by Brian Young and Dennis DeWitt
It was August 12th, 1996. As we pulled off the I-94 onto Telegraph Road, we asked ourselves what we would be in store for. Today, we would be meeting a man who, until this point, remained a mystery amongst the Del Shannon music collectors abroad. We knew little about him except that he played a major roll in helping to establish a second string of hits for Shannon.
As we drew nearer to Southfield (a suburb of Detroit), we could feel the musical vibes all around us. This was a city rich in musical history, and a place where numerous legends were born.
A man who had a taste in this vast and rich musical scene was a man named Maron McKenzie. Although we would come to know him as "robert" or "Robbie."
Robert McKenzie signing autographs in 1999
DSAS: Maron, can you first tell us how the name "Robert" came about?
ROBERT: It was a name that I gave myself because I didn't like the name "Maron". Although "Maron" is the name given to me at birth by my parents, no one calls me by that name other than my wife, Earlene. "Maron" sounded to me like "Marion" or "Maren," which in most cases is a girl's name, so I just gave myself the name "Robert" and people have called me that ever since. Del used to call me "Robbie".
DSAS: How did you first get started in the music business?
ROBERT: In the late 50's, two friends of mine and I formed a group called "The Triangles." We were practically kids at the time, and with the music scene all around us, we wanted in on it. So we performed around town and in the clubs, and a few times up in Canada.
DSAS: And what happened? And how did you begin to write songs?
ROBERT: I worked by day at a jelly factory. Mitchell Syrup and Preserve. In Detroit. I was a cook. While sitting through one of my breaks, I wondered if I could write a song similar to those of the time. Songs like "Heart of Stone" by The Charms. I wanted to write songs for our group, so that we would have some original material to shop around. I needed an idea that was strong enough.
My first idea for a song was called "Chief Indian Joe." (Sings) "...Chief Indian Joe can't holler anymore..." It was a song about an indian who was messing around with Geronimo's girl. He told him to leave her alone, and then he shot him. Unfortunately, no one liked my idea, and the song never got out. It wasn't much longer after that that our group split up and we went our seperate ways. I could sing fine with a group but I was too nervous and shy to sing alone. I wasn't a great singer. The word around town was that there were big bucks to be made in writing songs. So I began writing songs for talented artists around town.
British fan Tony Press with Robert McKenzie in 1999
DSAS: How did you hook up with Irving Micahnik and Harry Balk of Artists, Inc? Or otherwise known as EmBee Productions?
ROBERT: I had a song that I wrote for Jackie Wilson. It was called "I Could Write A Book." Upon shopping it around to the various labels and management in Detroit with no luck, I heard of two people that occasionally worked with and knew Jackie. It was harry and Irving. So I walked into the offices of Artists, Inc. and Harry was nice enough to listen to my song. I didn't have a tape recorder to make demos. In those days, you just sang your song right there on the spot. Harry called for a girl named Shirley (Jackson) to come out and play piano for me while I sang my song aloud to Harry. If he liked it, he said he would give it to one of their artists on the label. I mentioned that I wanted Jackie Wilson to have the song. Harry said it didn't work that way. If he liked the song, he would give it to an artist of his choice. Well, I guess that was okay with me because I stayed and sang the song, and it turned out that Bobbie Smith & The Dreamgirls (on Bigtop) did "I Could Write A Book." That was my first composition to appear on a record.
That single made some mild noise, but their next single was bigger: "Wanted" backed with "Mr. Fine," both written by me. I actually came close to getting the Pointer Sisters to record "Mr. Fine" but it didn't come about. Had they have done it, I believe it may have had a shot at making the Top 10.
DSAS: So essentially, you became a staff writer for Artists, Inc.?
ROBERT: Yes. After writing those three songs for the Dreamgirls, Harry and Irving signed me on to work with their artists.
Left: McKenzie with fan John Swoveland at the Star Theater in Southfield,
Michigan in 1998. Right: McKenzie in a boxing stance with his wife Earlene
DSAS: We'd like to know more about The Young Sisters. They were the girl group that backed Del, correct?
