Motown's William 'Mickey' Stevenson headed to Songwriters Hall of Fame

Susan Whitall
Special to The Detroit News

William “Mickey” Stevenson doesn’t know who will induct him into the Songwriters Hall of Fame at its 51st Annual awards gala June 16 in New York. In fact, Motown’s founding A&R man probably won’t find out until he walks onto the stage at the Marriott Marquis.

It would seem natural for his old friend, Motown colleague and frequent golf partner Smokey Robinson, already in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, to perform the task.

“If Smokey is, he wouldn’t tell me about it. He’d keep it a secret,” a laughing Stevenson said by phone from his Los Angeles home. He’ll only know if he hears that loud, unmistakable voice that’s interrupted so many of Mickey’s downswings.

Songwriter Mickey Stevenson will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in June.

The catalog of Motown songs Stevenson had a hand in writing is pretty strong, including “Dancing in the Street;” “It Takes Two;” “Devil with the Blue Dress;” Ask the Lonely;” “Pride and Joy;” “Stubborn Kind of Fellow;” “My Baby Loves Me;” “Needle in a Haystack,” and “He Was Really Saying Something.”

He was actually inducted in 2020, along with Mariah Carey; Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart (Eurythmics); the Isley Brothers; Steve Miller; Pharrell Williams/Chad Hugo (the Neptunes), and Rick Nowels. Because of the pandemic, the honors were postponed until this year.

Stevenson turned 85 in January, although you’d never know it from his energy level. He was among the earliest hires by Berry Gordy Jr. in 1959, when Motown was launched. Gordy made Stevenson his A&R (artists & repertoire) director. That job included signing acts, recruiting the Funk Brothers studio band (by hitting every gin joint in Detroit), and overseeing the recording studio. He also helped trouble-shoot the Motown Revues, and handled the musicians’ union.

Motown founder Berry Gordy leads original Motown members in the company song during Motown’s Homecoming party in Detroit in 2014. Mickey Stevenson is the second from left.

While he was busy as a Motown executive, Stevenson never stopped collaborating with other writers on songs, and producing. Indeed, the late Barney Ales, Motown sales boss, used to joke that Motown’s production teams knew if they weren’t prepared to use their assigned studio time, Stevenson would pounce on their slot for one of his own productions.

Gordy enjoyed Stevenson’s streetwise personality, and both men leaned on those street contacts over the years.

It was something Stevenson came by naturally, watching his mother, Kitty Stevenson, make enough of a living as a jazz singer to support her four children.

And later, living over Denny’s Showbar at 8417 Linwood, he saw it all. As he wrote in his 2015 memoir, “The A&R Man”: “All the players, hookers, would-bes, could-bes and wannabes were out in the streets every night from eight o’clock until three in the morning.” Stevenson was hustling gigs for musicians, and soaking up the music going all night downstairs from his apartment.

Mickey Stevenson

Stevenson described his mother Kitty as “petite, brown, beautiful and strong as a single mother of four could be… a wonderful singer/songwriter, and a bundle of rhythm and blues.” Kitty sang with Todd Rhodes and his Orchestra, and was a regular at the Flame Showbar and the Broadway Capitol.

Stevenson had a brief career as a child in a trio with his brothers — they made it to the Apollo in Harlem — and was in singing groups at Northeastern High School.

It was his gig singing on the road with Lionel Hampton’s Hamptones as a young man, where Stevenson received a crash course in touring, managers, good outcomes at nightclubs and — more often — bad outcomes. Add to that the extra hassles Black entertainers had finding hotels and getting paid.

With all that experience under his belt, Stevenson was a natural to play the bad cop at Motown when needed. He was the guy who evicted ticket-holders at Motown Revue shows from their seats, when they tried to stay for more than one show (that led many to threaten him after the show). He also had to chase down and monitor the Funk Brothers, particularly drummer Benny Benjamin, who, as Stevenson said, “could find drugs in a closet if you left him there long enough.”

It was Stevenson who had to tell the innumerable hopefuls who streamed into his office to audition, “No no, not now and not ever.” (A few didn’t appreciate his rough-hewn candor, and tried to jump him out on the street).

Often, he delivered both good news and bad news, convincing would-be singers that they were better off on the other side of the mic, as he was. Motown was bursting with singers, but songwriter/producers who could create new product held the keys to the kingdom.

Such was the case with Ivy Jo Hunter.

“Ivy Jo came to me to be an artist, but when he sang his songs, I said, ‘Ivy your voice is OK and all that, but did you write those songs?’” Stevenson recalled. “He said yeah. I said ‘OK, I’ll sign you as a writer, and I’ll show you how to produce because you’ve got the gift. And we took off.”

They sure did.

Take their “Dancing in the Street” (1964, Martha and the Vandellas), the biggest hit Stevenson had a hand in writing. It soared to No. 2 in Billboard’s Top 100.

It all started when Ivy Jo Hunter told Stevenson that he wasn’t going to cut his hair until he got a Top 10 hit. Ivy Jo, Stevenson and Marvin Gaye were in the studio, finishing the lyrics to “Beechwood 4-5789’ for the Marvelettes.

Next Mickey, Marvin and Ivy Jo worked on a song for Kim Weston. “Dancing in the Street,” came out well, and they had the Funk Brothers record the instrumental track. The three men sang the lyrics along to the track, trying to get the feel they wanted.

But there was a problem. “How do we get Kim to sing this song like we feel it?” Stevenson said. “She had a great, strong voice, but this is supposed to be a happy song where everyone can join in. How do we do that? I said, ‘I’ll have Martha (Reeves, then his A&R assistant) give us a demo showing what we want!’

