Frank Wilson: Motown writer and producer behind the world's rarest record

 

The songwriter and producer Frank Wilson enjoyed a decade-long association with Motown and worked with some of the biggest acts associated with Berry Gordy Jr's legendary label, including the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye and the Temptations, as well as the Supremes before and after the departure of their star vocalist Diana Ross. However, to Northern Soul aficionados his name will forever be associated with the joyous stomper "Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)" which became synonymous with the genre despite being the rarest record ever made.

Weston composed the track for Gaye but, when the Motown star passed on it, he recorded it himself in late 1965. The single was set for release on the Motown subsidiary Soul . Test copies were pressed but not sent out to disc jockeys following a fateful meeting between Gordy and Wilson. "I went to Detroit, and I hadn't been in town more than a week", Wilson told the Northern Soul historian Andrew Rix. "We were standing backstage at the Fox Theatre, where they were having a Motown Revue, and Berry said, 'Frank, now you know I'm getting ready to release this record on you. We're excited about it. But I want to ask you a question. Do you really want to be an artist, or do you want to be a writer and a producer?'. I told him I wanted to be a writer and a producer. And it was decided that he would not release that record on me."

Gordy ordered all copies of the Wilson single destroyed but a few survived the cull, including a couple filed away in the Motown archives. In 1977, one fell into the hands of Simon Soussan, a dealer who recognised its potential to create a sensation on the Northern Soul scene that had been flourishing in the UK since the late '60s. First identified by the journalist Dave Godin, this British phenomenon revolved around Northern venues like Wigan Casino, where people danced the night away to obscure soul records that could best be described as Motown manqué.

Soussan issued a speeded-up, bootleg version of "Do I Love You", which he attributed to Eddie Foster, an obscure Northern Soul artist, to cover up the track's provenance, and shifted thousands. The subterfuge was only discovered when Sussan sold his record collection, including the Wilson single, in 1979. That 45 changed hands several times though it was another original copy, squirrelled away by a former manager at the Michigan pressing plant ARP, that fetched a record-setting £25,742 at auction in April 2009. In the intervening three decades, "Do I Love You" has been issued officially, become a must-inclusion on Northern Soul compilations and retained its cachet despite being used in a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial.

Born in Houston in 1940, Wilson was passionate about music, gospel especially, as well as sport from an early age. After participating in civil rights demonstrations in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1960, he lost his athletic scholarship and his place at Southern University. The Congress of Racial Equality provided a means of escape when they gave him a ticket to Los Angeles. Though he intended to pursue a career in gospel, he turned to secular music after meeting Hal Davis and Marc Gordon, the LA veterans Gordy had engaged to run Motown's Los Angeles office in 1963. Hired on a salary of $50 a week, he composed "Stevie", Patrice Holloway's ode to "Little Stevie" Wonder, which was issued on Motown's VIP subsidiary, and co-wrote "Castles In The Sand", a minor hit for Wonder in 1964.

Following the "Do I Love You" episode – which also included a version, subsequently cancelled, by white soul singer Chris Clark over the same backing track – and its B-side "Sweeter As The Days Go By", Wilson continued singing guide vocals on demos but concentrated on songwriting and production. In 1966 he penned "Whole Lot Of Shakin' In My Heart (Since I Met You)", one of the few Miracles singles not by Smokey Robinson, and the following year, with Gordy and the Holloway sisters, co-wrote the ebullient "You've Made Me So Very Happy", originally recorded by Brenda Holloway but a much bigger hit for Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1969.

The versatile Wilson really made his mark after the exit of the Holland-Dozier-Holland triumvirate from Motown. In 1968 he was part of the songwriting and production team behind the controversial Supremes US chart-topper "Love Child"' and its similarly-themed follow-up "I'm Livin' In Shame", and, following the elevation of Ross to a solo career, reinvented the sound of the female trio with "Up The Ladder To The Roof" and "Stoned Love" in 1970. The same year, he and Robinson collaborated on the socially conscious "Still Water (Love)" for the Four Tops.

Wilson also got the best out of Eddie Kendricks after he left the Temptations in 1971. "I had to convince him to do stuff in his lower register as well as his falsetto. Just getting his confidence up was the key thing," he recalled of the sessions that produced the proto-disco US No 1 "Keep On Truckin' (Part 1)" in 1973 and "Boogie Down" in 1974.

Having helped launch the funk group Lakeside in 1977, Wilson gave up secular music for the church. He was ordained, and with his wife Bunny wrote several self-help books, conducted seminars and appeared on US talk shows. In 2001, Wilson appeared at the Fleetwood Togetherness soul weekender in the UK, where he autographed the copy of "Do I Love You" subsequently sold at auction. He died of prostate cancer.

"When I went into the studio to record 'Do I Love You', it was just another day at work," he reflected, "but I have learned that God moves in mysterious ways. That one day at work ... turned out to be a life-changing experience. I am proud of what I did and humbled by the affection shown to me by so many people from all over the world."

Frank Edward Wilson, singer, songwriter, record producer, minister and author: born Houston, Texas 5 December 1940; married (six children); died Los Angeles 27 September 2012.

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