By Aaron Foley
Wikimedia CommonsHitsville USA
Who was the first white artist signed to Motown?
History has shown us that being the first black person to do anything significant (see: our current president) will earn you a place in the books, so it’s rare that we have to have a conversation about the first white person to do anything.
But that conversation has come up with the death of Teena Marie, which many media outlets cited as the first white artist signed to the Detroit-to-Los Angeles record label. Music trivialists and other journalists immediately cried foul.
First, a tweet from “Buildings of Detroit” co-author and all-around Detroit expert Dan Austin:
“…has said it thrice, and he’ll say it again: Teena Marie was NOT Motown’s 1st honky recording artist. Show Chris Clark some r-e-s-p-e-c-t.”
Austin’s right about one thing: Marie wasn’t the first. (But based on my mugshot, I won’t repeat it verbatim.) But was it Chris Clark? Nope.
Clark and Rare Earth, the late-’60s/early-’70s rock band, were also cited by The Detroit News as also being Motown’s first white artists.
DetNews, Dec. 28: Teena Marie was one of the best-known white acts on Motown, but there were many who preceded her. Rare Earth was probably the most successful, signing to Motown in 1968 and hitting with “Get Ready,” “I Just Want to Celebrate” and others. But there was also R. Dean Taylor (“Indiana Wants Me”), Chris Clark, rockabilly artist Johnny Powers, Nick and the Jaguars and others.
All valid, but neither were the first. So who was?
I contacted J. Randy Taraborrelli, who authored one of my favorite books about the subject: “Motown: Hot Wax, Cool City & Solid Gold,” and also was Michael Jackson’s biographer. Taraborrelli dropped a quick e-mail about a little-known singer who preceded all of the above.
“I think now the honor has to fall to Debbie Dean with ‘Don’t Let Him Shop Around’ in 1961. Chris’ first couple of singles were with V.I.P. and then she got switched to Motown, but that was a few years after Debbie’s debut,” Taraborrelli wrote.