Update: Congratulations to William “Mickey” Stevenson, who has just been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Here’s the interview we did with him two years ago.
William “Mickey” Stevenson is one of the great figures in the history of Motown Records. He was the label’s first Head of A&R, and he helped discover Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, Martha Reeves, and the Funk Brothers, who were the famous band of Motown musicians that played on most of the label’s classic ‘60s hits. He also worked closely with Marvin Gaye.
Impressively, Stevenson has been nominated by the Songwriters Hall of Fame. As a songwriter, Stevenson co-wrote a dozen Motown classic hit songs. His best known song is “Dancing in the Street,” which is one of the most joyful anthems of its era. This song was originally a hit for Martha & the Vandellas (featuring Martha Reeves), and it was later a hit for rock band Van Halen, and a duet for Mick Jagger & David Bowie.
In addition, Stevenson wrote several hit songs with Marvin Gaye, including Gaye’s hits “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” “Hitch Hike,” “Pride and Joy,” and his duet with Kim Weston, “It Takes Two.” Stevenson also co-wrote the hits “Ask the Lonely” for the Four Tops, “Beechwood 4-5789” for the Marvelettes, “My Baby Loves Me” for Martha & the Vandellas, “Jamie” for Eddie Holland, and “Can You Jerk Like Me” for the Contours. Notably, all of these singles were also produced by Stevenson.
On top of this, Stevenson co-wrote a single for Motown artist Shorty Long, called “Devil with a Blue Dress On.” This song was subsequently covered by rock band Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels in 1966, and became a Top 5 hit. Then a decade later, Bruce Springsteen made it a staple of his renowned live concerts, and he recorded it for the No Nukes concert album in 1980.
In 2015, Stevenson published his autobiography, called The A&R Man. In this book, he recalls his great years with Motown Records, and also discusses his many projects since leaving Motown. In more recent decades, Stevenson has worked on several musicals, his documentary film, and he’s continued to develop new artists, write songs and produce music.
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with William “Mickey” Stevenson. He warmly recalls his Motown years, including working with Motown founder Berry Gordy, Marvin Gaye and other artists. He also discusses his songwriting, including how he co-wrote the classic hit, “Dancing in the Street.”
DK: Back in the day, how did you first get started as a musician and songwriter?
William “Mickey” Stevenson: My mother was a singer and enternainer—she worked with a big orchestra. And when I was 7, she wanted me and my brothers to perform at the Apollo Theater in New York, for the amateur show. So she worked with us on our singing and dancing, and we won the contest! We took in the whole atmosphere at the Apollo—we watched the other artists go onstage, and some would get jerked off the stage by a guy with a hook because they weren’t good, which was frightening.
DK: Did you grow up in Michigan or in New York?
Here’s a video of Martha & the Vandellas’ hit, “Dancing in the
Street,” which was co-written by William “Mickey” Stevenson.
Stevenson: I grew up in Detroit, Michigan. My mom took us to New York for the Apollo show.
DK: You sang with your brothers in this group, but when did you learn how to play instruments?
Stevenson: After we won the Apollo show, I was so excited about it, that I told my dad that I wanted to play an instrument. So he bought me a bass…an upright bass. But of course we couldn’t afford lessons, so I learned how to play bass on my own. I wasn’t a great bass player back then and I’m not a good bass player today (laughs). But I did learn about the notes and the sound and the feelings…all of that came to me. And from there, I picked up the guitar and I started working with it, and this helped me to write songs.
DK: How did you get started with Motown Records?
Stevenson: I first met (Motown founder) Berry Gordy at a barbershop. The owner, Benny Mullins, had a small shop, but he was great with doing hair and everybody in town went there. The place was always crowded, and one day Berry and I were in the chairs sitting together. Benny told Berry, “[Mickey] is the guy I was telling you about, who handles all the musicians in the city.” What he meant by handling, is that I would see to it that the musicians got paid and I would take care of the business. So that was my way of making a living.
Then Berry said, “When I come back in town, we’ve gotta talk.” I found out that Berry had written hit songs for Jackie Wilson, who was one of my favorite artists. So I said, “Well, I’ve couple tunes for you to play for Jackie” (laughs). He says, “Well, I’ve got enough songs that I wrote myself, but I’ll see you when I get back.”
