With a resolution of the Michael Jackson trial in his favor, the speculators are speculating on how he might revive his once majestic career, which began as a tyke performing with his brothers in the Jackson 5. There are even rumors that the Jacksons might musically reconvene, over 35 years after they first came to prominence with Motown.
I spoke with producer/songwriter Deke Richards about his days with “The Corporation,” the songwriting and production team behind the great early Jackson 5 hits.
The Corporation (Deke Richards, Freddie Perren, Fonce Mizell, Berry Gordy Jr.) helped resurrect Motown in 1969 with three No. 1 hits for the Jackson 5 and, for a magical year, returned Berry Gordy Jr. to the creative center of his organization.
The Corporation also brought future disco great Freddie Perren (“I Will Survive,” “Shake Your Groove Thing,” “If I Can’t Have You,” and the Miracles’ post-Smokey hits “Do It Baby” and “Love Machine”) into prominence. It also proved the premature peak of Deke Richards’ career.
The Deke Richards story could be a movie – fitting, considering his father was a screenwriter. Born in Los Angeles in 1944, Richards figured he would follow his father into film until he heard “Heartbreak Hotel.” The 12-year-old picked up a guitar and didn’t put it down until he wrote his first song (“Bubblegum”) at 14.
As the ’60s hit, Richards played in a hot R&B band, Deke and the Deacons (later the Four Sounds) on the Strip in clubs like the Galaxy. On Mondays, the band would hit the freeway out to El Monte and fill in for Ike and Tina Turner. They toured as backup for many artists, including Dobie Gray, and ended up in Hawaii. The other guys wanted to add brass, Richards didn’t, and the band split up in 1965.
Richards formed a new band that wound up backing singer Debbie Dean, one of the first (and only) white artists on Motown, in the early-’60s. He wrote a song for Dean, and with $300 borrowed from 10 different people, cut the instrumental track for a reduced rate at Richard Podolor’s new American Recording studio, but Richards didn’t have enough money to lay down the vocals.
Berry Gordy accompanied the Supremes when they came to town to play the Hollywood Palace in 1966. Debbie Dean gave Gordy a call at the Century Plaza Hotel and he invited them to bring the track over. Dean sang live to the tape in the hotel room, and Gordy offered Dean her second artist’s contract with Motown and Richards a producer/writer contract on the spot.
Dean and Richards, working out of the L.A. office, put out a few singles that didn’t go anywhere over the following year.
Then came the Holland-Dozier-Holland crisis. The fabled writer/producers of dozens of Top 10 hits for the Supremes, the Four Tops and many others left Motown over a royalty dispute – a serious breakdown in the Motown hit machine.
Meanwhile, Richards and writer/producer Frank Wilson (Temptations, Supremes, Four Tops) were languishing in Los Angeles. “In 1968, Detroit still viewed the West Coast office as shit,” confides Richards. “The sound wasn’t right on tracks cut in L.A. studios, the main talent was still in Detroit and no one much cared.”
Richards and Wilson wrote Gordy to that effect. In response to their letter (and the departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland), Gordy flew Richards and Wilson to Detroit to work with lyricists R. Dean Taylor and Pam Sawyer on a single for the Supremes and locked them all up in the Pontchartrain Hotel with the admonition to come up with a hit.
Gordy was anxious and got personally involved. The team would come up with a chord structure and some lines, and Gordy would come over and fiddle around with it, tweak this, rearrange that. The result was “Love Child,” a return to No. 1 for Diana Ross and the Supremes. Fresh from the H-D-H debacle, Gordy was leery of creating more “name” writer/producers, so he called the team The Clan.
In the best Motown tradition, the follow-up was the similarly themed “I’m Living In Shame,” which barely crept into the Top 10.
Dissension within the Clan over percentages got on Gordy’s nerves. The Clan was dissolved and Richards returned to the West Coast, full of confidence and newfound knowledge. He worked out a deal with the Sound Factory to record Motown artists and added touches from the home office: direct boxes, so that the guitars could be plugged into the mixing board, and a drum stand just like Hitsville’s.
Richards liked working in a group. Maybe the Clan was just the wrong group. He met a couple of young songwriters – college chums Freddie Perren and Fonce Mizell – liked their ideas and liked them even more. These were the right guys.
Gordy, tired of internecine bickering, told Richards to take charge. The team picked Gladys Knight to work with because she hadn’t had a hit for some time. They came up with a song called “I Want to Be Free,” cut the instrumental track and took it to Gordy.
The Jackson 5 had been signed to Motown in March 1969. Richards saw them perform at a legendary private show in August at the Daisy Club in Beverly Hills and was astonished. When Gordy heard “Free,” his mind began to race.
“Give it the Frankie Lymon treatment, ‘the little guy who lost his girl’ kind of thing, and we’ll use it with the kids,” he told Richards.
As Richards, Perren and Mizell worked on the song, Gordy grew more excited and made more suggestions. Finally, Richards said, “Berry, why don’t you really get involved?” and the Corporation was born, ending up four equal partners.
“I Want You Back,” the Frankie Lymon version of “I Want to Be Free,” cost more than $10,000 to make, when most Motown singles were running about $3,000. There were lots of overdubs and work on phonetics with the youngsters from Gary, Indiana.
The Corporation wrote and produced three No. 1 hits in a row for the Jackson 5 in ’69 and ’70: “I Want You Back,” “ABC” and “The Love You Save.” These classic hits reinvigorated Motown and sent the Jacksons on their way to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The greatness of the songs lies in their tight musicianship (Perren on keyboards; David T. Walker, Louis Shelton and Don Peake on guitar; Wilton Felder on bass and Gene Pello on drums), technical precision (mix and dubs by Richards) and the incredible energy of Michael and his brothers.
The Corporation had created a brilliant update of pre-soul music: carrying the vigorous doo wop of Frankie Lymon – with its very unfunky downbeats – 10 years forward with ringing, swinging guitars. Michael Jackson’s leads possess a purity and intensity unclouded by the storms of adolescence, while his older, wiser siblings lend brotherly support.
Gordy was ecstatic because his era of Frankie Lymon, Jackie Wilson and Marv Johnson had briefly returned through the lungs of an 11-year-old boy – and proved commercially viable.
Richards’ next effort was Diana Ross’ second solo album, Everything Is Everything, which produced a huge hit in England, “I’m Still Waiting,” that never made it here. “It broke my heart,” Richards says.
Richards ran the West Coast office, produced, wrote and supervised, and time passed. By 1973, his contract was up with Motown.
Returning to his first love, Richards is now a successful dealer in film posters and memorabilia out of his Washington state home. He thinks fondly of Berry Gordy.
“Berry gave me autonomy and let me make my dreams come true,” Richards says. “If Berry ever said ‘I need you,’ I’d come in a minute.”