Singer, songwriter, producer
A consistent presence at Motown Records during much of the label's Detroit heyday in the 1960s, singer-songwriter-producer Johnny Bristol also enjoyed success in a solo career after leaving Motown. As a writer his name was attached to several of Motown's most renowned hits, including "Someday We'll Be Together," a number-one pop hit for Diana Ross & The Supremes in 1969. That recording was shaped heavily by Bristol, who originally recorded the song, co-composed it, and is heard in the unusual background vocals of the Diana Ross version. He was an all-around talent whose abilities extended from singing to composition, arranging, and production.
John William Bristol was born on February 3, 1939, in Morganton, North Carolina. He attended and graduated from high school in his hometown, performing in a group called the Jackets that appeared at school functions. At the time, he had no plans to make music a career. "Music was something I did because I enjoyed it—and it got the girls," he explained to interviewer Adam White, as quoted in the liner notes for The MGM Collection and reproduced on the website of the Hip-O-Select reissue label. After graduating, Bristol moved north and joined the U.S. Air Force. He was stationed at Fort Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan, married his first wife, Maude (who later, as Maude Bristol Perry, became Battle Creek's first female mayor), and continued to dabble in music with a group of fellow servicemen in a group called the High Fives.
Signed to Anna
Soon Bristol and another member, Jackey Beavers, experienced conflict with the other musicians. "Jackey and I took it more seriously than the other guys, they needed half a gallon of wine," Bristol recalled to White. "We came from the deep south, didn't drink much and do all that stuff, so we broke off from the group and started Johnny & Jackey." The duo performed around Battle Creek, sometimes sharing the stage with another local act, Junior Walker and the All Stars. They also met Akim Fakir, brother of Abdul "Duke" Fakir of the group the Four Tops, and that got them an introduction to Gwen Gordy, the sister of Motown label founder Berry Gordy Jr. Gwen Gordy signed the pair to her new Anna label in 1959.
"It was a lot of fun, but we just weren't making any money," Bristol told White. "We were traveling in Jackie's car through various parts of Indiana and Michigan and Ohio, just singing in different places in our little red bowties. If you saw a picture, you'd die." Johnny & Jackey moved to Tri-Phi, another of the small labels that came together to form Motown; it was headed by key Motown songwriter and producer Harvey Fuqua. Many of their singles were modeled on the styles of other rhythm-and-blues singers of the day, but one release from November of 1961, "Someday We'll Be Together" (Tri-Phi), had a rich, romantic sound all its own. Bristol wrote the song with Beavers and Fuqua. The duo had moderate success around the Midwest but never broke out nationally. In 1963, when Tri-Phi was absorbed by rapidly growing Motown, Bristol put his own career on hold to sign on with Motown as an assistant to Fuqua in the label's artist development department.
Produced Motown Hits
Bristol became part of the Motown "family" in more ways than one: he also married Berry Gordy's niece Iris. As the close-knit creative team at the label grew, he got the chance to contribute to Motown recordings directly, as a producer, writer, and arranger. He never learned to read or write music, but he worked with the stable of in-house Motown studio musicians known as the Funk Brothers to shape the sound of numerous Motown releases. In the production booth he was usually paired with Fuqua. The label's top acts enjoyed exclusive relationships with specific producers: Diana Ross & The Supremes worked with the Holland-Dozier-Holland production team, and the Temptations were associated with producer and songwriter Norman Whitfield. Bristol and Fuqua were assigned to releases by other Motown acts, and their productions included some of the label's most famous releases of the 1960s: Junior Walker's "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)" and "What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)," Stevie Wonder's "Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday," and several hits by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, including "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."
"What Does It Take" was one of some two dozen Motown tunes composed or co-composed by Bristol; his compositions appeared on releases by David Ruffin, Gaye and Terrell, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Edwin Starr, and the Jackson 5, among others. Among Bristol's personal favorites was "Someday We'll Be Together," and in 1969 he thought of restarting his performing career with a new version of the song. A recording was actually made in Motown's studio, and Bristol also floated the idea of producing a recording by Junior Walker and the All Stars, but Berry Gordy had other ideas. "Look, I hear this song for Diana Ross," Gordy said, as Bristol recalled to White. The male voice heard in the background of Ross's number one hit is Bristol's, and it was he who suggested the unique arrangement in which he seems to sing along with Ross and urge her vocals forward.
