When you think of the Motown era, you probably think of such groups as the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and such soul superstars as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Less well-known is a man who helped Motown’s performers to shine so brightly: Frank Wilson, a musical utility infielder who cowrote and/or produced many of the label’s biggest hits.
The Houston native, who died on Sept. 27 at the age of 71 in the Los Angeles area, was “one of the label’s unsung heroes,” according to a tribute on Billboard’s website, before he left the music business in the late 1970s to enroll in divinity school and become a minister. He later founded a congregation in downtown Los Angeles.
Here are five of Wilson’s greatest contributions to music:
- “Castles in the Sand.” This 1964 hit for Stevie Wonder, which Wilson cowrote with Hal Davis and Mac Gordon, is interesting mostly because it was the first time that Wonder was allowed to sing in his adult vocal range, and because of the then-innovative idea of using an atmospheric recording - in this case, of the ocean – as its intro.
- “Whole Lotta Shakin’ in My Heart (Since I Met You).” Wilson wrote and produced this 1996 single for Smokey Robinson, which made it into the top 20 on the R&B charts. Motown historian Bill Dahl praises the song’s “forceful horn arrangement and pumping rhythm track.”
- “Love Child.” Wilson was part of a team that Motown founder Berry Gordy put together to find a potential number-one hit for Diana Ross and the Supremes. The songsmiths – who also included R. Dean Taylor, Pam Sawyer, Deke Richards and Henry Cosby – went to a hotel in New Orleans and stayed up all night drinking until they they came up with the haunting 1968 single.
- “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy.” Wilson wrote the music to go with lyrics written by singer Brenda Holloway and her sister Patrice, and then produced Holloway’s 1967 single. But the white jazz-rock group Blood, Sweat & Tears turned it into a far bigger hit two years later.
- “Do I Love You? (Indeed I Do).” In 1965, Wilson not only wrote but recorded this single, his only effort as a performer, only to have Berry Gordy deep-six it. But a copy of the catchy upbeat song and Wilson’s earnest vocal survived and later resurfaced in Great Britain, where it became part of the Northern Soul dance movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.