ROBERT: That's right. I wrote a couple of songs for The Young Sisters. They were three italian girls who were still in school. I wrote "Casanova Brown" for them. "My Guy" was the B-side, and it was the first record to appear on Balk's new label, Twirl Records. (Actually Johnny & The Hurricanes released "Crossfire" on Twirl as #1001 two years earlier, and The Dreamgirls released "Don't Break My Heart" as Twirl #1002 about the same time). I remember Harry liked "Casanova Brown" an awful lot, and really hoped to get The Young Sisters off and running. They were a good group! I'm not sure, but I think the song made the charts, just barely breaking into the Top 100 at #94 or something.
I then began writing two songs for them as a follow-up single, "Little Town Flirt" and "My Wild One." This is when I first hooked up with Del Shannon.
DSAS: Stop right there! So those two songs began for The Young Sisters? Can you tell us how they were originally written?
ROBERT: Yes. I originally had the idea in my head with the girl singing, "Why do you want to leave me for a flirt? Haven't I been good to you? Let me be your girl..."
DSAS: How did Del wind up with them?
ROBERT: Harry put me with Del because, at that particular point in time, Del was running out of hit songs. Harry wanted to keep Del's momentum going more so than trying to establish The Young Sisters. Del's last few songs weren't hitting high up on the charts, and Harry and Irving were really concerned. Del had "So Long Baby" and "Hey! Little Girl" which both charted in the Top 40, but then his chart positioning took a big dive after flopping with "Ginny In The Mirror" and "Cry Myself To Sleep." I think that Harry just felt that Del was currently tapped out of good ideas, and so they cut "Swiss Maid" because Del wasn't writing hit songs. He was writing stuff like "The Wamboo." Del just needed some inspiration and a boost, so Harry teamed me up with Del to see what we could come up with.
I came out to Del's house on Robert Street (in Southfield, Michigan). I already had the idea for "Little Town Flirt." Del thought it sounded like a good idea, so he played his guitar while I sang out the lyrics that I had. Del stopped me. His first reaction was, "Man! This will make me sound colored!" I told Del, "No it won't. It will make you sound different. You see Del, you're starting to sound alike. Let me show you (Sings) 'I'm a-walkin' in the rain / hats off to Larry / hey! little girl.' You see how they sound similar?Your sound is great but eventually it catches up with you. You need to come up with a new sound Del, that's all. This will make you sound different."
So we worked on the song and melody. Del changed some lyrics around to fit his own style. I remember him changing "ruby red lips" to "tender red lips," things like that. And then, of course, he came up with his own guitar licks. And the song came out so great man! I'm so proud of that song! That song was my biggest success, and my greatest success came through Del Shannon.
"Little Town Flirt" lyrics written in
Del Shannon's own handwriting.
I originally had the song written so that the girls would harmonize "hurt, hur-hur-hurt," but when Del took the song, he included his falsetto trademark "hur-hur-hur-hur-hurt" to the song, and boy I tell you, that was amazing! I can still recall the two of us working out the song over a couple of bologna sandwiches (Robert giggles). And of course, the Young Sisters were the girls singing in the background on the record.
DSAS: It's interesting to hear your side of the story. The facts remain the same and yet you tell the story completely from another perspective.
ROBERT: Well, there's always going to be different versions of how the songs came together. I bet Del and Max (Crook) tell different stories of how "Runaway" came together. The same holds true here. I wrote based on my experiences, and Del wrote based on his. Both are applicable because we are co-writers. I remember Del gave an interview to a lady deejay in England where he talked about a girl early in his life named Karen. She dumped him for another guy at his high school dance. He told me about these experiences.
DSAS: Yeah, I think we have that interview! It sounds familiar.
ROBERT: Del would recall these episodes in his life and use them in his songs. So when someone asked Del about the writing of "Flirt," naturally he will refer back to his own thoughts and memories. I was thinking of the Young Sisters at the time.
