This story is the sixth part of our Century of Sound series, tracing Detroit’s musical heritage over the last hundred years.
On a cold December day in 1992, some of Motown’s biggest stars, including the Spinners and Stevie Wonder, gathered to pay final respects to Maurice King, a man who helped them to develop into world-class artists. Inside the Union Second Baptist Church, the atmosphere was warm and filled with beautiful sounds. Gladys Knight, who King first brought to Detroit when she was just a girl, sang. Later, Martha Reeves told King’s son Evans that his father was “the reason we’re still in show business.”
Many musicians were among the hundreds of mourners there that day; they’d worked with, and respected, Maurice King. In Detroit, at least, King was a star.
In a career that spanned nearly half a century, King was a vital cog in Detroit music: He was the fashionable bandleader at the fabled Flame Show Bar, the most important outlet for black entertainers during the 1950s. He was a “father figure” at Motown, where he did 10 years as musical director of artist development. After Motown he was the Spinners’ musical director, guiding them through countless appearances, conducting six- to 60-piece ensembles, and arranging their music. In his last years he mentored younger musicians.
King’s life was music, to a fault. He was soft-spoken, witty and sophisticated, a man who expressed himself clearly and confidently. He exuded an aura of power and authority, was a guy who did things “his way,” who ruled over his band members and family in no uncertain terms. King had a knack for winning at cards, and a weakness for brightly hued tuxes and custom-made suits.
His music arrangements mirrored his character, distinctive and audacious. A perfectionist who eschewed drink and smoke, King settled for nothing less than the best. He’s described by anyone who knew him as a consummate professional.
He was born Clarence King in 1911, the youngest of six in a Mississippi Delta family, but he said he never liked the name and later changed it to Maurice. He was inspired to play clarinet after hearing a minstrel band while in grammar school, and after switching to alto sax and graduating from high school he moved to Nashville in the early 1930s to study music at Tennessee A&I State College (now Tennessee State University).
King’s budding leadership skills and musical aptitude landed him the assistant music director gig for the school band, led by famed trumpeter/arranger Sammy Lowe (on leave from the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra).
King got involved with an attractive freshman named Eddie Mae Waller, and when they found she was pregnant, the two dropped out of school, married and parted for a time. King remained in Nashville where he began his career as a working musician. Eddie Mae went back to Mississippi to stay with her family, and subsequently moved to Detroit with them. It was in Detroit that King rejoined his wife and first met his son Clarence Jr., then 2 years old.
Saxophonist Jac Cooper, a white high school student, met King around 1939. Cooper and his friends were assembling a dance band, and King used them to test new arrangements.
King’s focus was the music — he wasn’t concerned with skin color at a time when mixed-race bands, even in the democracy of jazz, were rare; Benny Goodman led the only national band then featuring both black and white musicians. King later got flak from fellow black musicians for sometimes assembling mostly white bands for in-person performances. King was unfazed.
“We were all just schoolkids and Maurice wrote his fabulous arrangements and rehearsed us several times each week and really taught us everything,” said Cooper. “I remember Maurice packing us whities up and going to the old Melody Club downtown, and we’d set up and he would direct us in playing those way-out arrangements.”
King joined a government Works Progress Administration (WPA) concert band around 1940, and caught the eye of Leroy Smith, a trailblazing black Detroit society bandleader, who had led ensembles in Detroit (and later New York) for more than 20 years. Smith offered King a spot in his own WPA band.
In my 1986 interview with King, he characterized Smith’s outfit as a “a band that played the best jobs, a very colorful band … strings and the whole shot. … I never knew the beauty of playing with beautiful musicians in Detroit until I got into his band.”
The three years in Smith’s band put the finishing touches on King’s deportment and sense of style, showing him, for instance, how to find a “bright tempo” for a tune to put everyone on the dance floor. King admitted to idolizing the older man as a father figure, who “taught me how to be a leader.”
Job offers floated in for King. In 1943, he took over as music director of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, one of several “girl” bands at the time.
Before King’s arrival, the band had traded on the novelty of female musicians and their sex appeal; members were often short on performing experience and talent. King restocked the band with competent female musicians regardless of looks or race; the Sweethearts included black, mulatto and Asian women, and even a couple of white women passing for black. Unlike his predecessors, King kept his relationship with the women purely professional.
“His musical leadership capabilities resulted in the band’s continued ascendancy toward artistic perfection and sustained popularity,” said Sweethearts biographer D. Antoinette Handy.
Sweethearts saxophonist Roz Cron summed up King’s method: “Maurice immediately put us through the most grueling rehearsals. It was a tough struggle, but we made it.”
King wrote and arranged most of their music (including their signature “Galvanizing”), guided them through film appearances (including That Man of Mine with actress Ruby Dee) and led them through an overseas tour to entertain U.S. troops.
After the war, times got tough for the entertainment industry. Money was tight. Club owners discovered that cheaper six- or seven-piece R&B combos could draw as many customers as an expensive 16-piece big band. The Sweethearts disbanded in 1949 after the death of founder Rae Lee Jones.
