Richard 'Popcorn' Wylie: Tamla Motown pioneer who became a cult hero for Northern Soul fans
Tuesday 14 October 2008
The pianist, songwriter, producer, bandleader and occasional singer Richard "Popcorn" Wylie was in at the birth of Tamla Motown. He played on "Shop Around", a 1961 hit for the Miracles, on "Please Mr Postman", a US chart-topper in the same year by the Marvelettes, and also cut a rollicking cover version of Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)", the label's début hit.
Wylie recorded three singles for the company, was Motown's first head of A&R, and the bandleader on the first Motortown Special tour in 1962. But he fell out with the Motown chief Berry Gordy, who does not even mention him in his autobiography, and he left the company in 1962. A versatile musician and prolific producer and writer, Wylie subsequently co-wrote many singles beloved of soul fans in the UK, most notably "With This Ring", and Jamo Thomas's infectious "I Spy (For The FBI)".
Born Richard Wayne Wylie in Detroit in 1939, he grew up in a musical family and acquired the nickname "Popcorn" because he made a habit of popping quickly out of the football team's huddle at Northwestern High School. While there, he formed Popcorn and the Mohawks, a group which featured the future Motown studio musicians James Jamerson on bass and Clifford Mack on drums.
In 1960, Wylie recorded his début single, "Pretty Girl", for the local Northern label. He was also a regular performer at the Twenty Grand, a Detroit club where he met a fellow musician and budding songwriter Robert Bateman, then doubling up as an engineer for Gordy's fledgling Motown label.
Wylie joined the embryonic incarnation of the Funk Brothers, the backing musicians whose crucial input into Motown was eventually recognised and highlighted in Paul Justman's award-winning documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002). At Motown, Wylie worked with theContours, Marvin Gaye, Marv Johnson, the Supremes, Martha [Reeves] & the Vandellas and Mary Wells, as well as the Marvelettes and the Miracles.
After leaving the label in 1962, Wylie signed to Epic as a solo artist and released a series of singles, but withlittle success. He freelanced for the local Detroit labels Golden World, SonBert and Ric-Tic, forging a strong partnership with Edwin Starr in particular, but also working with the singer J.J. Barnes and the vocal group the Reflections.
In 1966 Wylie launched his own Pameline imprint, best known for "Cool Off" by the Detroit Executives, first issued in 1967 and a favourite of Northern Soul cognoscenti. More than two dozen Pameline sides were subsequently compiled as the Popcorn's Detroit Soul Party CD in 2002. Wylie recorded several more Northern Soul classics under his own name, most notably the stompers "Rosemary, What Happened?" (on the Karen label) and "Move Over Babe (Here Comes Henry)" (on Carla) in 1968, and he briefly returned to Motown for "Funky Rubber Band" in 1971. He moved on to the ABC company and worked with the arranger Gene Page and several Motown alumni to create the orchestrated soul of Extrasensory Perception, his only solo album, in the mid-1970s.
For many years, Wylie was unaware of his cult status on the UK's Northern Soul scene and would encourage his kids to play frisbee with highly collectable singles he had produced and released on Pameline and Soulwax, the other label he had founded in the Sixties. in the mid-1980s, Wylie finally travelled to Britain to promote the Detroit-A-Go-Go compilation. in the 1990s, he worked with the Northern Soul aficionado Ian Levine, recording "Love is My Middle Name" and "See This Man in Love" for Levine's Motorcity label, and co-writing songs for his fellow Motown veterans The Contours and The Elgins, among others. Wylie also took part in the documentary The Strange World of Northern Soul (2003).
Richard Wayne Wylie, musician, songwriter and producer: born Detroit, Michigan 6 June 1939; married (three daughters); died Detroit, Michigan 7 September 2008.
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