When Berry Gordy first started his Motor Town touring spectaculars (the precursors of the celebrated Motown revues) Marv Johnson was a headliner on an equal footing with the likes of Mary Wells and The Marvelettes.
His early songs for Gordy, many actually released on United Artists since demand outstripped the junior record mogul’s pressing and distribution resources at the time, such as Come To Me, You Got What It Takes and I’m Coming Home, showcased a fluid, high-pitched voice rich in melismatic effects.
Johnson’s class and potential greatness had been stamped on his very first single, Once Upon A Time, cut for Kudo in 1958. He could have been one of the very best.
His Come To Me was the very first single released on Tamla, Motown‘s first imprint, in 1959, and yet his career was marked by disappointment.
The hits started drying up as early as 1961, and there is a suggestion that he was arrogant and difficult to work with.
He didn’t officially sign with Motown until 1964, and by the time I’ll Pick A Rose For My Rose became a completely unexpected UK smash in 1969, he had been reduced to working in the company’s purchasing department.
Throughout the years it’s plain that he struggled to find suitable material but he kept performing to the end, excluded from all the big Motown reunions, with a sense that his role in the forging of a unique sound was never properly acknowledged.
Marv Johnson collapsed and died on stage in South Carolina in 1993. He was aged 54.