Thanks: Kenny Martin (R.I.P.), R.J. Spangler, Willy Wilson
My name is Kenny Martin and I’m part of the review known as the Motor City Pioneers. Reason why we call ourselves is that is because we were before Motown. With all due respect to Motown and Berry Gordy, who is a very good friend of mine. And I’m here to clarify any and everything that you want to know about the Motor City Pioneers ladies and gentleman (laughs).
Were you born in Detroit?
Yes I was born in Detroit.
I was born 1940. November 6. A Scorpio.
Were your parents musicians?
Where I got my musical background was from my grandmother, god bless his soul. She played piano in church but I guess that’s where it rubbed off on me. Because this is something that I’ve always wanted to do, wanted to be and I thank the Lord for it.
Did you sing a lot in church in your early days?
Well you know when I was coming up, coming from a broken home, I wasn’t a real church-going young man. I was kinda bitter. Even though I love the lord today and I believe the Lord, the Lord is my saviour. But, at that time, I didn’t care about anybody or anything. You know the gangs and that sort of thing. And I fell into that. I was getting pulled out of school you know. But one day in Detroit there was an announcement on the radio that said there is a talent show at the Gold Coast Theatre. This was on the Westside. You know, the ghetto. I tell my mama, “mom, I wanna go try” and she said “no, uh huh, boy you stay in school”. And I really want to go, so I called my grandmother, you know how grandmothers, they are the rock. And she told my mother, she says “you let Kenny go and sing. This is what he wants to do”. So I went. And we did a tune called the ‘Treasure of Love’ which was number one at the time by Clyde McPhatter. And it was a tremendous success. I won the talent show that night.
Yes. Yes. Yes Lord. I was fortunate that a gentleman by the name of Sonny Woods who was the original bass player for Hank Ballard and the Midnighters and Sonny came to me and said would you meet me down at King records. I want somebody to hear you, you know. They had many great artists like Bill Doggett, [Little] Willie John, James Brown, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters you know? And I went down and sung, sung about five tunes and Ralph Bass said “wonderful”, said “I like this kid, I want to record him”. So they signed me to a contract and the first tune that we done was ‘The Jivin Mr Lee’ and that was an answer to tune that was made by the Bobbettes out of New York City called ‘Mr Lee’. (Sings) “One, Two, Three, I am Mr Lee”. Otis Williams and The Charms did the back ground for me. The band was, um, the tenor player was Hank Moore. He was the bandleader for Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. He was in town so they got him and a guitar player by the name of Skeeter Best. All these cats. And that was the beginning. That was the beginning of Kenny Martin.
Who wrote your first hit?
The first hit was by Berry Gordy. He lived on the street called Hague in Detroit and Berry and I used to hang out every day. Then in 1958 we came back with a tune called ‘I’m Sorry’ on Federal that was written by Sonny Thompson. ‘I’m Sorry’ it came number one on the charts, the rhythm and blues charts, I mean, nationally, you know and that was the biggest record that I had. Then they had us to do ‘Fever’. We did ‘Fever’ and the funny thing about it is they had Willie John because Willie John was kinda real, real giving them a problem, which is why they were interested in me so much. To try to put him in his place you know? Because we had a similarity in our styles in our local, you know?, interpretations and Little Willie recorded ‘I’m sorry’. He did ‘I’m Sorry’ with about a 30-piece orchestra. I did it ‘I’m Sorry’ with five pieces. Mine did much better than his. Then they had me to do ‘Fever’ after I left Federal on Big Top Records with a 30-piece orchestra. And it didn’t do as well as Willie because Willie do ‘Fever’ with five pieces. So that was real, real, real strange.
You sounded a little bit like little Willie John was that a coincidence? Did you style yourself after him?
No, and I didn’t really like it because they were trying to make me sound like Willie and I didn’t like that. That’s why today I’m so glad that, you know I mean, that I’m doing my thing now, you know when you’re young you don’t really know. Man I was 16 years old and I was in a position where I was being manipulated on and I didn’t get a dime off any of those recordings you know back then you know? A lot of cats was getting played for their money all the way. You know? And it was an experience that I would never want to and will not go through again. And I’m just thankful that with the grace of God that I’m singing and that I’ve got my health. I’m just looking forward to spreading love in my songs.
How many songs did you record?
I recorded about seven tunes for Federal and I did a couple of recordings for Big Top.
What was Sid Nathan like?
Sid Nathan he was, he wasn’t a warm person. He wasn’t a warm person. All business and he wadn’t cool as far as I’m concerned (laughs). He didn’t pay me my money.
Which singers do you think you might have been influenced by in your early days?
I really want to sound like Clyde McPhatter because he had those tunes like (sings) “you know the landlord rings my front doorbell, I let it ring for a long long spell”. You know ‘Money Honey’ all those kind tunes.
Tell us what it was like hanging out on a Saturday night with Jackie Wilson.
Jackie was just a beautiful cat. He, he just, he loved women. And the women loved him. I remember we did a show at the Rocknam [?} Palace in New York. Jackie got so hyped and Jackie started crawling on the floor. He took his shirt and everything off. All he had on was his pants. You know what I mean? All of his upper body was, and Jackie was built very nice because you know Jesse was a good fighter, I mean, you know, a semi-pro fighter and Jackie would crawl on the floor like a snake, man, and be screamin’ and hollerin’ at the girls. And I mean this is true to what I saw, the girls were throwing their underwear on the stage and fainting. They had to bring the EMS in there and take quite a few girls out because they had fainted and some were having seizures. And that wasn’t the end of it. The dressing room door, we had big wooden door. The girls knocked the door down and, in doing so, came in and Jackie was laying on the floor. We had to, you understand?, myself and three or four of the friends and guards and his manager and everything, we had to get on top of Jackie to keep the girls from biting and doing everything and scratching him. They were getting the girls off him like they was, they was, it was real rough man. It was a very rough scene. That was in 1960. Were you ever in a vocal group?
This is one of the things that I said I never want to be in a group. You know I didn’t start out in a group. I have, you know, a lot of respect for groups. I never wanted to be in a group because I saw the chaotic things that were happening with cats know? Like we were at the Howard Theatre and The Silhouettes they would fight after every show and it was so silly because they were fighting about girls. This is my chick. This is your chick. My chick. And I said “wow, what’s happening with these guys man?” You know and I mean, I mean there’s enough of all of that to go around. They fought so much that the guy that was in charge of the Howard Theatre didn’t want them back any more.