ANDY HILL INTERVIEWS MOTOWN LEGEND CAROLYN CRAWFORD
WOW, what an interview!! Andy Hill, the man behind Chills and Fever spends time with Motown's legendary Carolyn Crawford! In this absolutely amazing piece Andy talks with Carolyn about her life as one of Motown's incredible artists, sit back, relax and let Andy and Carolyn take you on an amazing journey through the early years of Motown's history, the music, the people, the tours and lifestyle that made Hipsville so hip.......
Andy -Today is Friday. The date is 8th May 2020. I am having a very special one to one conversation with Carolyn Crawford about her early life and life at Motown in Detroit Michigan USA just as things were starting to really take off for the most successful independent record label ever!
So, without any further ado….over to Detroit and …welcome, Carolyn Crawford!
Good afternoon Carolyn, how are you?
Hi Andy…yes good thank you, although it’s a little chilly but not really cold – Spring is in the air, snow about but I’m not going out this weekend. I have my beers in and am going to enjoy myself catching up with shows and music!
Sounds good! So, what was it like for you as a young girl growing up in Detroit?
Well, my mom was very protective! She had 4 children, and I was a lively girl! In fact, my mom had to put me on a leash and then fix it to the clothes-line so I could run up and down, or else I would run away! Of course, I would think this was funny….but, one day she forgot, and the next thing she knew I was away, running down the street! She called my name, and I was turning around laughing, I was only 5 years old. Luckily for mom (Edith, known to everyone as Edie) a truck driver driving by, heard her hollering out “stop her, stop her, she’s my daughter!”…, he did, and to my Mother’s relief, handed me back to my her.
Andy - Carolyn then went on to explain that her mom had had a difficult life, suffering abuse from her husband, and had had 2 of her 4 children abducted from her by him before she was born – this explains why Edie was very protective of Carolyn.
Carolyn continued;“ I have had my ups and downs, but, I’m a very positive person, and can adjust and make positives from negatives…even if I have to be a Diva at times, which is not my natural personality…but sometimes, in certain situations, it has to be done – even though it’s not me!, and I have had to surround myself with like-minded positive people. Being close to my mom, my school was right across the road from where I lived.
Now, I’m going to take you back to when I was about 12 years old…..
So, my mom was really strict on me. I couldn’t go to places without letting mom know, in fact I had to ask “may I go?”…anyway, I really loved to sing, and I would sing and tap along with my fingers on the windowsill at home….she would never tell me to stop, but she would tell me, I had to tone it down a bit!”
Where did you learn to sing Carolyn?
I came out of my mother’s womb singing!!
I sang in the youth choir and I banged on the piano a bit, and believe it or not by the age of 12 I was in charge of the youth choir!
This one day, a thought came to me, that I would run down to the studios. I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got there, but I went anyway. I ran down to speak to Gwen (Berry’s sister - Harvey Fuqua’s wife) and Harvey. They had Tri-Fi studios located on Farnsworth and St. Antoine Street. Gwen was sitting at the desk I remember, so I went in and introduced myself, telling her that I wanted to sing, and asking her what it took for me to be able to sing there? Gwen asked me how old I was. After I told her that I was 12 years old, she replied that that was a little young. She then advised me to come back when I was a little older, say 13 or 14, and see how things were then.
I ran back home, and I never told my mom this, that I had done this on my own, until I was in my late 20’s!
So….when I was 13, I heard on the radio, that there was a talent contest where you could choose a song, and go along to a studio to sing it. My mom agreed that I could do this, but obviously, she was with me the whole nine yards!
I entered the contest, singing ‘Operator’, a recent hit for Mary Wells. Mary Wells was my teenage idol!
This was the very first talent show held at the Fox Theatre. All contestants recorded at a studio on Grand River in Detroit and our recordings were submitted to the radio station to play a couple of times weekly at certain times. The public would then have to judge. These radio stations were sponsored by Motown Records, TipTop Bread and WCHB Radio Sation. In order to take part in the competition, I had to collect bread wrappers from TipTop bread loaves! I didn’t understand why at the time. So mother and I would go along to the 5 and dime, and collect as many bread wrappers as we could. Later I understood. This was an incentive to get you to go out and understand that you had to work for what you wanted to accomplish – nothing is handed to you on a silver platter!