King was happy to be home. But he didn’t rest long. Veteran Detroit club owner Morris Wasserman was preparing to open the Flame Show Bar at the corner of John R and Canfield. John R, dubbed the “street of music” by Detroit’s African-American press, blossomed with entertainment venues as Detroit’s black population moved north from Paradise Valley on the east side of Woodward.
“He [Wasserman] asked if I could put together a band to accompany national acts which would work every night of the week,” King said. “I told him I could, but the caliber of musicians I had in mind might cost a little more. He said, ‘Do it.’ I agreed on the condition that I would have control over the music and band personnel. I named the band after the state animal.”
With his Wolverines, King took charge of the bandstand in April 1950, and remained for 11 years.
He assembled musicians who could play anything from jazz to the emerging style being termed R&B. After some initial juggling, King settled on seasoned players in their 30s: tenor sax ace “Sweet Lou” Barnett and trumpeter Russell Green (comrades from King’s Leroy Smith days), pianist Neal Robinson and drummer Elbert “Dagwood” Langford. Two younger players rounded out the septet, bassist Clarence Sherrill and baritone sax man Thomas Harold “Stringbeans” Bowles. King himself played alto sax.
King’s goals for the band?
“I wanted a big band sound, with as few horns as I could get! I’m blessed with the knowledge … of being able to orchestrate in such a manner that a band sounds bigger than you would expect. When I rehearse a band, I insist that every man plays his note with the fullest and roundest sound he can deliver in order to bring out the blend I have created.”
King worked methodically with his men, encouraging and teaching them.
In an interview with King’s son Evans, Bowles recalled, “He taught me daily and nightly. He showed me how to write music. He didn’t ‘show me,’ he made me do it and then he showed me what was wrong. … And he taught me logic — taught me how to think.”
Trumpeter Johnny Trudell, just out of his teens, subbed occasionally at the Flame and served as King’s music copyist. Over the years, the two became close.
“He was an elegant bandleader, more like Duke Ellington,” Trudell recalled. “Everything was meticulous: his dress, his custom-made shoes, his custom-made everything. Total class, man. He was a great arranger, an orchestrator in the same sense as Benny Carter, [Fletcher] Henderson. He didn’t need a piano, he just wrote the scores. As a saxophonist he was somewhere in the mix with Teddy Buckner, Earl Bostic, Johnny Hodges, Louis Jordan. Good saxophone player, great intonation. He could play everything he wrote. I learned a lot about my approach to bandleading from him. He was almost like a father to me.”
Top acts like Billie Holiday, T-Bone Walker, Wynonie Harris and Sarah Vaughan appeared at the Flame. Johnnie Ray — who had the hit single “Cry” — got his “big break” there. Ray, who never forgot King’s kindness or his superb arrangements, lived with the King family for six months.
The hour-long show at the Flame, usually fashioned by veteran producer Joe “Ziggy” Johnson, featured a headliner, one or two Detroit singers, a comedian, and sometimes dancers or novelty acts. There were five shows on weekends and three or four on other nights
The Flame — sometimes referred to as “Little Las Vegas” — seated 250, had a 100-foot bar with a “flash” motif and mirrors on three walls. The stage was located behind the bar at eye-level.
The club’s crowd was racially mixed and all types felt comfortable. Weeknights were dominated by Detroit’s sportin’ life crowd — pimps, prostitutes and numbers men. More conservative types came on weekends. There were often lines of customers waiting to get in; it helped to lay some cash on the doorman.
“That was one, and only one, of the little hustles going on,” Bowles said, laughing. “You could get anything at the Flame if you had enough money.”
Motown’s Berry Gordy, just beginning his career as a songwriter in the mid-1950s, offered a wide-eyed look at the John R music scene in his autobiography, To Be Loved.
“All the beautiful people came to life at night — the sharpest-dressed black and white people I had ever seen — jewelry flashing, beautiful furs — something else. … John R Street was jumping with clubs like Sonny Wilson’s Garfield Lounge, the Chesterfield Lounge and, nearby, the Frolic Show Bar. But where you’d usually find me was down the street on the corner of John R and Canfield at the most popular of all, the Flame Show Bar.”
Gordy’s sister Gwen owned the photo concession at the Flame. She introduced Berry to Flame manager Al Green, who had King and several budding artists, like LaVern Baker, Johnnie Ray and Jackie Wilson, signed to personal contracts. Wilson recorded some of Gordy’s earliest efforts, like “Reet Petite” and “To Be Loved.” Gordy later brought King and Bowles to Motown.
King took on extra work during his Flame years. Clarence Jr. recalls Pop landing arrangement work with duly impressed Flame headliners. He wrote a musical score for 20th Century Fox, not to mention a ballet, and ran unsuccessfully for the board of the local musicians union during an era bereft of black elected officers.
By 1961, changing musical tastes, the inexorable rise of television, and increasing headliner salaries ended the show bar era in Detroit. King finally left the Flame that year, replaced by a trio led by Detroit saxophonist George Benson with future Motown bandleader Earl Van Dyke on organ. The Flame hung on until 1963. The site is now a parking garage.
