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A visit to the dark side of Motown

There’s no doubt about it: America’s legendary Motown label was an unparalleled success in the music industry. But beneath the sparkling veneer of catchy hits and matching outfits lurked death, drugs and drama.

By Lee Zimmerman

Few labels have seen such as much triumph — or as much tragedy and treachery — as the storied Motown label.

The Supremes

The Supremes

The Supremes

The Supremes were one of Motown’s flagship acts, at one point rivaling The Beatles for pop chart prominence.

But as the group gained fame, tensions built among the group members, particularly around Diana Ross, who eventually was elevated to a spotlight role and given separate billing. While Mary Wilson tried to maintain stability and civility within the fold, Florence Ballard became increasingly threatened, especially when rumors began to circulate that Berry Gordy planned to replace Ballard with Cindy Birdsong, a member of the label’s studio singing contingent. Ballard became increasingly depressed, gained weight and began drinking excessively, which only fueled the friction between her and Ross.

Gordy’s threats to alter The Supremes’ lineup only added to the tension, and by 1967, Ballard’s behavior had become increasingly erratic. Ballard attempted to get back into Gordy’s good graces by sobering up and slimming down, but an onstage incident at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas on June 29, 1967 — precipitated by Ballard’s discovery of an extra set of stage costumes supposedly set aside for Birdsong — sealed her fate. She went on stage inebriated and began to dance in a provocative manner. Gordy immediately fired her, hired Birdsong, and renamed the group Diana Ross and the Supremes.

Ballard subsequently attempt at a solo career failed to ignite. After that, which she unsuccessfully sued Motown and eventually spiraled into poverty. She died unexpectedly on Feb. 22, 1976, the result of coronary thrombosis. Ballard was 32.

The Temptations

The Temptations created the template for practically every male singing group that followed, amassing several No. 1 pop singles and 14 records that topped the R&B charts. The group was the first Motown act to earn a Grammy; it picked up two more later on. The Temptations’ six original members — Dennis Edwards, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, Otis Williams, and Paul Williams — were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. Three of the group’s songs — “My Girl”, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”, and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” — appear on The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.

Paul Williams became the first member of the group to depart due to personal problems. His struggle with sickle-cell anemia made him to fall victim to depression, which in turn led to a battle with alcoholism. By the late 1960s, it was impossible for Williams to continueto tour. Although he left the group as a performer, he remained on the payroll as an adviser and choreographer.

Williams eventually recovered enough to record a solo single, but on Aug. 17, 1973, he committed suicide at his home in Detroit.

A combination of talent and tempestuous egos led to more turmoil in the group. Ruffin began demanding special treatment as the group’s lead singer; he took to riding in his own limousine to and from performances. Soon, he insisted on star billing. His attitude, coupled with his regular use of cocaine, prompted the other members of The Temptations to kick him out and put Dennis Edwards in the lead. It was a decision Ruffin seemed to take in stride, until he began turning up unexpectedly at performances and jumping onstage, an irritating occurrence that forced Motown to hire extra security to keep him at bay.

Ruffin eventually enjoyed a successful solo career, but his intermittent battles with the authorities — there was a six-month prison sentence in 1982 due to failure to pay back taxes and a minor charge of receiving and concealing stolen property — coupled with his continuing drug use undermined his artistic abilities.

Following a successful monthlong tour of England with former colleagues Kendricks and Edwards, Ruffin collapsed in a Philadelphia crack house on June 1, 1991. Although cause of death was ruled an accident, Ruffin’s family and friends suspected foul play, as a money belt containing the proceeds from the British tour, nearly $40,000, went missing.

Kendricks had his share of troubles, too. Musical differences caused him to leave the group, but that allowed him to rekindle his friendship with Ruffin. Kendricks’ plans to record with Ruffin and original Temptation Dennis Edwards ended abruptly with Ruffin’s overdose and Kendricks’ own diagnosis of lung cancer in 1991.

Kendricks managed to continue to tour with Edwards, despite having one of his lungs removed in hopes of curtailing the disease. But any gain was short lived. He soon fell ill and subsequently died Oct. 5, 1992.

Rick Owens, the man that was hired to take Kendricks’ place in The Temptations, didn’t fare any better. Lured away from the L.A.-based Vibrations, Owens was fired after only two dates because he couldn’t learn The Temptations’ lyrics. Owensreturned to the Vibrations, but subsequently died Dec. 6, 1996, at the age of 57. 

