Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Frank Wilson's Chart Legacy: From the Supremes and Marvin Gaye to the Miracles & Stevie Wonder

Motown producer/songwriter/artist Frank Wilson, who died on Sept. 27 after a long battle with prostate cancer, is one of the label's unsung heroes, having produced hits for almost every major Motown artist, including Diana Ross & the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Eddie Kendricks and Stevie Wonder. During his tenure with the label he also worked with Martha & the Vandellas, the Marvelettes, Brenda Holloway and the Originals.

Wilson was born Dec. 5, 1940, in Houston, Texas and moved to Baton Rouge, La., to attend college but only stayed one year before relocating to Los Angeles, where he met independent label owners Hal Davis and Marc Gordon. They were interested in recording Wilson's wife, Barbara, and discovered that Frank was in a group called the Gospel Harps and was also a songwriter. When Berry Gordy asked Davis and Gordon to head-up a new Motown west coast office, they duo recruited Wilson to be part of their team. They collaborated on a track for a 1964 Stevie Wonder album titled "Stevie at the Beach." Released as a single, "Castles in the Sand" gave Wilson his first berth on the Hot 100.

"Not long after 'Castles in the Sand,' Berry asked me if I would move to Detroit," Wilson told Billboard in 2005. "When I got there - I mean literally I dropped my bags at the hotel and went right to Motown - Eddie Holland said there was a push on Smokey Robinson because Berry said we've got to have a hit. He asked me if I had anything and I had this little chord running through my mind and he said, 'Sing a little bit of it.' So I sang, 'Whole Lotta Shakin' in My Heart.' He said, 'I like that. How long is it going to take you to finish writing it?' Within two days I had a meeting with Smokey and I went over the verses with him. I didn't have the chords yet. Didn't have the bridge. I told him I'd have that that night. And so we rehearsed. We recorded the song the next day. Recorded Smokey's vocals the day after that and it became a single."

Wilson then worked with one of Motown's west coast artists, Brenda Holloway, producing and co-writing "Just Look What You've Done" and "You've Made Me So Very Happy," which was even more successful when covered by Blood, Sweat and Tears.

More hits followed, including "All I Need" for the Temptations and "Chained" for Marvin Gaye. The former gave Wilson his first top 10 hit on the Hot 100, but the latter stalled for an unusual reason. Wilson recalled: "'Chained' was doing great and then they dropped the album. There was another track on the LP that everybody went on it right away and killed 'Chained.'" That other track was "I Heard It Through the Grapevine."

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Next up was an album teaming Diana Ross & the Supremes with the Temptations. Motown executive Suzanne de Passe brought Wilson a song written by Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Jerry Ross. "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" had already been recorded by Dee Dee Warwick and Madeline Bell, but Wilson's production had far more success, peaking at No. 2 on the Hot 100.

At the same time, Gordy wanted to return Diana Ross & the Supremes to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard singles chart. "Berry told us to go away for a weekend and not come out until we had a hit for Diane. And so we went to a suite at the Pontchartrain Hotel and got cocktails and didn't sleep. We just kept coming up with ideas and thoughts," said Wilson, who was in the suite with R. Dean Taylor, Pam Sawyer, Deke Richards and Henry Cosby. They came up with "Love Child," which returned Motown's leading femme trio to pole position.

When Ross exited the Supremes for a solo career, Wilson was charged with producing the first album with replacement vocalist, Jean Terrell. Wilson: "The pressure was on to make certain that the asset that the Supremes represented was not diminished because they lost their lead. The idea was to take advantage of the name and see how much mileage we can get out of it if we put out a great song."

Wilson discovered a talented songwriter in New York named Vincent DiMirco. "He was writing with a guitar and most of our stuff had been done with a piano," Wilson said in the Billboard interview. "I liked the idea of a song that was more influenced by guitar. So I flew to New York, visited him at his house with his family and we just wrote." It only took them one day to compose "Up the Ladder to the Roof," which became the first post-Ross Supremes single. It soared to No. 10 on the Hot 100 and was followed by a string of Wilson-produced hits: "Everybody's Got the Right to Love," "Stoned Love" and "Nathan Jones."

