Deke Richards, Motown Songsmith, Dead at 68
Deke Richards, the Motown songwriter, arranger and producer who founded the Corporation, the team that wrote the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and other Sixties and Seventies hits, died Sunday at a hospice house in Bellingham, Washington, after a battle with esophageal cancer. He was 68 and lived between Seattle and the Canadian border.
Richards, a Los Angeles native, and partners Freddie Perren and Fonze Mizell, had originally written the Jackson 5’s 1969 breakthrough hit “I Want You Back” as a more topical anthem called “I Wanna Be Free.” The Motown songwriters intended to give it to Gladys Knight and the Pips, but Richards caught the Jackson 5’s performance at the Daisy in L.A. and made the connection; he called founder Berry Gordy Jr., who had the same idea, suggesting the writers add Frankie Lymon-style kiddie lyrics for the new group of child singers.
"I Want You Back," in 1969, became the first of the Jackson 5’s string of Number One hits, soul classics that have come to define mid-period Motown. Richards, Perren and Mizell formed the Corporation, and Richards invited Gordy to join the group as a fourth member. "I basically was in charge of the Jackson 5 – all their creative, when it came down to the studio, and all their musical endeavors," Richards said in a recent phone interview. "I tried to create a Hitsville on the West Coast."
With the Corporation, the young Jacksons did grueling work in the studio, sometimes working well into the night, until a social worker showed up to ensure they finished at a reasonable hour. Richards said he had a habit of listening to finished recordings with his eyes closed, and one day he opened them at 3:02 p.m. and the boys were gone.
"When you’ve got one [song] you have to do over and over again, the monotony brings out the little one-liners and the joking around and silly stuff," Richards said. "They have no idea how close you are to capturing the last part of it… . You’re waiting to try to get this one little spot, [and] they’ve picked out their particular time to go on their Disneyland joke arena – and it’s like, ‘Jesus! No, not now!’"
Richards said his plan for the Jackson family was to build a dynasty, spinning off solo projects for each brother, but he only got as far as Michael, Jermaine and Jackie. “I was strictly after hits when it came down to the Jackson 5. That’s all I was concerned with,” he said. “With hits, we’d guarantee those concerts, and the records would get us back to those concerts. We’d have a nice round-robin going.”
Richards, a veteran Los Angeles guitarist for R&B nightclub bands, signed with Motown in 1966. He had performed with singer Debbie Dean; when the two met Gordy, Dean landed a recording contract as Motown’s first white singer, and Richards signed his own contract as a producer and writer.
Two years later, when the Supremes were struggling to land a hit, Gordy paired Richards with fellow songwriters R. Dean Taylor, Frank Wilson and Pam Sawyer. He sequestered them in Detroit’s Ponchartrain Hotel and instructed them to write a million-seller. In four days, they came up with “Love Child,” the bold song about illegitimate children that became one of Diana Ross’ most powerful performances and quickly hit Number One. This group became known as “The Clan,” although, as Richards recalled, the writers began to squabble over royalty percentages and Gordy eventually broke it up.
After Richards, Mizell and Perren began to write hits for the Jackson 5, the songwriter came up with the name the Corporation while talking to Gordy in his office. When Gordy asked what he intended to call the group, Richards looked on Gordy’s desk and saw stationary marked Motown Record Corporation. “I said, ‘How about the Corporation?’” Richards recalled. “He said, ‘OK, that sounds pretty good.’”
The Corporation also wrote “Mama’s Pearl,” “Goin’ Back to Indiana,” “One More Chance,” “Nobody” and “I Found That Girl,” among others, for the Jackson 5, and Richards wrote songs for Bobby Darin, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and Bonnie Bramlett. The Corporation broke up, Richards said in an interview, after Perren and Mizell became frustrated over royalties, particularly when Richards fell into a deal giving him points on “Corner of the Sky,” a Jackson 5 song from the Pippin musical.
Richards, born Dennis Lussier, was the son of Hollywood screenwriter Dane Lussier. In recent years, he had run PosterPalace.com, which collected and sold old movie posters.
Richards left Motown in 1975 and never achieved the same heights as a hit songwriter. (Perren died in 2004, and Mizell in 2011.) Richards continued to work on Motown projects in recent years – he helped produce a 2012 Jackson 5 rarities box called Come and Get It: The Rare Pearls, mixed eight unreleased tracks on the upcoming Martha Reeves and the Vandellas box 50th Anniversary: The Singles 1962-1972 and spoke with Jackie Jackson about possibly collaborating with the surviving Jackson 5 members.
Richards said previous producers had taken advantage of young Michael Jackson’s ability to sing like an adult. But he took the opposite approach with the Jackson 5, inventing “bubblegum soul” in the process. “I knew somebody was going to try to take them out of the box as soon as they could, to make them more mature. We have plenty of mature artists out there!” he said. “But there weren’t as many young artists who could sing like kids. There was something so magical about it. I wanted to keep it as long as they could.”