MOTOWN SPOTLIGHT (March 2017)

MOTOWN SPOTLIGHT (March 2017)

First off this month, a very happy 73rd birthday to Miss Diana Ross, who, as I write this, is pulling in the crowds in New York. Undoubtedly a remarkable woman who will, among other things, always be the Queen of Motown. So, to celebrate her birthday, am playing her 1981 compilation “To Love Again”. Why this one? Well, apart from being produced by Michael Masser, it holds some glorious material, probably considered rather twee now of course, like “One More Chance”, “Stay With Me”, “Cryin’ My Heart Out For You”, an alternate version of one of my favourite songs “Touch Me In The Morning”, and the theme from the 1980 film “It’s My Turn”, starring Michael Douglas and Jill Clayburgh. Ironic title really, as this could have been written for her pending departure from Motown following a reputed $20 million deal with Capitol/RCA. As you know, the album was re-issued during 2003, with additional tracks, including a pair of previously unissued titles “Share Some Love” and “We’re Always Saying Goodbye”. So, as the music gently flows in the background, let’s TCB…

While I was looking through Keith Rylatt’s “Hitsville!” book, I noticed a picture of a serious looking young guy standing next to Earl Van Dyke. Also in the picture were smiling faces from Dave Godin, Robert White, Jack Ashford, Uriel Jones and TMAS member Steve. This reminded me of the man I knew when I flew Motown’s publicity flag working out of EMI Records’ London offices, and he was vice president of the Motown International Division also based in the city, a short walk away. Yeh, I’m talking about Peter Prince!

So, I thought I’d re-visit a chat I had with him which covered not only what his job entailed, but how he got into the business in the first place. I recall it was meant to be an hour’s session to contribute to Motown’s 30th anniversary promotional activities, but it lasted three and, I suspect, could have extended beyond that. As the purpose of the Division he headed up was relatively unknown outside their offices, he explained he worked closely with Motown/USA, reporting directly to Lee Young Snr, and was responsible for all territories outside the States. The offices could have been situated anywhere in the world, he said, but as the UK was closest to Europe, London seemed the most appropriate place to be. “As we’re responsible for doing licensing deals outside America, my job is to make sure everything is in accordance with our agreements, and to ensure artists and records are released and marketed correctly” he told me. He added that sometimes it was necessary to push local companies to encourage them to do the very best for his artists, but, generally speaking, he enjoyed a great working relationship with all licensees. On top of ensuring releases were overseen, Peter’s office also co-ordinated artist visits and phone interviews, which often became complicated, when different countries wanted different artists. And this was on top of me putting in requests for the same thing. So, imagine the pressure when an A-list artist released a new album across the territory – we were all vying for the same person!

Born in London, but living in Essex at the time of the interview, Peter grew up with music, mastered playing the drums, with ambitions to become a jazz musician. He left school to work as an office boy in the publicity department of the film company, Republic Pictures, where he stayed until he joined the RAF as a gunner. Three years on, he was demobbed and joined EMI Records’ press office, but all the while supplemented his income by playing the drums. From EMI he switched to Pye Records, before returning to EMI as a promotion manager. Then came the Motown connection, as Peter gradually built up a solid working relationship with Mrs Esther Edwards. To prove this he showed me letters from her including one about The Supremes who had recently visited London, thanking him for taking care of them during their stay. The letters also made reference to the fees from the BBC for two screenings of the “Baby Love” promotional film totalling £39 7s 6d for each showing, and, as the Top Of The Pops studio was in Manchester in those days, the plane fares were £22 for two people. From the paperwork, 1964 was indeed a busy year because The Miracles visited London and stayed at the President Hotel, Kim Weston appeared with The Beatles on Ready, Steady, Go, Martha and the Vandellas charted in the New Musical Express listing with “Dancing In The Street”, and Record Mirror presented The Supremes with an award for “Baby Love” which had topped the UK chart. “I worked with all the artists at that time…they were a great example for Motown. There were no problems and they were always on time.” They were also well organised, keen to do anything that was asked of them to promote their music and the company – “I wouldn’t say they were ordinary people because they were exceptionally groomed on stage and off, and were real professionals even though most of them were at the beginning of their careers.”

