William “Mickey” Stevenson was one of the key creative masterminds behind Motown’s success from the early years. His book, entitled “A&R Man”, is a reflection of his experiences while working in the “Snake Pit” in Studio A. In a speech Berry Gordy Jr. made around the time of Motown’s fifth anniversary celebrations in 2009 at a special event in Hollywood to launch the book and film based on William “Mickey” Stevenson’s professional life as A&R Director/Vice- President during the formative years of the company’s operation, Gordy mentioned that Stevenson was instrumental in recruiting the appropriate studio musicians, as he went around the clubs and other live venues in the city of Detroit during the late 1950s and early 1960s to find the best musicians according to his personal standards. He then organised them into a formidable unit capable of delivering the sound that fitted with the creative vision of Berry Gordy Jr. This is how the Funk Brothers came into being.
For over a ten year period, the musicians known as the Funk Brothers transformed Studio A in the basement into a hit factory. They managed to roll off the music assembly-line a flow of sonic masterpieces that have stood the test of time. This was due, of course, to the skills of the chosen musicians, but a key factor was the leadership of William “Mickey” Stevenson, who made sure that the right musicians and sound engineers were available on a twenty-four hours basis. Stevenson appointed Ivy Jo Hunter as studio band leader. Both Berry Gordy Jr. and William “Mickey” Stevenson stated on many occasions that the early Motown hits were blues-based and influenced by local blues and R&B musicians and devised by the Motown staff songwriters and producers.
Most of the arrangements were created on the spot by the musicians while the songwriters were creating the lyrics for each song, punctuated by simple horns to add some sweetness to the tracks, arranged mainly by Darren Warren and Johnny Allen. Stevenson described how they worked, in an interview featured on “GEL Media” (2010): “After we cut several songs, the Funk Brothers would be still playing and jamming out of excitement which led to another set of songs been created on the spot which the songwriters added lyrics to and gave each song a title based on the mood of the track in terms of tempo. On many occasions the groove was laid down first before the actual song. During the jamming sessions, before they locked the track the way the producers wanted it, a particular producer would be asking members of band to play different grooves as he or she would imagine and hear the sound in their mind”.
He also said that he was responsible for giving the studio band their name of “The Funk Brothers” because they took pop songs and gave them a more funky sound. He recruited one of Motown’s most successful producers and songwriters, Norman Whitfield, as his A&R assistant, who became a student of William “Mickey” Stevenson and was mentored by him while they worked in and outside the studio. Stevenson was certainly one of key music architects behind the “Sound of Young America” and Motown’s extraordinary success during his tenure as A&R Director/Vice President from 1959 to 1967.
Photo: Angela George 2013