Well, anyhow, I was voted into the finals! These were held at The Fox Theatre, and there were three judges, but what I didn’t know at the time was - Berry Gordy was one of them!!
I decided to sing (and accompany myself on the piano) “Laughing Boy”, another tune by Mary Wells. However, I had added an extra verse, which I wrote myself.
Looking back on this, there was Berry Gordy in the audience listening to this tune he KNOWS, and then, there’s this new verse he never heard before!...he must’ve been impressed because I won first prize!
I won a Longine watch, $500 AND a 4 year contract with Motown Records!
Shortly after this, Berry Gordy came by my house to visit, just I guess to see what environment I lived in. We were living in the Ghetto, but the studio was also in the Ghetto – not far from us.
After this, my mother and I were invited to the Motown Studios to talk. We had a ¾ hour conversation with Berry Gordy, who was really nice, he told me of his plans for me, that he really enjoyed my stage presence and style and told me that there was a possibility I could go further! At the end of this, I had a couple of things to ask him. (remember, I’m 13 years old at this point!)….
‘Mr Gordy’, I said ‘I have three things I’d like to ask.’
He told me to go ahead, so I did.
I said to him that first I didn’t want to change my name.
‘Oh, OK’, he replied…..and, I continued,
‘I’d like to write my first tune.’
‘Can you write tunes?’, he asked, ‘bring it in and let me listen to it and we’ll see.’
The third was that I wanted to be on the Motown label, the label with the big M – not VIP, not Gordy, not Tamla!
Well, I got all 3 of my wishes!!!
I wrote my first song, and performed it to Mr Gordy. He didn’t change a thing – not one note – not one word – NOTHING! The song was ‘Forget About Me’, he put the background to it, but he didn’t TOUCH IT! He didn’t change my name, and he put me on the Motown label!!! I was still only 13 years old!
Two weeks after winning the contest, a limousine pulled up outside of my house and on the eve of my 14th birthday at around midnight, I was taken to the Motown Studios where I recorded ‘Forget About Me’ … and I was back in my house by 3am…I never took a long time to record anything!!”
How did you feel when you first walked through the doors of HITSVILLE?
EXCITED! – Are you kidding me!!! Excited! Even though it was midnight, on top of that I could talk to the ‘Boss’ Mr Gordy himself…..I didn’t have to go through nobody – straight there!
The smells, vibes, what was it like?
I’ve always had a good sense of positives and negatives. I think my sensitivity was taught by my mom, but also built in …
‘Devil in my Heart’ written by Robert Gordy, and recorded at Greystone Ballroom.
After church on Sunday I would go to dance. I LOVE to dance – like you all do now…I still get right out – there’s no shame in my game, getting on the floor and doing my thing!”
Tell us about the second single that you cut at Motown?
Ok, now we move on to “My Smile (is just a frown turned upside down) – remember I was still at school. Smokey called my mother and told her ‘Have her at the studio at 4 o’clock.” Looking back I remember now that my mother allowed me my freedom at this time to get on the bus on my own…so I went into the booth with Smokie and we ran over the tune a few times. He told me “Come back in an hour.” I passed my time by walking up to Cunningham’s Drug Store – I used to walk with Stevie (Wonder) up there, hand in hand, to get ice-cream soda’s – but that was later. Anyway, in an hour I went back…the b-side was another one of my own tunes – ‘I’ll come running’, which again he didn’t touch, not one note – nothing!
On ‘I’ll Come Running’ he let me come into the studio, to the ‘snake-pit’ and play the piano and tambourine – I was working with Robert White, (guitar) James Jameson,(bass), Joe Hunter (keyboard) Benny Benjamin (drums) Eddie Bongo aka Bongo Eddie (congas) during my ‘live’ sessions.
Other times for example when we did ‘Devil in his Heart’, ‘When Someone’s Good to You’ and ‘My Heart’ I wasn’t in the studio when they added the backing, so I wasn’t sure who played on those tunes.