A month later, I met Berry at his apartment—he said he was opening up a new company. At the time, I wanted to be an artist, so I played some songs with me singing. Berry said, “Man, your songs are good, but your voice…that’s for shit” (laughs). “But I want you to be the A&R man for my new company…you’re gonna be in charge.”
Then I said, “Let me get this straight—I can sign anybody I want?” Berry said, “You’re in charge of the music, you’ve got it…you know the musicians and you know what’s goin’ on.”
Then at that moment, Smokey Robinson walks in—I knew Smokey from school. He asked Berry, “Hey, what’s Mickey doin’ here?” Berry said, “He’s gonna be the A&R man for the company.” Smokey then said, “Oh man, great. I’ve got a session tomorrow. Can you get me a couple musicians?” I said, “You got it—I can get any of the musicians…I know just what you need.” So that’s how we started (at Motown), with a handshake. It was just me, Berry, Smokey and a few other writers.
Bruce Springsteen performs the hit “Devil with a Blue Dress On,”
which was co-written by William “Mickey” Stevenson.
DK: Did you see yourself more as a songwriter & producer, or as an A&R man & executive?
Stevenson: I saw myself as an A&R man and a music executive.
DK: Even when you were writing and producing hit songs?
Stevenson: Yeah, because I was finding writers and artists that were great…that was an exciting thing. I would discover these talents, and I actually brought the artists and the contracts into Berry’s office. We would sign the artists and they would be right there in the room, and Berry would say, “that’s great.”
DK: Who were the biggest Motown artists that you discovered and brought into the company?
Stevenson: Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, Martha Reeves, and all the Funk Brothers. Also, I personally took Marvin Gaye from being a pop singer (singing pop & jazz standards) to being an R&B singer. I told everybody, “The musical gift that artists have is God-given—their development is up to us as individuals.”
DK: How did you know all the Funk Brothers, and bring them into Motown?
Stevenson: Berry had told me to bring in the musicians; that was my job. I knew early on at Motown, we didn’t have much money yet. So I had to go out and find guys who would play for the company, at the price I could pay. With the musicians, I hand-picked each one of the guys. I also went after musicians who were jazz musicians, because they could play anything. I got them to come in when they weren’t working their regular hours, or at night. I said, “This is going to be a growing company, and you will make more money. Trust me.” And since I’d already worked with them, they trusted me.
DK: When you’re writing songs, what’s your strength as a songwriter? Is it more the music or the lyrics?
Stevenson: Well, it depends on who I’m writing with. In many cases I would sit at the piano—I would play [the chord] changes that I would hear in my head, and lyric lines. I could also play guitar. And I always worked with people who had some instrumental ability. When I sat down and worked with Marvin Gaye, he could play piano. He would sit down and play the chords, then we’d lay those changes down. [Then we would try] to write the lyrics and melodies that mean something. And the lyrics would come to me from different things that I experienced throughout the day or week or in a relationship. Or I would take a line that hit me some kind of way, that would stay with me.
When I would write, I’d write a song and then I would turn around and read the lyrics. Forget the music—let’s just see if it meant something as a lyric, like a poem or a short story. I would say for me, that a song is like a movie or a book. You’ve got a beginning, a middle, and an ending. And [each section] demands all you can give, each part of that.
Here’s a video of Marvin Gaye performing his hit “Pride and Joy,”
which was co-written by William “Mickey” Stevenson.
DK: My favorite song of yours is “Dancing in the Street.” Can you talk about how you co-wrote that song?
Stevenson: That was an interesting [song idea], because in Detroit there were fire hydrants in the street, and in the summer they would take the hose off and the water would spurt out of the fire hydrant. I would see that, with the kids in their shorts and underwear. They would run out there and get near the fire hydrant, and have themselves a wonderful time. Kids of every race, creed and color would be there. And I saw that and said, “Wow…they’re dancing in the street.” That’s where the beginning and feeling of that song came from.
When I got together to write with Marvin Gaye and Ivory Joe Hunter, I told them about this idea. Ivory Joe then played a little groove on the piano. I said, “[Picture the] dancing in the street and the kids.” When I brought that picture to their heads, all of us saw the same kind of thing. We could keep [the song] going, and we just made the kids adults! But in the end if you listen to the lyric, we’re really talking about young people.