So we had two different ideas in our minds while we were writing these songs. We each injected our thoughts and lyrics.
DSAS: Can you give us an example?
ROBERT: Like when I came up with "You think you've got a paper heart." I wanted to establish in verse how a heart can be easily torn into shreds. Or when Del came up with "I know she's gonna trat you wrong, so your heart had better be strong..." I think that's why Del and I were such a good team. I really enjoyed writing with him, and I'm sure the reverse was also true. Now I'm not sure how it was with Del and Brian Hyland, never meeting Brian, but I'm sure it was the same kind of teamwork because they wrote some great stuff together.
Now, "My Wild One" was the other song that I was working on for The Young Sisters. I had the melody worked out, and most of the words. In this case, Del just re-wrote some of the lyrics and suited it to his style. It was going to be the B-side of "Two Silhouettes" here in the U.S., but then Del cut "From Me To You," and so it never got released here in the States. But it did make the flip in England.
DSAS: Yeah. What a shame. It never surfaced here in the States on 45, album, or CD. (Since the time of this interview, "My Wild One" has surfaced on multiple CD compilations, as well as the Bear Family Boxed Set). Tell us about the release of "Little Town Flirt."
ROBERT: Harry sent the Young girls with Del to New York. To Bell Sound. I think they cut six songs in two days or something. "Little Town Flirt" was released during the holidays, around Christmas. I think the song hit Billboard at #88, then jumped to #80 the following week. Del was depressed and said, "Well Robbie, looks as if we bombed out." "Flirt" wasn't getting enough airplay due to the Christmas jingles all over the radio. Del was unhappy, but I wasn't. I was happy with that! I mean, I was working in a jelly plant! You know?
So about a week later, I come back to the offices of Artists, Inc., and Irving motions me into his office. "Maron," he said. "Come a-here." I thought, "Oh no, what's wrong now." "Sit down! Sit down! I'm gonna treat you to lunch!" he said. I thought, "What's up with him?" He was all friendly and jolly. "You need some money Maron? You need an advance or something?" I said, "Irving, what's with all this? You're being awfully good." He smiled at me. "'Little Town Flirt' is gonna be a smash! It jumped from around #80 to #40!" "Wow! It did?" He said, "Yeah! Johnny Bienstock (of Bigtop) just called and said that they weren't able to move the record at first because of all the holiday music. As soon as the holiday music was out of the way, the record started moving all around the country."
DSAS: Fascinating. Tell us about the next single, "Two Kind of Teardrops" and "Kelly."
ROBERT: "Two Kind of Teardrops" was another idea of mine. I thought up the idea and title, but Del and I worked it out together. "Kelly" was his idea. He told me he had a great idea about a guy sneaking around with his best friend's girl, but that he was having a little trouble with it. So I helped him out a little with that song. I think that was actually huge in Europe, even though it was a flipside. Almost like a standard. So Del and I decided to split those two songs down the middle, 50-50. "Two Kind of Teardrops" was a monster in England. Top 5! I couldn't believe it!
DSAS: "Two Silhouettes"?
ROBERT: "Two Silhouettes" was another idea off the "Flirt" and "Teardrops" formula. I was a sentimental man when I was young. I'd be afraid to hold a girl's hand. I think that song was a collective of our experiences. Fear of rejection. Being rejected. Witnessing another guy move in on your girl. That type of feeling and misery that we could express in music. Del was always good with ideas when it came to agony and dispair.
DSAS: "Two Silhouettes" faired well in England making the Top 30. Number #23. A B-side in the U.S. Then Del cut the four sides on BerLee, his own record label, after a conflict with Artists, Inc. But then he came back, and you and he got back together for "Mary Jane" and I'll Be Lonely Tomorrow" for Amy Records.