Berry Gordy took me up to one of the piano rooms to do a ‘key check’ on ‘When Someone’s Good to You’.
Later …we went in, and recorded the session, which was Berry Gordy’s written and arranged production and it was done!
I could go in and lay down the vocals, I was a natural at that, laid it down and left it there!
Background on some of my earlier records were The Spinners on ‘Forget about me’, and The Temptations on ‘When someone’s good to me’
During this time, I was one of a few selected to sing backing, along with the Vandellas on Martha Reeves and The Vandellas ‘Girl You’ve been in love too long’, also I was singing backing on my own songs….. they just wanted ‘more voices’ – nothing unusual for Motown!....and apparently another 12 releases with my voice on them, which I have no recollection of doing – many times, whoever was available for background when there was a session at Motown, were asked to accommodate!!
I remember Paul Riser, Ivy Hunter and Shorty Long taking me home from the studio quite often to make sure I got home safely.
I was getting very, very busy so my Mother advised me to keep a little black book – which turned out to be very handy as one day I received a bill for $2000 for a session I hadn’t done! Turned out it was a Supremes tune! Needless to say, I still keep notes to this day!
Tell us a little about the ‘Motown Family’, the atmosphere, artists, behind the scene etc…
Oh yeh! The Detroit family used to be around all the time – standing around out front, or inside, it was a busy place summer or winter …Lots of photos sometimes of people standing around in coats in winter ...I was flabbergasted that I was there.
The Motown label is the most influential, biggest independent label ever. How did the Motown sound help with harmonising racial problems at the time?
It did, oh definitely! Motown music appealed to all people. I was very grateful to be at the heart of it just as it was exploding all over the world.
But, to be honest, when I first starting playing live I was naive to racial problems. It took me some time to realise the extent of these problems at the time. Sometimes as Joe Billingsly later told me, The Contours, Martha and others performed to white audiences only, and straight after to black only audiences. Other times, in some theatres, white audiences were downstairs, on the main floor and black audiences on the mezzanine (upper floor), or white on one side and black on the other! I learned about this when both Joe and I occasionally hosted the Motown tours for tourists at the museum…
During the racial riots in Detroit around 1964/65 I was sent out to the East coast to perform and therefore missed the majority of these tensions. Also, I was still very young, so I guess I was sort of shielded from it to some extent.
Like I said, I didn’t really understand it like I do today. I did join the walk later with Martin Luther King, which went downtown as I believed the cause was important, I recognised that much! And this, after missing much of what was happening in the South, as I had been away on tour, was eye opening for me, listening to him explaining what was going on.”
Tell us a little bit about what life was like ‘on the road’?
I did the 2 local shows here at Fox Theatre after winning the contest – but mostly travelled to perform on the East coast reviews. Mom kept a lot of pictures of the reviews, souvenirs – whatever she could get her hands on!,
My Mom travelled with me, making sure I was dressed properly, my underwear wasn’t showing my hair done – she did an excellent job! I’m glad she was on the road with me.
My mother trusted Martha to look after me while letting me engage in more of an adult atmosphere, so, I was allowed to attend, with my mother’s permission, an entertainers party after one of the shows with her, I was too young to attend more adult parties.
Martha was the first one to put a wig on me. She told my mother that my hair would not hold up under the hot stage lights. mom worried that the wig might fall off, so Martha put the wig on me and pinned it on so tight!! She did this for two days showing me how to do it, and then gave me the wig and told me to do it myself!”
Who was responsible for your stage clothes?
My Momma and me!
The Motown Organisation never dressed me!
My mother was actually really insulted by Diana Ross one time. On my first gig she was sent over to check on me, to make sure I looked ok, up to standard. My Mother told her, ‘I’m her Mother, I’m gonna make sure she looks fine!’
I was always dressed like a young lady, gloves, you know. Another time my mother dyed a slip the same colour as my chocolate brown dress, rather than white or black, in case it should hang, then it would be the same colour as my dress.
My Mother had good taste – she was a great dresser herself. One thing I remember, she always taught me to hang up my clothes straight away after taking them off, so they were ready to wear for the next time. I still do this for this day, taking care of my clothes. My Mother told me, ‘No-one has to know that you’re poor, if you take care of your clothes, you can look like a million dollars!’
