Deke Richards: Motown man who masterminded
the Jackson 5

 

When the Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. fell out with the hit songwriting triumvirate of Lamont Dozier and Brian and Eddie Holland at the end of 1967, he resolved not to have any more “back room superstars.” He pushed Deke Richards, the white guitarist and songwriter he had recruited the previous year during a trip to Los Angeles, to take a commanding role in helping Diana Ross & the Supremes return to the top of the US charts.

Gordy teamed Richards with Hank Cosby, Pam Sawyer, R Dean Taylor and Frank Wilson and, during a lengthy brainstorming session at Detroit's Pontchartain hotel, they came up with the storyline and melody of “Love Child”, which went on to knock “Hey Jude” by the Beatles off the US No 1 spot in November 1968. Credited as “The Clan”, the collective also devised the similarly-themed follow-up single “I'm Livin' In Shame”, a US No 2 for Ross & the Supremes in 1969. The next year, Richards co-wrote with Sherlie Matthews “Why (Must We Fall In Love)” – a UK-only hit for the group – and solely authored the yearning “I'm Still Waiting” the first British No 1 for Ross on her own.

Richards is probably best remembered for masterminding the launch of the Jackson 5 and creating the bubblegum soul sound which maximized their potential as teenage sensations. Again with Gordy, he formed The Corporation with songwriters Freddie Perren and Fonce Mizell, and penned and produced the ebullient “I Want You Back”, the equally infectious “ABC”, and the group's third US chart-topper, “The Love You Save”, in 1970. “I basically was in charge of the Jackson 5 – all their creative, when it came down to the studio, and all their musical endeavours. I tried to create a Hitsville on the West Coast,” Richards said about his role in the company which paved the way for its move from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972.

Richards had a vision for the Jackson 5, including the eventual release of solo albums not only by Michael but also by Jermaine and Jackie, and aimed them squarely at the pop market. “I knew somebody was going to try to take them out of the box as soon as they could, to make them more mature. We had plenty of mature artists out there!” he stressed. “But there weren't as many young artists who could sing like kids. There was something so magical about it. I wanted to keep it as long as they could.”

To that end, Richards and The Corporation reworked “I Wanna Be Free”, a radical anthem intended for Gladys Knight, into the puppy love scenario of “I Want You Back”, and transformed “Guess Who's Making Whoopie (With Your Girlfriend)” into the more innocent “Mama's Pearl”. His other Jackson 5 credits included the wistful “Maybe Tomorrow” and the bouncy “Sugar Daddy”, US Top 20 hits both, as well as “Give Love on Christmas Day” for The Jackson 5 Christmas Album, and ended after the group's seventh album, 1973's Skywriter.

Born Dennis Lussier in 1944, he was the son of Hollywood screenwriter Dane Lussier. Age 18, he appeared in the schlock horror meets youth comedy Eegah: The Name Written In Blood, starring Richard Kiel, made on a budget of $15,000 and now considered one of the worst films ever made. By the mid-1960s he had taken up the stage name Deke Richards and was leading Deke & the Deacons before joining Motown's fledgling LA operation.

Coincidentally, he met Debbie Dean, the first white artist signed to Motown in 1960, who had not been in touch with Gordy since moving to California. He helped Dean reconnect with the label and they became writing partners, collaborating on several tracks for Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, most notably “I Can't Dance To That Music You're Playing”, and both sides of Dean's own single on Motown's VIP subsidiary, “Save My Love” and “Why Am I Lovin' You” in 1968.

Richards left Motown in 1975. He was a collector of movie posters and film memorabilia and launched the vintage company PosterPalace.com. He also overshaw various Motown archival releases, including the Jackson 5's Come And Get It: The Rare Pearls, last year, and a Martha Reeves three-CD box set, 50th Anniversary: The Singles 1962-1972, due on 5 April. He died of oesophageal cancer.

Dennis Lussier (Deke Richards), guitarist, songwriter and producer: born Los Angeles 8 April 1944; married Joan; died Bellingham, Washington state 24 March 2013.

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