Terry Isaiah Johnson - 10 Questions Music Interview
Terry Isaiah Johnson wrote and produced with Smokey Robinson at Motown Records. As a BMI Certificate of Achievement in Broadcasting Award and a Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Award recipient, Terry was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Grammy Hall of Fame. Boyz II Men recruited him and his producing partner Theresa Trigg where they re-produced his famous arrangement of I Only Have Eyes For You. Terry's group, The Flamingos, appeared on The View with Whoopi Goldberg.
Was there something (an experience) or someone in your life that was the "catalyst" for you to start writing music? Tell us about it.
My parents wouldn't let me listen to R&B on the radio. The dial was set to music by Nat King Cole, Sinatra, Sammy Davis, The McGuire Sisters, Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme. I was born with an extreme passion for music. I remember when I was 13, I told my mother I wanted a saxophone because of listening to Red Prysock's "Hand Clapping". She took me to the store and they didn't have any Selmer tenor saxophones and the clerk said I would have to wait for a month to receive it. I was NOT going to leave that store empty handed. So I looked and saw guitars hanging on the wall and told my mother, "I don't want to play saxophone anymore, I want to play guitar". The guitar became my best friend in all my writing and producing. But while I was at Motown I picked up a tenor and alto sax after listening to Junior Walker and the All Stars playing "Shot Gun".
Let's get this out of the way. What is the CRAZIEST thing that has ever happened to you in your music career?
I was given the task by the president of End Records, George Goldner, to re-arrange 33 standards for The Flamingos' upcoming album. We were one of the very few groups to release albums. I had no problem with 32 of the songs, but the last one I just couldn't feel something different for it. I had a habit of laying in bed playing my guitar, so I fell asleep one night and I dreamed the whole arrangement of "I Only Have Eyes For You", along with the vocals, it was truly inspired by God. I woke up and my hands were on the guitar, and I immediately started to play what I heard in my dream. I called the other members of the group at 4:00 am and told them to come to my room so I could teach them what I had done on the arrangement because we had to record the next day. They were all grumbling as they came to my room because of the time of the morning. After I showed them what to sing, they all looked at me and said "What the hell is this?" They didn't like it at all. But since it was my task to arrange the songs, they had to go into the studio and do it. George Goldner was out of town that day, but when he returned he listened to my arrangement and called me into his office. He was extremely upset with me because I had gone into the studio, ran up the bill and didn't like the results. He said, "Terry this is garbage, it doesn't sound like 50's music at all. Don't ever go into the studio when I'm not here." But, he decided since the money was spent, he would just put it on the album. There was another song scheduled to be the main release off the album, but after the album was released, the DJ's heard my arrangement of 'I Only Have Eyes For You' and picked it to be the hit. They called other DJ's and told them to check out The Flamingos' new song. They chose it over all the songs on the album and made it a hit. After a few weeks, George Goldner called me into his office again, but this time he told me, "Terry, you have carte blanche to go into the studio whenever you like. You have my blessings". It was the highlight of my life because it gave me recognition in the industry.
What has been the high point of your music path?
After The Flamingos, I ran into an old friend of mine who I had worked with on the theater tours. His name is Smokey Robinson. I had no idea of his position at Motown. So I asked him if he could talk to Barry Gordy and help me get my music placed at Motown. He said, let me hear it Buzz, That's the nickname that a lot of people knew me by. I took my big reel to reel tape recorder to his hotel suite and played 5 songs that I had written. He looked at me and his eyes changed to a blueish color. He said "Yeah Buzz, I can get you with Motown. As a matter of fact, Holland, Dozier and Holland have left Motown and Barry told me to put a writing and producing team together to take their place. I was extremely happy that he thought that much of me. So I moved to Detroit from Philadelphia and met his other partner Al Cleveland. The three of us collaborated a lot. After about 2 weeks, Al came over to my apartment and let me know that Smokey was the Vice President of Motown. I almost fainted. Smokey had shown me such kindness and treated me with the utmost respect. So I knew and felt that I was extremely blessed. We wrote and produced for his group The Miracles, The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Supremes, Edwin Starr, David Ruffin, Jimmy Ruffin, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers, The Marvalettes and more. This was the highlight of my life at that time. Still looking for more highlights.
So, how do you approach songwriting or what is your creative process like?