These days, The Temptations’ lineup features Otis Williams, Ron Tyson, Terry Weeks, Joe Herndon and Bruce Williamson. The group regularly tours, and has numerous dates coming up in 2015. 

The Four Tops

The Four Tops were unique among Motown groups, because the group never had a change in personnel for more than 40 years — from 1953 to 1997.

But the group was not immune to the specter of premature deaths that seemed to stalk the Motown stable. Known originally as The Four Aims, the group featured Levi Stubbs, Abdul “Duke” Fakir, Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Lawrence Payton. Like the Temptations, The Four Tops helped to define the Motown Sound. The group became the chief vehicle for the songwriting and production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, racked up a string of successful singles including “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” and “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.”

Although The Four Tops left Motown for other labels, including ABC, the group eventually returned to the Motown fold. Payton succumbed to liver cancer on June 20, 1997, Benson died of lung cancer on July 1, 2005, and Stubbs passed away after a prolonged struggle with cancer on Oct. 17, 2008.

Fakir continues to tour under the banner of the Four Tops with Theo Peoples, Ronnie McNair and Roquel Payton (the son of original member Lawrence Payton), with numerous dates already set for 2015. 

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell


Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell were a success when they were paired up in 1967. Terrell had enjoyed a few modest hits on her own, but the songs she sang with Gaye — “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Your Precious Love” in particular — elevated the pair to superstardom and made them one of the hottest teams in show business. Unfortunately, only a few months after the two became performing partners, Terrell collapsed on stage in Gaye’s arms during a live performance. Diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, she underwent a series of eight operations, but her condition only grew worse.

By 1969, Terrell was so weak that she was unable to promote either her current album with Gaye, ironically titled “Easy,” or her solo album, called “Irresistible,” that Motown had cobbled together from her early individual recordings.

Following her final operation in January 1970, Terrell slipped into a coma. She died of brain cancer March 16, 1970, just six weeks before her 25th birthday.

Both Gaye himself and Terrell’s family publicly accused Motown of taking advantage of her illness by releasing her solo album without her consent and failing to promote “Easy,” despite an assurance that the company would help cover her medical expenses.

Gaye reportedly blamed himself for Terrell’s illness and never fully got over her death. He took a four-month hiatus from performing after her death and was never able to fully appreciate the massive solo success he attained in the years that followed. The serious nature of his next album, “What’s Going On,” was largely considered to have been influenced at least partly by Terrell’s death.

With the critically acclaimed albums “Let’s Get It On” and “I Want You,” Gaye continued to his rise to superstardom. But after an artistic dispute with Motown over the release of “In Our Lifetime,” Gaye vowed he would never record another record for the label. Ironically, one of his final performances took place on the television special, “Motown 25” in March 1983, where he chose to perform “What’s Going On.”

Gaye eventually signed with Columbia, where he scored the biggest hit of his career with “Sexual Healing,” which was featured on the 1982 album “Midnight Love.” But his private life was in a shambles, with financial woes and escalating drug use among his problems.

Following a subsequent American tour, Gaye retreated to his parents’ home in Los Angeles, where his life spiraled even further out of control. On April 1, 1984, a domestic disturbance at the Gaye home turned deadly when the singer was killed by a bullet fired from a gun he had given his father four months before. The murder shocked the world and silenced one of music’s greatest voices the day before what would have been his 45th birthday.

James Jamerson

Behind most of Motown’s great records was James Jamerson, an influential bassist who was largely responsible for crafting the Motown sound throughout the ’60s and early ’70s. Inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame posthumously in 2000, Jamerson was among the group of largely uncredited Motown session players that came to be known as the Funk Brothers, an ensemble that worked in the studio during the day and then played the clubs at night.

His melodic bass work stands out on hits including “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” (The Four Tops); “You Can’t Hurry Love” (The Supremes); “Shotgun” (Jr. Walker & The All Stars); “Get Ready” and “My Girl” (The Temptations); “For Once in My Life” and “I Was Made To Love Her” (Stevie Wonder);“Going to a Go-Go” by The Miracles, “Dancing in the Street” (Martha and the Vandellas); “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (Gladys Knight and the Pips); and most of Marvin Gaye’s album “What’s Going On.”

Jamerson reportedly played on 95 percent of Motown recordings made between 1962 and 1968, contributing to nearly 30 No. 1 hits — a record even The Beatles couldn’t beat. In fact, Beatles bassist Paul McCartney has cited Jamerson as an inspiration, as have fellow legendary bassists Jack Bruce, John Entwistle, Jaco Pastorius, John Paul Jones, Mike Mills, Geddy Lee and Victor Wooten.

