Deke Richards, center, is flanked by fellow Corporation members Fonce Mizell, left, and Freddie Perren. (Universal Music Enterprises)
Deke Richards, one of the key figures in Michael Jackson's early career, died Sunday in Washington state of esophageal cancer. He was 68.
Richards, whose real name was Dennis Lussier, led "The Corporation" at Motown, the songwriting/producing team that Berry Gordy assembled to create hits for the recently signed Jackson 5 in 1968.
The Corporation consisted of Richards, Alphonzo Mizell, Freddie Perren and Gordy himself, a deft hand at songwriting (he wrote "Lonely Teardrops" and other hits for Jackie Wilson before launching Motown). The Corporation came up with "I Want You Back," a 1969 smash that started a run of three No. 1 hits in a row for the group of brothers from Gary, Ind.
Richards, with The Corporation, went on to co-write and produce many hits, including "ABC," "The Love You Save," "Mama's Pearl," "Maybe Tomorrow" and "Goin' Back To Indiana."
In the studio with the young Jacksons, Richards had to be as much teacher and disciplinarian as their producer, he told The Detroit News several years ago. Michael always wanted to play, and particularly loved cutting up in front of the mic. But he realized from the beginning that Michael was more than just a playful young boy.
"Whatever it took to be able to take and mold and help to put together that piece of clay, I'll tell you something, it was like your hands were guided by God," Richards told The News in 2009, when Jackson died. "I feel honored to have worked with a person like Michael who was a true genius."
Richards also wrote "Love Child" for Diana Ross and the Supremes, and "I'm Still Waiting" for Diana Ross. He also wrote for artists such as Bobby Darin and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.
He was still involved in music, producing the Jackson 5's 2012 release of rareties, "Come and Get It: The Rare Pearls."
He is survived by his wife, Joan Lussier, his brother, Dane Lussier, of Huntington Beach, Calif., and two nephews, Chris Lussier of Bellingham, Wash., Cory Lussier of Nantucket, Mass.
The funeral will be private. In lieu of flowers, memorials are encouraged to the HAL Awards' site to support music education, at halawards.com/howyoucanhelp.html.