ROBERT: Yeah. The "Flirt" sound was getting old for Shannon. Just as the "Runaway" sound previous to it. Del needed a third and fresh sound, and I knew that I wouldn't be with Del for much longer. We wanted to do something "funky." For me, "Mary Jane" was a tribute to Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. Del was fond of Dion's music, who was also a friend of his. Del tipped his hat to Dion when he included the lyrics, "He'll treat you worse than 'Runaround Sue', there ain't no tellin' what she'll do to you..." I liked doing that song with Del, because he was one of those singers with a whole lotta soul man! Brenda Lee had that too. She could squawl. Del could really squawl! (Sings) "I'm a-walkin' in the rain!" See how he could belt out a note like that?
DSAS: Yes indeed. Now, "I'll Be Lonely Tomorrow" appeared on the "Handy Man" album only. And that sound was totally different from your previous collaborations. How on earth did that song come about?
ROBERT: Oh, I'm surprised you guys knew about that one! To tell you the truth, "I'll Be Lonely Tomorrow" was another one of my ideas. Actually, I began writing it myself in hopes to give it to the Shirelles or Ben E. King. Honestly now, I didn't want Del to do this one. I loved all the others that we did together, but I had the idea in my head of a slow, R & B type song. Del heard it and liked it, so he changed it and Harry cut it too darn fast! I like Harry and I like Del, but because I was a writer for them, I didn't really have much say, and I was a little upset that they cut it the way they did. I just think it should have been done a lot slower. That way, the feeling of the song could be better expressed and interpreted. But, Del really liked it and so he changed it a little and cut it.
DSAS: It's still a gem Robert. Now, besides Del Shannon, you wrote songs for many of the other acts signed with EmBee, including Bobbie Smith & The Dreamgirls, and The Young Sisters. But also for Spencer Sterling, Mickey Denton, The Volumes, Don & Juan, and later Solomon Burke. About how many of your compositions were put on record?
ROBERT: Umm, about 40.
DSAS: All published by Vicki Music?
ROBERT: Yes, through Harry Balk and Irving Micahnik.
Maron and Earlene McKenzie still reside in Southfield, Michigan
DSAS: Which songs, among the ones that you wrote, are your personal favorite?
ROBERT: Let's see. I have a few. "Mr. Blue" done by Mickey Denton. It didn't make as much noise and some of the others, but I liked the way he did it, and I think he had a really nice string arrangement behind it. I like one of the songs that I gave to The Volumes. "Our Song." It was done in '63. I wrote that for my wife. I just love that song! I think the lyrics in that song are really strong. "Jilted" by Spencer Sterling. "Casanova Brown" by The Young Sisters. And "Little Town Flirt."
DSAS: What personal aspects did you like about Del Shannon, or Charles Westover rather, the person?
ROBERT: I liked him because he wasn't flashy. Most people change with success and money, but Del didn't. Of course, I didn't know him before he was a star, but he seemed to be always be humble and down to earth. I mean, here was a guy making big bucks and enjoying the fruits of success, and eating just a plain bologna sandwich. As corny as that may seem, I admire him for that. His fame didn't go to his head. I was impressed because he was always straight forward with me. And years later, the fact that he and Dan (Bourgoise) took the time to track me down after they acquired the (music) catalog so that they could pay me royalties for my songs. I really appreciated that. Del and Dan were good people, and good to me. It's no wonder Dan's achieving such great success today with Bug Music. He's known for being one of the most trustworthy people in the business, and that will always come back to you ten-fold.
DSAS: That's right. So Robert, do you write today? And if not, why did you stop writing?
ROBERT: Well, I stopped writing in the mid-60's. I was an alcoholic and it got so bad that I had to go to Alcoholics Anonymous to quit. About this same time, Harry broke up with Irving and went to Motown. Harry liked my writing ability, but I couldn't get with Harry at Motown because I was drinking so heavily and dependent on the sauce. By the time I finally stopped drinking, it was 1968, and times had changed in the music business considerably. I just never got back into it. I still write, on occasion, if I get a great idea. I recently came up with a tune that I think is just wonderful. It's called "My Winter Valentine." I wrote it about my wife, because we met in the winter. "I walked with you in the ivory snow, I felt the snowflakes melt on my face..." I feel I have some strong lyrics in that song.