When Motown moved to the West Coast in the early ’70s, Jamerson relocated, too. Although he severed his ties with the label in 1973, his prodigious career continued with work on hits by the Hues Corporation, Robert Palmer and Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr.Unfortunately, Jamerson found it difficult to adapt to the changes in style and technology, and by the early ’80s, his session gigs had dried up. His increasing dependency on alcohol led to cirrhosis of the liver, pneumonia and heart failure. He died at age 47 on Aug. 2, 1983, broke, despondent and convinced that the recognition he deserved had completely eluded him.

Rick James

A similar fatalistic instinct that doomed fellow Motown alumnus James Ambrose Johnson Jr.— better known as Rick James.

Despite his success in the late 1970s and early 1980s with hits including “Super Freak,” “Mary Jane” and “You and I” – James’ penchant for bad behavior made his downfall inevitable.

Growing up, James had idolized Motown’s advance guard — Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and The Temptations, of which his uncle Melvin Franklin was a member.

His run-ins with the law while still a teen prompted James to drop out of school and join the Naval Reserve. A year later, he failed to report for active duty and fled to Canada, where he teamed up keyboardist Goldy McJohn (later of Steppenwolf) and Bruce Palmer (Buffalo Springfield bassist).The band eventually changed its name to the Mynah Birds, recruited guitarist Neil Young — yes, that Neil Young — and secured a recording contract with Motown.

But the group’s album was shelved after it was learned that James had gone AWOL. That revelation led James to spend a year in jail, the first of several times he would be incarcerated.

In 1978, James reinvented himself as a solo performer and released the album “Come Get It!,” on which he played most of the instruments. The album boasted the 8:04 epic single “You and I”, which paved the way for chart success for the song “Mary Jane.” James’ next two albums, “Fire It Up” and “Bustin’ Out of L Seven,” established him as a bankable star. But it was his fifth album, “Street Songs,” that cemented that standing, thanks to the songs “Give It To Me” and “Super Freak,” which became his signature song and biggest hit. Motown tapped James to produce albums for Diana Ross and The Temptations, as well as the debut disc for white R&B protégé Teena Marie. Yet his discontent with the label began to fester, and after three more albums, he eventually left Motown to sign a lucrative deal with Warner Bros.

Nevertheless, James personal and professional problems became all too acute. His early fondness for marijuana led to his abuse of cocaine and, in turn, a crack habit that spun out of control. He claimed that at one time he was spending $7,000 a week on drugs, a practice that continued for five years. Those problems were further compounded after a stroke he suffered while on tour in 1998. At the same time, James became inexplicably involved in a series of strange incidents, including a pair of kidnappings during which he mercilessly raped and tortured his victims. He somehow escaped conviction on the latter charge, but the other assaults brought him a two-year sentence in Folsom Prison and forfeiture of $2 million as the result of subsequent civil suits. The whole sad saga came to an end on August 6, 2004 when he was found dead in his Los Angeles home, the result of cardiac failure that had been aggravated by diabetes. A number of drugs were found in his system, although the coroner maintained that none of those substances were responsible for his demise. Inevitably though, it was clear that his abusive habits had ultimately done him in.

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson’s June 5, 2009, death from a fatal dose of prescription drugs was yet another tragedy with ties to Motown.

when the singer succumbed to a fatal dose of drugs prescribed him by his physician, Dr. Conrad Murray. Although Jackson’s association with Motown had ended decades before, it was his awe-inspiring performance on the “Motown 25” special that helped revive his career and re-launch him towards international acclaim.

Jackson’s bizarre behavior offstage — which included frequent efforts to alter his appearance, charges of child abuse and a less-than-conventional lifestyle at his Neverland theme-park ranch — proved his undoing. Despite his rabid fan base and unparalleled sales and artistic accomplishments, Jackson’s tabloid reputation and unusual antics ultimately stole the headlines. Plagued by a troubled childhood, his fixation with staying an eternal man/child eventually proved his undoing. His aim was to be bigger than Elvis and, ironically, he died the same way, a victim of both prescription drug abuse and his own delusions. The greatest tragedy lay not in the fact that he died relatively young – although his childlike obsessions belied the fact that at age 50, he was well into middle age – but rather in the reality that he still had so much talent yet to share. A victim of ambition, Michael Jackson became a desperate individual whose life was fueled by fame but eventually destroyed by it.