It was past midnight, but Stevenson worked until all hours of the night, and since he’d hired Reeves as his secretary (his assistant, she preferred), she would stay at the studio as long as he was there.

“At about one o’clock in the morning or some stupid hour, I said ‘OK, let me get Martha to sing this. Marvin said, ‘Martha’s still here?’ I said, ‘Yeah she’s here.’ I hollered for her, ‘Come on downstairs, Martha, we want you to dub this in.’ So she dubbed the song in. When she finished the song, everybody looked at me, I looked at them — Marvin, Ivy Jo — we were in awe. And Ivy Jo said, ‘I can get a haircut!’”

Martha’s performance, recorded as a demo, was so pitch perfect they didn’t rerecord it. But they had a problem, because Mickey had promised the song to Kim Weston, then his girlfriend.

“Marvin said “What are you gonna do?’” Stevenson recalled. “I said, ‘Well this song is definitely Martha’s song. He said, ‘I’d sure hate to be in your shoes.’ Ivy Jo said, “You the A&R man right? What you say go around here, right? The right person, that’s who gets the song, right? I said ‘Ivy Jo, don’t say nothin,’ just go get a haircut.’”

It was one of those magical nights on West Grand Boulevard. “That magic happens, and that was one of those moments. I couldn’t deny that. I was not going to move that song off of Martha, no way. We knew it, and Ivy Jo cut his hair.”

Here are some other songs that secured Stevenson a place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame:

 “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” 1962, Marvin Gaye. Written with Marvin Gaye, and George Gordy. “Hitchhike,” 1962, Marvin Gaye. Written with Marvin Gaye and Clarence Paul. “Pride and Joy,” 1963, Marvin Gaye. Written with Marvin Gaye and Norman Whitfield.

Gordy was frustrated that he couldn’t come up with any hits for Marvin Gaye, the handsome young triple threat (drummer, singer and songwriter) from Washington, D.C. He tasked Mickey with breaking the logjam. While Gaye wanted to position himself as a crooner, Mickey, who became a close friend, convinced him to sing in a tougher R&B style on a demo for a song they were working on, “Stubborn Kind of Fellow.” It was the first of many hits, and convinced Mickey to give up singing. “After I heard Marvin sing, I never thought about being a recording star again,” Mickey said.

That first song, “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” was the breakthrough hit for Marvin, followed by “Hitchhike” and “Pride and Joy.” Martha Reeves and the Vandellas can be heard clearly on all three songs, singing backup.

 “Needle in a Haystack,” The Velvelettes, 1964. Written with Norman Whitfield. This was the hit song that put the Velvelettes on the map. It includes a bit of Stevenson street philosophy delivered with verve by young Cal Street: “Girls, those fellas are sly, slick and shy.”

 “It Takes Two.” Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston, 1966. Written with Sylvia Moy, who Mickey describes as “Special — she was quiet, absolutely gifted. I got that from her right away.”

 “Devil with the Blue Dress.” Shorty Long, 1964. Written with Shorty Long. Many may know it as one of Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels’ biggest hits, but theirs was a 1966 cover. “Shorty Long! His foot could not hit the sustain pedal on the piano, that’s how short he was. And he loved tall girls! I mean loved them. I would say, why would you get a girl that tall? He said ‘Mr. Stevenson, when you lay down with them, you’re the same size!’ That song was powerful for me, it fit him perfectly, it was his thinking.”

 “My Baby Loves Me.” Martha and the Vandellas, 1966. Written with Ivy Jo Hunter and Sylvia Moy. Although the Vandellas are credited, it’s Reeves’ solo, singing one of her most gorgeous, heartfelt vocals, with the Andantes (Motown’s female backing group) and the Four Tops backing her up vocally.

It was a common Motown practice to have even top groups do background vocals on each other’s records, something Mickey instituted on the Motown Revues, as well, to get that Motown Sound live. “As soon as a group came offstage, I had them go straight to the offstage mic and be ready to sing backup for the next artist,” Mickey said.

 “Ask the Lonely.” The Four Tops, 1965. Written with Ivy Jo Hunter. One of the Tops’ best songs, a moody, lovelorn classic that wasn’t written by their usual hitmakers Holland-Dozier-Holland. Also recorded by Billy Eckstine, the Four Seasons and the Supremes.

 “He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’.” The Velvelettes, 1964. Written with Eddie Holland and Norman Whitfield. Also covered in a frothy 1982 Britpop hit by Bananarama, who also named their memoir after the song.

 “Beechwood 4-5789.” The Marvelettes, 1962. Written with Marvin Gaye and George Gordy. Also recorded by the Carpenters.

Mickey was gone from Motown by 1969. In the ensuing years, he’s led his own record labels, and wrote and produced many stage musicals, including “The Gospel Truth,” “Memories of Motown,” and most recently, “Sang Sister Sang” and “The Azusa Revival.”

He’s also still writing songs, including topical ones “Put Obama in the White House” and “I Can’t Breathe," the latter inspired by the death of George Floyd and recorded by Deitrick Haddon, who sang it on “The View” for Juneteenth 2020.

What are Mickey’s favorites of the songs he’s written or co-written? “Dancing in the Street,” he says without hesitation. “And ‘My Baby Loves Me,’ (a smoldering Martha Reeves ballad), and ‘It Takes Two.’ It’s my romantic side. And I love it when the audience sings along with the artist, it’s as if they’re in my heart.”

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