We could have written a hundred lyrics to that song, because it was so inspiring. When you close your eyes and you come up with a line, and you see those kids dancing and think what a great place the world would be (for everyone to be dancing in the street). That’s the bottom line.
DK: You wrote several hit songs with Marvin Gaye. What was it like, to be writing with Marvin?
Stevenson: It was great, man. Marvin was originally a gospel singer, but when he got with Harvey Fuqua (of the Moonglows) and started singing with a group, he was like another kind of singer. So when Berry Gordy brought him to me at the office, he was singing Nat King Cole kind of stuff. And Berry said to me, “Hey man, I want a hit on him.” I said to Berry, “Marvin’s a jazz singer…what are we gonna do with him? Berry said, “I didn’t say a jazz hit, I want a hit—I don’t care how you get it.”
So then Marvin and I got together, and we started writing. And we’d go to my house until one o’clock in the morning and we’d still be writing. Then we’d come back to the studio and we’d start recording—we had tape recorders in about five rooms for the producers. So we would be taping and recording and putting lyrics down. I would sing a line and Marvin would sing a line, and we had a good feeling with these songs from line by line. And every time Marvin wanted to go jazz and sing it one way, I would sing it another way (more R&B). And then he’d come back more my way, although he still wanted to sing jazz.
Then one day, I went in and clipped out all of my verse lines [that I was singing], and I put all of Marvin’s verses together. I played him what I put together, which would turn out to be “Stubborn Kind of Fellow.” As I played it, Marvin could hear the whole thing coming together because I pulled my verses out and patched his together. I said, “Man, why don’t we do this song on you? I’ll give Berry this (R&B) record on you, and he’ll get off my back, and then we’ll start doing your jazz album.” Marvin said, “You’ll do the jazz album with me?” And I said, “Yeah.”
Here’s the preview of the documentary Mickey Stevenson – Motown’s
First A&R Man.
Of course, after “Stubborn Kind Of Fella” was a success, Motown’s sales department said, “We need another follow-up.” So we got into the next one which was “Hitch Hike,” and “Pride and Joy” was the third one. And that’s how we got into the Marvin Gaye style of producing and writing, and we went from there.
DK: You had another song, “Devil with a Blue Dress On,’ that became a big rock hit for Mitch Ryder. How did you write this song?
Stevenson: That song was written by me and (Motown artist) Shorty Long. Shorty was a little under five feet tall—he was so short that his feet could not touch the pedals on the piano. Anyway, we did that song because Shorty was short, but he loved real tall girls. All his girlfriends were tall. I said, “Man, how do you do it?” And it fired him up, and we got down to writing “Devil with a Blue Dress On.” The song was really about one of these tall girls that he saw at a party. And I remember the girl—she had a great body, and he came up to her butt! (laughs). That’s how short he was. Shorty would go, “Ooh, look at that girl, here she comes.” And we got into that song and we couldn’t stop. We wrote about a hundred lyrics to that song because we were in a room and we could see that girl in our minds (laughs). Then Mitch Ryder heard it, and he did a great version of the song.
DK: You had another hit, “It Takes Two,” which was a duet with Marvin Gaye & Kim Weston. Can you talk about this song? I read that you married Kim Weston.
Stevenson: I did “It Takes Two” before I left Motown. I didn’t know it was going to be such a big hit. I left Motown because I wanted to start my own company, because I had reached my limit there. In other words, financially and creatively, I couldn’t go any further with that. So I said, “Okay, I’ll have to start my own company,” because I wanted to go past the point of where I was at.
What was funny, when I had done “It Takes Two” with Marvin & Kim, I told her she could stay at Motown because she had a record happening, but I had to do my own thing. And of course she said, “No, I’m with you.” And when I left, the record got bigger and bigger. It was amazing, because you never know with songs.
With songwriting, you really write from the heart, and not just trying to make up stuff. When you write from the heart, it can do anything, because the heart feeling of a record or a song touches everybody.
When you make up stuff…some of those songs take off too…no question about it. But I said to my son, Novel (who’s a Grammy-winning hip-hop/soul artist), when he was first starting to write, “Son, if you stay with the heart when you write, then there’s no telling how long it will last. If you just come off the top and throw something together, it can be a hit, but it won’t last.” And sure enough, the songs that I’ve written from the heart…some of the things that make me cry and hurt…those songs, they stay around forever.