Soul photographer Bobby Holland, my partner-in-crime, had shot some promotional stuff for Frank–who’d recently left a storied production post at Motown to go independent–and the songwriter/producer invited Bobby to Crystal Sound in Hollywood, where he was cutting singer Freda Payne for Capitol.
Of course, Bobby brought me along. Working for Soul Newspaper at a time when commercial black music was on fire–Aretha, Earth, Wind & Fire, Marvin Gaye, the O’Jays, the Commodores, Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan and newcomer Natalie Cole were all enjoying crossover success–was like having keys to the city.
For us, a day of idle loafing might include checking in on a noontime Brothers Johnson rehearsal at the A&M soundstage and hanging out at the Century City office of a CBS (now Sony) Records V.P. before grabbing a greasy Number Six at Los Burritos and falling into a midnight session at Hollywood Sound, where George Clinton and Bootsy Collins were tweaking tracks for Parliament.
It didn’t matter who they were or what they were doing–naively, Bobby and I would walk in on people as if we were from the health department. “How’s it going in here?” “Ohhh, I see–you DOUBLE the background vocals…” “Wow, so THAT’s Chuck Rainey….”
We were always welcomed, because (again, naively) we weren’t hustling anybody for anything; we were simply there for the music…and the promotional T-shirts, any industry scuttlebutt and the coveted satin baseball tour jackets that we never got.
Actually, I don’t know what excited me more–the idea of meeting Frank Wilson, who’d only co-written and/or produced his share of the soundtrack of my twenty one years on the planet, including Diana Ross and the Supremes’ “Love Child;” Eddie Kendricks’ “Keep On Truckin’” and “Boogie Down;” The Four Tops’ “Still Water” and the post- Diana Supremes hits, “Stoned Love” and “Nathan Jones,” or setting foot on the nondescript yet hallowed earth that was Crystal Sound, where Stevie Wonder recorded some of his greatest works, including “Innervisions” and “Songs In The Key Of Life.”
In any case, when admitted to the control room–sitting in a corner, covered by an equipment blanket, was Stevie Wonder’s prized Yamaha GX-1 synthesizer system, which he dubbed “The Dream Machine”–I was surprised: no entourage or flunkies that producers and artists often have around.
There was only a recording engineer and his assistant; a quiet, attentive young lady named Judy Wieder (then a fledgling songwriter who went on to become a women’s rights activist and writer); Ms. Payne, wearing headphones, out in the vocal booth, and sitting at the control board, a pleasant, unassuming Frank Wilson, who, instead of an accomplished hitmaker, looked as if he should be in the siding business.
When not coaxing the vocal he wanted out of Payne, Frank chatted with us. He laughed easily and treated us as if he’d known us forever.
Payne’s track was a knock off of Diana Ross’ sexy uptempo number one 1976 hit, “Love Hangover,” titled “Love Magnet.” At the end of the session, based on how kind he’d been to us, I told Frank, “You’re the real Love Magnet.” We called him that from then on.
Frank and his beautiful wife Bunny would have us out at their home in the suburbs and tolerate my queries about his work. Some of his biggest hits, he said, were created out of sheer necessity.
Like the time Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, thirsty for yet another hit on Diana and the Supremes, told Frank and Motown songwriters R. Dean Taylor, Pam Sawyer, Deke Richards and Henry Cosby to sequester themselves in a hotel suite for the weekend and not come out until they’d written a chart-topper. Up all night, they finally emerged with “Love Child,” which became a number one single for the trio in 1968.
Frank explained that in popular music, some hits are built on great, memorable songs, while others, such as Kendricks’ “Keep On Truckin’,” are based on exciting production and a dynamic rhythm section.
Frank and Bunny were deeply religious. In fact, his leaving Motown in the ’70s was prelude to the couple becoming full time servants of God, writing inspirational books and ministering to congregations in Los Angeles, on the road and via television shows, including Oprah.
As Frank made the transition from producer to man of the cloth, more than once I asked him how he could leave pop music behind. Yet again, I was naïve, unable to grasp the depth of Frank’s Motown successes nor the mighty, unyielding pull of his faith.
Indeed, when Frank Wilson passed away on September 27 after a lengthy battle with prostate cancer, there were those for whom Frank Wilson’s magnificent recording resume is but a tender footnote. They know him first and foremost as a man of God, a loving husband, doting father and the founder of Dawn Christian Village in Los Angeles. Of course, to me, he’ll forever be known simply as “Love Magnet.”
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]