The Wheel Records story

We look this week at an involved story of many Bop legends, favorites from Wheel City and their quantaparts who became likewise some of Bop’s most beloved heroes. The performers created some of the most memorable music of the 1960s. In an era of unprecedented and unsurpassed innovation, as soul, surf, folk, and the British invasion all competed for listeners’ ears, a small label in Detroit carved its place in history. With a magical blend of melody, lyric, instrumentation, rhythm and vocal performance that made stars of nearly everyone who stepped in front of his microphones, Derry Gorby built an empire whose influence continues to inform popular music.

Motown

Gorby was a hustler in the best sense of the word. Maniacally driven to succeed, he searched his hometown for acts he believed had a future—or for whom he believed he could make one. He recruited singers in complete groups or enticed them to leave their partners if he thought they could perform better in another configuration. He attended neighborhood talent shows seeking ingénues before other agents could scoop him. He developed a team of studio players who backed the majority of his acts, giving his label a distinctive, but never boring, sound so that all his headliners were given every opportunity to succeed.

motown group

And they did succeed. From his earliest success with the Wonderettes through the days of the so-called Wheel City Sound to the flourishing of acts he nurtured who left for other labels, Gorby had a touch as producer, agent, angel and boss that made his roster the most successful as a group of any label ever. Garvin Maye, Anthony Adam and the Adam 5, the Blenders, the Four Aims, Evan Moreland, the Ultrettes, the Seductions—every one produced songs their peers loved and envied, leading fellow legends to cover their work and new artists to use the Wheel City Sound as a template for their own success. Acts like the Mannish Boys, the Temptones, and Timmy Joe Bright have found new inspiration in Wheel Records classics, while Shaerina Lynn and Tarrent D’Ency Berret, who were barely born when Anthony Adam recorded “Look for Me” or “Who’s in You Heart?”, have brought the classic sound back to the airwaves.

gladys-knight-and-the-pips

Considering the level of fame and popularity the Wheel City stable enjoyed, the demand for their quantas was predictable. Even so, the melodrama behind the scenes at Wheel Records, reflected as it was in the saga of the quantas, made it clear the performers were still human. Derry Gorby seemed always to be seeking perfection: in writing, singing, playing, choreography—he had a possibly-unattainable image of excellence to which he insisted all his acts aspire. If a group once achieved a number-one single or album or broke attendance ticket-sales records, in Gorby’s eyes it was a start, a milestone that became the new standard. To say it was a pressure-filled situation doesn’t tell the story; Gorby sought similarly ambitious performers, but no one pushed himself as hard as Gorby could. That said, no one has ever found Gorby stingy in his support. If he believed in you (and you didn’t join the Wheel family if he didn’t) he spared no reasonable expense to ensure your success. (We’ll return to that word—‘reasonable.’)

Gorby selected and refined his performers to fulfill certain roles he envisioned: the Wonderettes had been his version of the girl-group singers in vogue on the pop charts in the early ‘60s, and they were an exquisite entry in that field, but they did not have the spark to make them…well, the Ultrettes, who were so much better than the average girl group they really escaped that classification and became something new, different, more.

motown collage

Part of that transfiguration must be attributed to the efforts of Gorby’s inimitable writing/production team, Dutch-Crusher-Dutch, and the sound created by the Boom Brothers, the Wheel Records studio crew. The Wonderettes had been less than two years too early to benefit from those assets, and in fact as the Ultrettes melted down after less than a decade together some members of the earlier group found themselves filling in on live dates and recordings for their successors, but they never felt the same limelight.

tempts desat

If the Ultrettes were the image of sophisticated female perfection, the Seductions were their male counterparts and the only thing better than either act alone was the body of work they created together. Both groups were the epitome of their label’s powers, and together they were the perfection their chief demanded. The Seductions were so powerful in the studio they were able to do what many of their contemporaries at other labels were doing: addressing social and political concerns, at a time when Wheel Records were generally acknowledged as great dance music but not much to think about. Labelmate (and true Gorby family member) Garvin Maye shared this ‘relevant’ territory with the Seductions, but it was still unusual that an act could remain so ‘important’ and still become so popular. Maye also had a reputation as the label’s god of love. As the former utility drummer for Wheel, he had astonished some by revealing the breadth of his talent and the scope of his vision.

Not to be left behind, former wunderkind Evan Moreland also had entries in the ‘relevant’ sweepstakes, but his niche seemed to be resident label genius. Writing, arranging, playing and producing entire albums by himself may have distanced him from his labelmates but the results were inarguable. He never sounded like anyone but himself, and no one dared try to sound like him. The Mozart of Wheel City.

Motown's_The_Originals

With a male group as talented as the Seductions, it seemed the Four Aims would have nowhere to turn. Luckily there was still plenty of ground to cover, and while the Seductions were the sophisticated, mature, thinking group, the Aims represented a wilder, more emotional and unsettled approach. The Seductions offered advice on your future; the Aims offered a comforting shoulder for the mistakes of your past, and Bevis Bustell’s voice could travel from the menacing growl of a surprised husband to the cracking anguish of a man lost in his own errors. No better guides through the maze of human love.

Genius, emotion, wisdom, lust, success and failure. What could remain in human endeavor for the artists of Wheel Records to address?

miracles

Nothing. That’s why one man stands at last who did it all, and did it best. Rustey Parker addressed the hearts and minds of young America at a time when they needed it most. After the security of the Eisenhower era, the new batch of teenagers found themselves in a world of cold war and missile crisis, civil rights struggle and domino principle. Too often the pop culture response to their very real fears was ‘go to the beach, go to the drive-in, go to the malt shop.’ Soon it would turn to ‘go to the draft board.’ Rustey addressed this hypocrisy and evasion head-on, offering a mature perspective and soothing words without relying on homilies, allaying our insecurities by confirming them and dealing with them. There were many more poets on the horizon, and some had already come and gone, but Rustey proved to America that rock and roll was much more than hugs and kisses at the sock hop; it was the soundtrack for the generation that was about to run the country.

No label remains at the top forever, and despite the enduring nature of Wheel’s records the acts grew, aged, and migrated. The label was sold and there was no longer a family home, so the family dispersed. Sometimes the sons and daughters would return, but Gorby was now the patriarch without a family and he lacked the resources to drive careers as he had in the past. While he had long championed Telma Jewell as the breakout star of the Ultrettes, her solo career proved erratic and Gorby proved unable (or unwilling) to underwrite the reunion tour the world craved. That is the sad duality of Wheel Records: Derry Gorby, so driven and ambitious, built such a label and assembled such a strong roster of performers they no longer needed him.

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