An Interview with Motown Great Johnny Bristol

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Image“I consider myself a versatile writer,” says Johnny Bristol, on the phone from L.A. “And if there’s 10 different kinds of songs on the top 10, I think I can write that many different types of songs.” Later, commenting on his failure to win a New Artist of the Year Grammy after being nominated in the category, Bristol again exudes self-confidence. “I think the committee made a mistake,” he tells me.

For a new artist to be so cocky about his abilities would at the very least seem premature. But though the spotlight is indeed new to Bristol, he is far from a beginner in the business. When his first single, “Hang On In There, Baby,” reached the charts last fall, he was already driving a Rolls Royce, one result of an ultra-successful music career that had by then spanned more than 15 years.

His upward trek began in the early 60s when, after a brief flirtation with performing, he accepted an invitation to work at Motown’s artist development office as an assistant to Harvey Fuqua, formerly lead singer for the legendary Moonglows. In 1964, Bristol and Fuqua inked a coproducing deal with the label, and the former has been hanging on in there and elsewhere ever since.

In the years that followed, Bristol wrote and/or produced an incredible number of giant Motown hits. The Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together,” Junior Walker’s “Pucker Up, Buttercup,” Stevie Wonder’s “Yester-me, Yester-you, Yesterday,” and Edwin Starr’s “25 Miles” constitute just a tiny fraction of his credits. Bristol also worked successfully with Gladys Knight and the Pips, David Ruffin, the Marvelettes, the Four Tops, the Miracles, Martha Reeves and Jerry Butler.

With Fuqua, he was additionally responsible for teaming Marvin Gaye and the late Tammy Terrell on “It Takes Two” and the classic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Outside of label president Berry Gordy himself, perhaps only Holland/Dozier/Holland and Smokey Robinson boast Motown resumes as wide-ranging and impressive as Bristol’s.

When his contract with Gordy ran out in 1973, Bristol was, to put it mildly, in a position to negotiate. Though not dissatisfied with the company, he shopped for and took—from Columbia Records—the best deal he could find.

As a staff producer for the new label, he has to date worked with such artists as O.C. Smith, Buddy Miles, Chi Coltrane, Boz Scaggs and Johnny Mathis. With Columbia’s permission, he has in recent months also produced Jerry Butler on Mercury Records and Al Wilson on Bell.

Though he says he has enjoyed all these chores, performing has long been Bristol’s first love. And, until recently, he hasn’t had much opportunity for that. Motown, believing that he was most valuable as a writer/producer, never encouraged other sides of his talent. Last year, when he brought the suggestion for an album of his own to Columbia, its executives reacted similarly and nixed the idea, but did agree to let him make the same proposal to MGM.

MGM said yes and, only months later, Columbia must surely be sorry for what now threatens to become a multimillion-dollar mistake.

That label said yes and, only months later, Columbia must surely be sorry for what now threatens to become a multimillion-dollar mistake. The Bristol-penned title cut from his fine, self-produced first album, Hang On in There, Baby, became a monster hit last fall and earned the artist Cash Box‘s top new male performer award in the singles category. The LP—which also charted (as did a follow-up 45, “You and I”)—prompted two Grammy nominations and, from Britain’s Melody Maker, a citation for Soul Album of the Year.

For moving stage-center after all his backroom successes, Bristol also garnered a Special Acheivement Award from Record World. Meanwhile, cover versions of his new tunes began to appear (most notably the Osmonds’ smash, “Love Me for a Reason,” a melody so strong that it sounded good even from them); and acclaim for the singer further intensified.

Now, as Bristol prepares to reinforce his burgeoning popularity with an initial concert tour, MGM is releasing his second LP, Feeling the Magic, and, from it, a new single, “Leave My World.” Both 45 and long player—which Bristol wrote and produced—appear likely to take the charts by storm.

Like most of Hang On In There, Baby, the best songs on the new album combine the pop sophistication of a Barry White with the earthy reality of an Isaac Hayes. Bristol has been frequently compared to both those singers, and he says he is “honored to be in such good company”; but it is important to emphasize that, shared qualities notwithstanding, his muisc rests on its own firm ground. More commercial than Hayes, it also seems more spontaneous, sensitives and sincere than White’s.

“I believe in everything I sing,” Bristol says. “I’ve either lived it or it’s what I believe my philosophy is about.

“Like ‘Hang On In There, Baby.’ See, I was watching a stag movie and this guy . . . well, he might as well have left his clothes on. And I thought, ‘What a drag. You know, there’s a lot of sensitivity in lovemaking, more than I think many men express.

“This guy in the movie didn’t express much of anything, but he did say, ‘Hang on in there, baby,’ and I thought that would make a fantastic title. So I wrote the song from the line, but as a reaction to the movie . . . with a woman’s viewpoint, her sensitivity, in mind, to show the way it should be.

“You know, all my writing is basically about women in one way or another. Not necessarily about personal contacts; sometimes I’m just singing about something I’ve observed. But women are the key.”

An apparent exception, a song on Bristol’s new album called “Morganton, North Carolina,” comes to mind. “Oh, that,” he says, when I ask about it. “That tune is about my hometown. I’d had the chord changes and the idea for quite some time, but I never could get an opening line. And sometimes that opening line just sparks the whole story, you know.

“Anyway, I was working on the East Coast, had two days off in New York, and I was standing in my hotel room, looking out the window. And I thought about it—about looking out that window, tripping out on the thoughts in my mind—and the song just came to me. I was thinking how far I’d come, how my life had changed since I was a boy in Morganton.”

[Note: This interview appeared in 1975. Bristol died March 21, 2004.]

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