I learned from Barry Gordy Jr. to always listen to the top 20 songs from Billboard and get my inspiration from all 20, and then add myself to it, so I could be up to date with the trend of the music. Other times, I could be anywhere and a song idea pops into my head, always having my guitar and my recorder. I usually hear the music in my head first, and then approach melody and lyrics.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing Indie Artists today? Or, if you could ask the music industry to change one thing, what would it be?
Getting airplay and getting paid. There is so much talent that deserves to be heard, but the opportunity to be heard is made by a few chose people at the top. For example, I remember Motown turned down Jim Webb's MacAuthur Park. Also I was screening music for Motown and received a demo from Todd Rundgren. I took it to Smokey and Billy Jean from quality control, and neither one of them liked it. It didn't fit into the Motown sound. I told them I liked it, and a hit is a hit. But soon after it became a smash for Todd. So, what I'm saying is, everyone has an opinion of your music, but it doesn't necessarily mean their opinion is right. Can you imagine how many people stop writing great songs because they don't get heard or paid. I like the opportunities that the music platforms of today provide for Indie artists, but they aren't paying the artist or writers the fair amount or any amount for their work. Writing and producing music is a job like any other job.
If you could share the stage with one other artist or band, who would it be and why?
Earth, Wind & Fire - The genius of their music inspires me. Bruno Mars - Fabulous young talent. He stated in a Rolling Stone Magazine interview that if you ever want to get out of the dog house with your girl, play 'I Only Have Eyes For You' by The Flamingos. I love how he collaborates with other talented producers and writers, makes for hit records.
What are your rehearsals generally like? Or, how do you prepare for a live show?
I have private rehearsals with my team, and then when we get to the venues, my Musical Director rehearses the orchestra to make sure they are musically tight. I believe in a lot of rehearsal. It not only keeps you tight but it inspires creativity. I always look for new and better ways to present my show.
Pick one song that was your greatest challenge to write. Tell us about it!
I really wanted to do a high energy song for younger listeners. It is called Knock, Knock (Let Me In). No one knew who I was, and that was fine with me. I purposely put it out with no bio and no picture. It placed #1 for 4 weeks straight on the Euro Indie Music Chart and #1 on the Spotify Playlist. I had kids from India, Japan, Germany, UK, Australia, Italy, France, Sweden and more contacting me on Facebook, telling me they loved it, wanting to know when another song was coming out and wanting to know if I was appearing in their area. They had no idea who they were listening to and I loved it, because they were judging my music, not my persona. So I put out another song called OooYa Wit, that placed #1 for 3 consecutive weeks. How much fun was that!!!!
What's coming up in the future?
I'm touring constantly, and working with my PR people, radio stations and agents to promote my new release. Morning shows, concerts and, more tours are in the future.
Tell us where fans can access your music?
More About Terry Isaiah Johnson
Shortly after Tommy Hunt left the group in 1961, the Flamingos split into 2 groups, one with the Careys and Paul Wilson and one with Terry Johnson and Nate Nelson calling themselves at varying times, the Modern Flamingos, the Fabulous Flamingos and later simply, Terry Johnson's Flamingos. The two recorded on Atco together in 1963 as the Starglows. The result was the beautiful Johnson-penned ballad "Let's Be Lovers" (b/w "Walk Away Softly", written by Skyliners' manager and "Since I Don't Have You" co-author Joe Rock). Terry Johnson would later re-record "Let's Be Lovers" in 2005 with artists Jeff Calloway and TeeTee for his own Hot Fun Record label. The Flamingos featuring Terry Johnson appeared on two PBS specials: Rock and Roll at Fifty (in which they were the only group to have more than two songs featured) and Doo Wop Cavalcade: The Definitive Anthology.
In 1964, Smokey Robinson recruited Johnson onto the staff of Motown Records. Their most notable collaboration was the the Top 10 Miracles hit, Baby, Baby Don't Cry . Other charted hits include "Malinda" for Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers and "Here I Go Again" for Smokey Robinson & The Miracles. Terry also wrote/produced for the Four Tops, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas and the Supremes. In 1969, Johnson released the solo 45's "My Springtime" and "Whatcha Gonna Do", both b/w "Suzie" on Gordy Records (a Motown subsidiary.) He then released the follow-up "Stone Soul Booster" b/w "Sandy" under the name "Buzzie".