Something else to my advantage was that groups had to look alike, to dress in the same outfits and dresses. So, there was lots of dressmaking going on, same dress, different sizes. Obviously, I didn’t have that problem, as long as I was presentable and ladylike – which I always was!
Before I went to Motown, my mother was giving a luncheon for her church, a fashion show at Ms Powell’s place. (Maxine Powell helped a lot of people before she went to Motown with their presentation and deportment at that time.) On this particular afternoon, I was in the show. Ms Powell asked my mother,
‘Who is that young lady there?’ meaning me.
‘My daughter’, mom replied.
Ms Powell told my mother that she’d like to train me, but as we had no money it seemed that wouldn’t happen. Ms Powell didn’t charge us, and this was before I had entered the competition. By the time I’d entered and won the contest, Ms Powell was working at Motown with her own department; ‘Development’ – or finishing instructor to be correct.
So, when I joined Motown Ms Powell was already there, so I got double!!
She would praise my mother, commending my mother on what she had already taught me, and she praised me for looking after my mother. I carry her legacy to this day…and she is sorely missed.
Ms Powell taught us how to sit on the floor, if there were no chairs, how to get up without ‘spreading your legs’ and everybody looking up your dress, taught us how to be elegant, have poise, how to stand up against a wall, sit in a chair, knees together, looking elegant but sexy at the same time. She showed us how to walk up or down steps, she told us,
‘Don’t stick your butt out – anytime, no time while performing on stage, and actually, anywhere else either!’
Her three favourites were always Martha Reeves, Diane Ross and myself, because we didn’t forget what she taught us and we used it on and off stage – and she also told us ‘pass that information on!’
Everyone on the Motown label were taught this, including the men! We all looked polished, elegant…and those dance steps! Think of The Temptations, The Contours, …you can still do your thing AND be classy, The 4 Tops…not a lot of stepping, but Levi could sure walk back and forth – so much polish!!!
I am so happy to have been a part and to be one of the alumni right now of that company…it amazes me, God did it, putting it in my mother to help me look good, dress and sing well. I thank my mother Edie for being there and supporting me through my years to make me the person that I have become.”
Who was on tour with you?
EVERY BODY – YOU KIDDING ME?!!
Marvellettes, Martha Reeves, The Temptations, Choker Campbell, The Four Tops and The Supremes…and we interacted with other acts like Curtis Mayfield, Jerry Butler, Patti LaBelle and The Bluebelles, Otis Redding, Dionne Warwick whilst we were on tour, and many, many others.
What advice would you give for younger people setting out in the music business today?
Sing about love, songs with melody and happy words. Melodies never go away and always attract your attention. You have to listen to yourself and evaluate, maybe pump it up….you have to believe in yourself!
I have nodules in my throat, which I wasn’t aware of in the early Motown days, but if you listen, you can hear little wavers in my voice. I found out in my early 20’s and in my early 30’s I went to the doctor who told me he would not ‘clip’ (operate) on my throat. I’m so glad he didn’t, and instead he told me a few things to do for the rest of my life which would help me: not to let the throat dry out, and I don’t talk from my throat, I actually talk over my throat…something I learnt and practice at the vocal classes I teach. One of the biggest things is to express yourself, whether singing or talking, vary the tone, use your diaphragm, which you exercise for the best results.… tell a story....tell it, sing it!”
Andy - Thank you Carolyn for sparing us the time to chat about your life at Motown.
I really feel like I was with you whilst chatting and feel honoured that you have shared these wonderful memories with myself and our readers.
I know you visit the UK quite often and were due over in October, but this has sadly been postponed for the moment. However, I really hope to catch up with you when you are next over. In the meantime, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me, and stay safe.
Discography – Motown singles
Forget About Me 1963
Devil In His Heart Motown 1050
My Smile Is Just A Frown 1964
(Turned Up Side Down) Motown 1064
I’ll Come Running
My Heart 1964
When Someone’s Good To You Motown 1070
Lot’s of other tracks available on You tube – especially from the 1970’s......