In 1973, Wilson returned to the No. 1 spot on the Hot 100 when he worked with Eddie Kendricks, who stepped out of the Temptations for a solo career. "Keep On Truckin' (Part 1)" occupied the penthouse for two weeks. A year later, Kendricks' "Boogie Down" peaked at No. 2. Wilson also produced the Four Tops and the Originals in the '70s.

While Wilson will be remembered for being a producer and a songwriter, he was also briefly a Motown artist. His single, "Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)" is an important part of Motown history, but not for being a hit. The legend is that only 250 promo copies were pressed and then, when Gordy decided not to release it, destroyed. But a few copies survived, and in 2009 one of those rare singles sold in the U.K. for £25,742 (about $41, 575).

Wilson became a born-again Christian and left the music industry in 1976, until he met a vocal group, Lakeside, in Bible studies, and produced them along with Freda Payne, New Birth, Lenny Williams from Tower of Power and Billy Davis, Jr. & Marilyn McCoo. In 1979, Wilson had a hit with Alton McClain & Destiny. "But the passion wasn't the same," Wilson admitted. "Before, I'd stay up all night and the idea was to have a number one record. If it wasn't a number one record, I'd throw it away. This time, it wasn't the same and I knew it."

Wilson almost returned to the music business one more time. "I came back to do a project for Motown because I thought there were a lot of artists who worked in the church who would love to express themselves musically. I convinced [then president and CEO] Jheryl Busby of it and he agreed. But other than that I don't even have the desire. In terms of writing, I would probably be a far better writer today because I have a greater understanding of songwriting," Wilson said during that 2005 Billboard interview. "Back then, the songwriting was driven by production. I would think production and writing almost simultaneously. Now I only think of a great song."

Below is a list of Frank Wilson's top 20 Hot 100 hits as a producer. The ranking is based on actual performance on the weekly Billboard Hot 100 chart. Songs are ranked based on an inverse point system, with weeks at No. 1 earning the greatest value and weeks at No. 100 earning the least. To ensure equitable representation of the biggest hits from each era, certain time frames were weighted to account for the difference between turnover rates from those years.


(Position-Title-Artist-Peak Position on Hot 100-Year)

1 Keep On Truckin' (Part 1), Eddie Kendricks, No. 1 for 2 weeks (1973)
2 Love Child, Diana Ross & the Supremes, No. 1 for 2 weeks (1968)
3 Boogie Down, Eddie Kendricks, No. 2 (1974)
4 I'm Gonna Make You Love Me, Diana Ross & the Supremes and the Temptations, No. 2 (1969)
5 Stoned Love, The Supremes, No. 7 (1970)
6 All I Need, the Temptations, No. 8 (1967)
7 Up the Ladder to the Roof, the Supremes, No. 10 (1969)
8 Shoeshine Boy, Eddie Kendricks, No. 18 (1975)
9 Still Water (Love), Four Tops, No. 11 (1970)
10 I'm Livin' in Shame, Diana Ross & the Supremes, No. 10 (1968)
11 Nathan Jones, the Supremes, No. 16 (1971)
12 Everybody's Got the Right to Love, the Supremes, No. 21 (1970)
13 It Must Be Love, Alton McClain & Destiny, No. 32 (1979)
14 Chained, Marvin Gaye, No. 32 (1968)
15 MacArthur Park (Part II), Four Tops, No. 38 (1971)
16 You've Made Me So Very Happy, Brenda Holloway, No. 39 (1967)
17 Down to Love Town, the Originals, No. 47 (1976)
18 (It's the Way) Nature Planned It, Four Tops, No. 53 (1972)
19 Whole Lot of Shakin' in My Heart (Since I Met You), the Miracles, No. 46 (1966)
20 Castles in the Sand, Little Stevie Wonder, No. 52 (1964)

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