Marv Johnson – the Artist with the First Motown Single


Career summary on Marv Johnson

Marv Johnson was a Michigan-born singer-songwriter and pianist, known in the modern music history as the first artist who cut a record under a label that was to become Motown. Johnson’s first single (jointly written with Gordy) was “Come To Me”, and since Tamla had no distribution yet, the song was released by United Artists. “Come To Me” hit the Billboard Hot 100 charts in 1959. He scored his biggest hits with “You Got What It Takes” and “I Love The Way You Love”. Johnson also co-wrote other songs with Gordy. He also achieved hits abroad, particularly in the UK and Australia. Johnson worked at now-Motown Records’ sales and promotion department throughout the 1970s and in the 90s released a solo album under a different label, Motorcity Records. He died in 1993.

Johnson’s career with Tamla (Motown) label

The artist who made the first record for would-be Motown Records was Marvin Earl “Marv” Johnson. The R&B and soul singer and pianist was born in Detroit, Michigan on October 15, 1938.

He started his career by singing with The Serenaders, a doo-woop group in the mid-50’s. Berry Gordy had plans to establish a record label, which he eventually did and named Tamla; around that time Gordy discovered Johnson’s talents and signed him to his fledgling label, Tamla, which would later become Motown Records.

The first Tamla/Motown single was Johnson’s “Come To Me,” which he wrote with Gordy, and was later released in May 1959. Since Tamla lacked its own means of distributing the single, a major label United Artists was the one instead to distribute it nationally. “Come To Me” did well on the charts, peaking at #30 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #6 on the R&B singles chart in 1959.

Between the years 1959 and 1961 Johnson would release several more Billboard pop hits including the most successful ones, “You Got What It Takes” (#10 pop, #2 R&B, #7 UK) in 1959 and “I Love the Way You Love” (#9 pop, #2 R&B, #35 UK) in 1960. That same year he scored his last Top 10 R&B hit, “Happy Days’ (#58 pop, #7 R&B), which was co-written by Gordy and Toni McKnight. He also enjoyed hits in the UK and Australia, with “You Got What It Takes” his biggest hit in Down Under and “I’ll Pick a Rose for My Rose” peaking on the British chart at #10.

Later career and final years

After his last American single was released in 1968, Johnson remained with Motown, working for its sales and promotion department throughout the 1970s. He also recorded for a brief time with Motorcity Records. He continued singing professionally until he died in 1993, in Columbia, South Carolina. He suffered a stroke, dying at the age of 54.

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