I wrote a song in '85 called "There Goes The One I Love" for Del. But at that time, he was trying to go country with Warner Brothers. Besides, I was pretty much fed up with the music business by then. All the hassles, lying, and swindling. So I gave myself to God.
DSAS: Is there anything else you would like to add before we conclude this interview?
ROBERT: Just that I'm grateful that both Del and Harry never got too "big" to forget about me. Both would always drop me a line now and then. I'm glad that we stayed in contact over the years.
Maron McKenzie Discography:
Del Shannon - Bigtop #45-3131 "Little Town Flirt"
Del Shannon - Bigtop #45-3143 "Two Kind of Teardrops"
Del Shannon - Bigtop #45-3143 "Kelly"
Del Shannon - Bigtop #45-3143 "Two Silhouettes"
Del Shannon - London HLX-9761 "My Wild One"
Del Shannon - Amy #897 "Mary Jane"
Del Shannon - Amy LP #8003 "I'll Be Lonely Tomorrow"
Bobbie Smith & The Dreamgirls - Bigtop #45-3059 "I Could Write A Book"
Bobbie Smith & The Dreamgirls - Bigtop #45-3085 "Wanted"
Bobbie Smith & The Dreamgirls - Bigtop #45-3085 "Mr. Fine"
Bobbie Smith & The Dreamgirls - Bigtop #45-3100 "Duchess of Earl"
Bobbie Smith & The Dreamgirls - Bigtop #45-3111 "Here Comes Baby"
Bobbie Smith & The Dreamgirls - Bigtop #45-3111 "I Get A Feeling My Love"
Bobbie Smith & The Dreamgirls - Bigtop #45-3129 "Now He's Gone"
Bobbie Smith & The Dreamgirls - Bigtop #45-3129 "Your Lovey Dovey Ways"
Bobbie Smith & The Dreamgirls - American Arts #882 "Miss Stronghearted"
Bobbie Smith & The Dreamgirls - Twirl #2025 "I'll Be Standing By"
Mickey Denton - Bigtop #45-3142 "Dance With Me Mary"
Mickey Denton - Bigtop #45-3142 "The Other Side of Betty"
Mickey Denton - Amy #902 "(Now I'm) Mr. Blue"
Mickey Denton - Amy #902 "Top Ten"
Solomon Burke - Atlantic #45-2327 "Mountain of Pride"
Don & Juan - Mala #494 "All That's Missing Is You"
The Young Sisters - Twirl #2001 "Casanova Brown"
The Young Sisters - Twirl #2001 "My Guy"
The Young Sisters - Twirl #2008 "Playgirl"
The Young Sisters - Twirl #2008 "Hello Baby"
The Young Sisters - Mala #467 "She Took His Love Away"
The Young Sisters - Mala #467 "Jerry Boy"
The Volumes - Jubilee #5446 "Teenage Paradise"
The Volumes - Jubilee #5446 "Sandra"
The Volumes - Jubilee #5454 "Our Song"
The Volumes - Oldtown #1154 "Why"
The Volumes - Oldtown #1154 "Monkey Hop"
Spencer Sterling - Bigtop #45-3104 "Jilted"
C.P. Spencer - Nightmare #96 "The Long, Lonely Road That Leads Back To You"
C.P. Spencer - Nightmare #96 "She's Stronger Than Me"
C.P. Spencer - Nightmare #96 "When I Find Her, I'll Be Sweeter and Kinder"
C.P. Spencer - Nightmare #96 "I Fell In Love and Never Wanted To"
C.P. Spencer - Nightmare #96 "Don't Keep Your Love A Mystery"
C.P. Spencer - Nightmare #96 "The Last Kiss We Had"
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