Obituary: Marv Johnson

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The Independent Online
Marv Johnson, singer: born Detroit 15 October 1938; died Columbia, South Carolina 16 May 1993.

The soul and rhythm and blues vocalist Marv Johnson was the first popular music artist to appear on Berry Gordy's pioneering Tamla Motown record label, 'The Sound of Young America' in the Sixties.

Johnson was born in 1938, in Detroit, and started his career as a vocalist in a local group, the Serenaders, when a teenager. The Tamla boss, Berry Gordy (dubbed 'Mr Hitsville'), reputedly first saw Johnson perform on a carnival float and immediately signed him to an independent record deal. Johnson's first record was released on the United Artists label. The song was licensed, as Tamla was initially a production company. 'Come to Me', released in 1959, reached No 30 in the US charts. This was a semi-gospel song, a church feel with a call-and-response structure. The production quality was unique for its time, and the vocal was delivered in a restrained, steady style, which leant appeal to white audiences. The Tamla historian Nelson George said that it sounded 'as white as it did black'.

Johnson's success story was repeated up to 1961, with eight top-100 hits. He enjoyed greater popularity in the UK than the United States, his most remembered titles including 'I Love the way You Love', 'Move Two Mountains', and the much-covered 'You've Got What It Takes', which reached No 5 in the UK charts.

Johnson's singing style anticipated and helped formulate the very particular 'Motown Sound', and in this respect his contribution to the development of black American music was notable. However, he faded from popularity after enjoying an initial string of successes. Johnson resurfaced with a few minor titles: 'I Miss You Baby', which reached No 40 in the soul charts in 1966, and 'I'll Pick A Rose for You', which made No 10 in the UK Charts.

A compilation of Johnson's was released by EMI in the UK in 1979 but he never regained his former position in the popular music canon. He ran the accounts department at Motown until the company relocated to Los Angeles. Johnson continued to appear in cabaret and to take part in special performances, particularly in nostalgia shows.