The sixties were the perfect learning curve for Peter, for not only was he on hand at the start of the Motown’s gradual breakthrough in the UK, but his hard work and dedication paid off when he was offered the position of vice president of the international office – “Being offered (this) was something I’d always dreamed of because of my early association with the company.” He went from strength to strength, moving with Motown as it lost its newness to become a major player in the music business. One of the biggest changes that he later noticed though was the company’s lack of control over its acts. “When I was first here, (Motown) had its own management which worked really well, and I think it was beneficial for new artists because they were groomed and trained to become good performers.” However, times changed, and with the likes of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye not only taking control of their careers, but also their music with the release of concept albums, an unheard of phenomenon at the time, and new signings being self-sufficient, Motown had little choice but to bow down to the new demands.

In time, Motown International took over responsibility for Jobete about which Peter confirmed, “If we didn’t have it our publishing would have to be handled by another company. Now we hold a catalogue of fifteen thousand working titles. The songs seem timeless…and record producers are regularly made aware of Jobete’s wealth by sample albums featuring one minute of all the songs available.” Out of the one hundred albums in the national chart, he said, at least twenty hold a Jobete title. Big business indeed, and one he didn’t want to let go!

One thing that had bugged me was – what happened when, say, the UK didn’t want to release a single Motown/US had, and wanted to choose a title of its own. Well, this is where Peter stepped in to agree or not, an alternative release, while citing it had a massive drawback. “If a territory wants to release a different single it puts extra pressure on that territory to make it a hit. If it doesn’t happen, I try to treat it as an occupational hazard.” On the other hand, if the UK, or any of the territories, followed the American lead, and didn’t chart the music, it was so frustrating. Giving examples of Smokey Robinson’s “Just To See Her” and Stevie Wonder’s “Skeletons”, Peter felt both were hit titles but really needed the artists to visit to give them the push they needed. When that didn’t happen, the singles were lost and, of course, the knock on effect meant lower album sales. “I get worried when records are not successful, but that’s part of this business, and something I have to live with.” When Marvin Gaye left the company, Peter was devastated, because he’d built up a great working and personal relationship with him. “As a person I got on with him very well and got to know him better when he recorded his ‘In Our Lifetime’ album over here. …His talent outshone any discrepancies in his character.” He was also upset when Diana Ross left for pastures new, although was thankful Motown had a huge catalogue of her work, some of which was, at the time, unreleased.

I could go on and on, but with limited space, hope these few words about Peter Prince has shed some light on what the Motown International Division was all about during the eighties, and although there’s more to this marathon session with him, hope I’ve selected the more interesting parts. Incidentally, some of the quotes were published in B&S 502. Sadly, Peter passed away on 18 January 2011, at the age of 73 years, in Florida. He had been frail following extensive cancer treatments, then fell and broke his hip. A memorial service was held at St Patrick’s Church in London’s Soho Square, on 16 June, followed by the wake at Ronnie Scott’s Club. A move he clearly would have approved of, don’t you think? This quietly spoken, unflappable man, was a delight to work with, and, boy, did he know his business. Motown was so lucky to have him taking care of their business.

And last but not least, just to give you the heads up about Peter Benjaminson’s new hardback book “Super Freak: The Life Of Rick James” published this month. This follows the singer’s own 2007 autobiography “The Confessions Of Rick James – Memoirs Of A Super Freak” which was a fascinating read but probably one-sided according to Peter, as, for instance, Rick left out several incidents that reflected badly on his character. So, for his new book, Peter has pulled on court records, newspaper archives and interviews with Rick’s family, friends, lovers and group members, to present a more rounded story. Can’t wait to read it. Priced around the £24.99 figure on most websites, this is the author’s third book about Motown artists (Mary Wells and Florence Ballard), not forgetting his much respected “The Story of Motown” from 1979.

That’s it for this month, so do join me again in a few weeks’ time when we’ll keep the Motown flag flying as high as we can.