Moved to Los Angeles
Bristol remained an important songwriter at Motown in the early 1970s, contributing (along with two other writers) "E-Ne-Me-Ne-Mi-Ni-Moe (The Choice Is Yours to Pull)" to the Jackson 5's 1972 album Lookin' Through the Windows. But he became disenchanted with Motown after the company's move to Los Angeles in 1972, although he too moved to the West Coast. In the early and middle 1970s Bristol worked as a producer for various artists, including Jerry Butler and Tavares. He was signed as an in-house producer by the Columbia label and helped to turn Boz Scaggs into a middle-of-the-road soul-style star with the album Slow Dancer (1974). Still hoping for a hit of his own, however, he signed with the MGM label.
For his first single, Bristol chose "Hang on in There Baby," which he had written and produced himself. The song's lush arrangement was also largely his work: "I just worked at it as if I were producing someone else," he recalled to White. The result was a song that garnered Bristol a top ten hit on both sides of the Atlantic (in Britain it rose to number three after Bristol toured there), a pair of Grammy nominations (for Best New Artist and Best R&B Vocal Performance - Male), and a role in creating the 1970s romantic male vocal style exemplified by such artists as Barry White. Bristol added another song to his list of hits when the Osmonds took his composition "Love Me for a Reason" to the top of the British charts.
By the time the disco style began to dominate pop charts in the 1970s, Bristol was in his late thirties, and although his albums Feeling the Magic (1975) and Bristol's Creme (1976) continued to feature his songwriting and production, they had limited success. Bristol moved to Polydor for the latter release and recorded Strangers for the label in 1978. He recorded for several small labels in the 1980s and 1990s, releasing an album called Life and Love in Japan in 1996. In 2002 he sang "Someday We'll Be Together" on a Public Broadcasting Service television special with Mary Wilson of the Supremes. Bristol lived near Howell, Michigan, northwest of Detroit, in his later years, and he was working on a gospel album at the time of his death, at home, on March 21, 2004.
For the Record …
Born on February 3, 1939, in Morganton, North Carolina; married twice; first wife: Maude (married late 1950s, divorced); second wife: Iris Gordy (married 1960s, divorced); children: Johnny Bristol Jr., Karla Gordy Bristol, Shanna Mueller. Education: Graduated from high school in Morganton, NC.
Performed in duo, Johnny & Jackey, while serving in U.S. Air Force in Battle Creek, MI, c. 1958; duo signed to Anna Records, 1959; recorded several singles (including "Someday We'll Be Together," 1961) for Tri-Phi label, Detroit; staff producer, songwriter, arranger, Motown Records, 1963-73; independent producer in Los Angeles, early and middle 1970s; signed as solo artist to MGM label, released album Hang on in There Baby and hit single of same title, 1974; also recorded for Polydor and Handshake labels; released album Life and Love in Japan, 1996.
Hang on in There Baby, MGM, 1974.
Feeling the Magic, MGM, 1975.
Bristol's Creme, Polydor, 1976.
Strangers, Polydor, 1978.
Free to Be Me, Hanza, 1981.
Life and Love, 1996.
Battle Creek Enquirer, March 24, 2004.
Independent (London, England), March 25, 2004, p. 35.
Times (London, England), May 3, 2004, p. 24.
"Bristol's Way: Reachin' Out for Your Love," Hip-O-Select, http://www.hip-oselect.com/scr.public.productdetails.asp?product_id=cdb768ed-6864-9939-2de7-c067cfe8595f (September 22, 2007).
"Johnny Bristol," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (September 22, 2007).
"Johnny Bristol," Soulwalking, http://www.soulwalking.co.uk/Johnny%20Bristol.html (September 22, 2007).
Tri-Phi discography, Global Dog Productions, http://www.globaldogproductions.info/tri-phi.html (September 22, 2007).
—James M. Manheim