pursue the business of music but she performed with Ralph Marterie and his orchestra early on in her career. It seems she first started working with Berry Gordy in 1958, so pre-Motown, when he wrote songs for her, as Penny Smith, and as her group, Penny and the Ekos, signed to Argo Records, including the title “Give Me What You Got”. Using the name Debbie Stevens, she also recorded “Jerry” for Roulette Records, and in 1959 a version of Rick Nelson’s “If You Can’t Rock Me” for the Apt label, a subsidiary of ABC-Paramount. On the personal front, Debbie married celebrity DJ Jim Lounsbury, host of a popular rock ‘n’ roll television show based in Chicago.
At the age of thirty-two, the red haired Reba Smith joined Motown, becoming Berry Gordy’s first signed white artist. Many believed that Mike Powers, and Nick and the Jaguars, the surfing rock group from Pontiac, Michigan, were his first white act but that was a one-off deal to release “Ich-I-Bon”, a previously recorded instrumental on the Tamla label in May 1959. As the single bombed, no contract was offered them. As for Yugoslavian-born Mr Powers, the credits on “Teenage Sweetheart” read a Rayber Production which Berry placed it on the Zelman label, a name he’d made up, and a label he presumably owned. I am digressing…. back to the lady in question. Her first recording was an ‘answer’ record to The Miracles’ “Shop Around” titled “Don’t Let Him Shop Around”. This was the brainchild of Berry’s sister Loucye, penned by her, Berry and Smokey Robinson, and featured The Miracles on support vocals no less! Released, under the name Debbie Dean, on the Motown label in February 1961, and despite its novelty angle, it failed to catch record buyers’ attention but did have longevity, representing a small niche in the company’s growth. Next out was the much misspelt “Itsy Bity Pity Love”, featuring Marvin Gaye on drums, and influenced by the hit-making pop singer Brenda Lee. Penned by Janie Bradford and Popcorn Wylie, it was issued August 1961, but followed the same fate as its predecessor.
It’s assumed Debbie didn’t really fit in with the other female acts on the roster being that much older, but Berry Gordy persevered because he felt she could carry Motown into the lucrative pop world, thereby opening the door for his other acts. A little misguided perhaps, but at least it got Debbie into the recording studio. Her final single “Everybody’s Talking About My Baby”, written by Berry and featuring the only recorded performance of The Paulette Singers, was released in November 1961. Again, it followed the fate of her predecessors, so a despondent singer left Motown in 1962. However, Ms Dean was destined to return.
From Motown, she returned to the public arena, moved to Los Angeles and started performing in Southern California. She recorded “Don’t Bug Me Baby”, in a one-off deal with Sue Records during 1964. For this she chose the name Debra Dion. Two years later, using the same moniker, she recorded “Take My Hand” for Treva Records. She hooked up with Deke Richards who, I believe, performed with The Deacons, and occasionally supported Ike and Tina Turner. More importantly, he was the key to Debbie returning to Motown. As a member of the company composing/producing team known as The Corporation or The Clan, he was always on the look out for new writers. When he learned her past history with the company, he persuaded her to re-join them. Although the intention wasn’t for Debbie to record again, when she co-wrote “Why Am I Lovin’ You” with Deke Richards (Dennis Lussier), they decided to cut it on her but, for some reason, a year passed from recording it to releasing it during February 1968 on the VIP subsidiary. Once again, the single caused only a minor flutter sales wise, but thank god for us in the UK. We adopted the song as a Northern Soul item despite only a few DJs owning a copy. Stock copies were limited, the promotional discs even less – and the single wasn’t British-released. I’m thinking that whoever owns a copy (including myself) they should wrap it in cotton wool and place in a vault. Now, of course, it’s in the public domain on one of “The Complete Motown Singles” box sets. It appears a second single, “You Asked Me” was scheduled but canned. However, that wasn’t the end of her Motown career because she flourished as a songwriter, usually with Deke Richards, to pen “Why Did You Leave Me Darling” for The Temptations, “I Can’t Dance To That Music You’re Playing”, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and Edwin Starr’s “Backyard Lovin’Man”, among other titles. Unfortunately, this appears to be the end of my research, except that it has a sad ending because Debbie Dean died during February 2001 in Ojai, Ventura County, California. Had hoped I’d find more to share with you, but sadly couldn’t. Still, better than nothing aye.
I’m delighted to say “Chasing Motown” written by M. J. Critchley is now available. It’s his personal view of the company, lavishly presented in full glossy colour where many of the featured pictures are personal so not seen before in the public domain. As I’ve known Mike since the sixties, it was a huge thrill for me to follow his journey involving meeting a whole host of artists like Brenda Holloway, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye (well nearly!), Edwin Starr, Bettye Lavette, The Velvelettes, Kim Weston, Gloria Jones, and so many more. Alongside his chats with artists, he allows us into his personal life, his extensive travelling often in pursuit of the acts he loves so dearly – many of whom adopted him as a personal friend and a welcome guest to their homes – and the upsets and highs that accompany this crazy world of music. Early Motown is extensively covered, and discovering those glorious sounds from Detroit is well documented. So, yes, Mike’s book is a rare gem. Now you need details – via email, firstname.lastname@example.org or his website, mjcritchley-chasingmotown.com. Price £22 + p/p £3.40. On a personal note, thank you Mike for the name checks, and we did share a few adventures didn’t we?
Well, that’s the lot for this month. Thank you for your continued support because without you, there wouldn’t be me.