King’s income from music allowed his family to live well, but he was gone much of the time.
“Even when he was in town, Maurice wasn’t home very much,” Clarence Jr. recalled. “Maurice King never cut grass, never parked a car, never cooked a meal. He did it all with music.”
King was a respected — and feared — figure in his children’s lives; though frequently absent, he was the boss.
Clarence Jr. became his dad’s confidant, bookkeeper and occasional sub at the Flame. As he puts it, “I was reared to be Maurice King Jr. I had my role model living in the same house. … I got a saxophone and an instruction book for Christmas when I was 11. Maurice came back from Europe with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm a year later and by then I could play. I’d heard him give so many lessons, I knew how to do everything but blow the horn.”
King played star offstage. Example: He seldom attended family gatherings; if he did, he’d sit outside in his car.
“To see Uncle Maurice, you went outside and got in his car. He wouldn’t budge.” said his nephew Odell Waller. “It was kind of like paying homage to him, I guess.”
King’s car served as his mobile office and, perhaps, his throne. He was a Chrysler man — he bought large, comfortable cars. This writer met him on several occasions in various parking lots.
By 1963, Berry Gordy had established Motown Records as a major entertainment force, and had hired Maurice King.
“I was the musical director of artist development,” King recalled. “I taught them [the vocal groups] how to phrase. I arranged their music; I arranged songs for them. I taught them how to blend. I collaborated with their choreographer, did a lot of their staging. I didn’t teach them any dance steps, but I suggested a few to the choreographer [Cholly Atkins] sometimes.”
“Maurice brought sophistication and class to Motown,” said Trudell, who King brought to the company.
King was known as Motown’s music troubleshooter and a company father figure. Maurice was a stickler for appointment times; no group or singer would dare arrive late for a session with Mr. King. His lessons were taken seriously and appreciated.
“He was a part of our longevity,” Gladys Knight told Evans. She first met King in 1956 when he brought Knight, then 12, to Detroit to sing in a theatrical production.
“He taught us the things that would help us to stay out here, the small things like how we got up in the morning, how we responded to people,” said Knight. “And he kept track of our appearances.”
Clarence Jr. remembered how Dad created arrangements for Motown’s vocalists. “He’d catch those groups with their little rhythm sections, [who] couldn’t read a note as big as a house, didn’t know theory, but had the ‘stuff.’ He could record that, listen to it, and create an arrangement for an 18-piece orchestra with the feel of what they had played. The music was very, very difficult.”
After Motown left Detroit, King continued his association with Gladys Knight, and the Spinners. The Spinners, who had their greatest success after leaving Motown, hired King on as full-time music director.
Spinner Bobbie Smith, who still refers to King as “Mr. King”, recalled the director’s approach: “The arrangements was very complex … and a lot of musicians couldn’t play ’em. And Mr. King didn’t allow no mistakes. If you couldn’t play it, you was out!”
Trumpeter Gordon Stump worked for King many times at Spinners performances. He recalled King’s music and his hard-line method of maintaining order at rehearsals and shows.
“Except for the people who were closer to his age, no one called him ‘Maurice,’” said Stump. “It was always ‘Mr. King.’ That struck me. … It wasn’t something he demanded, it was something that happened because of respect.”
Or sometimes because of intimidation. Stump recalls an incident backstage at a Pine Knob concert when an out-of-town drummer, “burned out, tired,” whined until King went into action.
“Maurice made his way through the musicians to him and he took the drummer’s hands, bent his fingers back and brought him right down to his knees. Maurice told him to watch his tone of voice, and the guy said, ‘I’m sorry Mr. King, it’ll never happen again.’ And my mouth just dropped open.”
But King did love musicians. He respected the effort it took to play an instrument well. Clarence Jr. recalled King handing cash to a lone street guitarist and saying, “musicians take care of each other.” King didn’t consider vocalists musicians, and few of the many singers he worked with earned his respect.
King’s flamboyant attire was an essential asset to the Spinners.
“I think one of his outfits was a turquoise tuxedo,” recalled Stump. “People in Detroit know their artists really well, and when they saw that huge turquoise tuxedo come out on stage, they would just start screamin’. Because they knew that soon after he showed up, the stars would be there.”
In the ’80s, King began cutting back his activities, but stayed busy with the Spinners. He mentored popular local rock band DC Drive. He composed a piece for the Detroit Symphony, which hasn’t been performed. He hoped to do an LP featuring his Ellington arrangements on one side and his own music on the other. “I wanted to call it The King meets The Duke,” he recalled with a chuckle. Unfortunately, the record label King approached “couldn’t see past their nose.”
When Eddie Mae died in 1988, King floundered. King lacked necessary survival skills — cooking and money management, etc. — and wasn’t interested in acquiring them. For him it was all about the music.
A few months before his death in 1992, King wed Nellie Foreman, his longtime secretary and companion.
“Maurice died because he just got tired of living. He just stopped eating,” says Clarence Jr. “He did it his way. He did everything his way.”
The authors would like to thank Evans W. King and Clarence King Jr. for help with this piece. Additional information about Maurice King may be found at www.mauriceking.org.