Soul Pioneers - Marv Johnson
This is another in my occasional series on the pioneers of soul music, this time focusing on the early work of Marv Johnson. He was the forgotten man of Motown, despite being its first star, with 1959's Come To Me being the first ever Tamla release. It was an immediate success but Berry Gordy wasn't ready to handle a major hit so it was picked up by United Artists, who went on to release over a dozen singles over the next couple of years. These Gordy-penned numbers were all of a high quality and Marv's high voice was a thing of beauty, but because his records did not bear the Tamla Motown imprint he was rather overlooked at the time.
After Come To Me, United Artists released I'm Coming Home in the States but not in the UK and Marv's first UK hit was You Got What It Takes, on London - the first 45 that I recall shelling out six shillings of my pocket money to buy. I bought the follow ups too - I Love The Way You Love, with its great piano intro, which was a minor hit, All The Love I've Got and (You've Got To ) Move Two Mountains. They, and the B sides, were all written by the likes of Berry Gordy, Eddie Holland, Smokey Robinson and Marv himself, but were issued so closely together that they had little chance of success. Happy Days and Merry Go Round (a song first recorded by Eddie Holland) completed his London releases, but UA continued to release fine records such as How Can We Tell Him, Magic Mirror and Come On And Stop which deserved a wider audience. Marv's sole London LP The Marvellous Marv Johnson is now highly collectable.
It was only in the late sixties, when Marv belatedly switched to Gordy, that he became widely recognised as a Motown star. His first UK Tamla Motown single, Why Do You Want To Let Me Go, didn't make an impression, but the follow up I'll Pick A Rose For My Rose in 1968 gave him his biggest since You Got What It Takes. Other Tamla Motown releases, I Miss You Baby and So Glad You Chose Me, did well, as did his solitary Tamla Motown LP.
Marv was very much a favourite of mine back in 1960 and remained so over the years. I enjoyed seeing him at the Town and Country Club in 1989, when he toured with Mary Wells, Kim Weston and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. Prior to that he recorded a final album for Ian Levine's Motorcity label, which was rather disappointing, and sadly he died aged just 54 in 1993 after performing a tribute concert for Bill Pinkney of the Drifters.
Here are a selection of Marv's 45s from his golden period.