Michael Sutton a.k.a. Mike Sutton is best known for co-producing Down To Love Town by the Originals, writing Cheryl Lynn's Shake It Up Tonight, and part of the husband and wife singing duo, Mike and Brenda Sutton.
Michael B. Sutton interview written By Bernard F. Lopez
If you've ever heard the 1976 Disco hit Down To Love Town by the Originals, Shake It Up Tonight by Cheryl Lynn or Don't Let Go of Me by Mike and Brenda Sutton, then you've sampled the fruits of Michael B. Sutton's labors. Whether he's playing the piano, producing, writing or even singing vocals he can wear the different hats required for each role. Michael Sutton sat down recently with DiscoMusic.com to talk about his music career.
Early Years & Gospel Music
A West Coast native, Michael Sutton was born in 1948 and raised in Oakland, California. His exposure to music was from his father who was a Jazz trumpet player. Mike tried to play the trumpet as well, but he never took to it. His mother ran a club called the "Sophisticated Juliettes" where the patrons would pay him 25 cents to dance like Elvis Presley.
Sutton's mother passed away during his teens so his grandmother, who was an active church member, took care of him and brought him to church often. It was in church that he began playing the Hammond B3 organ and meeting musicians. Despite not having any formal training or knowing how to read music he became very good at playing the organ. Sutton was invited by another church to play on an album they were recording in Los Angeles to which he eagerly accepted. While visiting this church he met a young girl by the name of Cheryl Lynn who would later go on to Disco fame with Got To Be Real. Having tasted a little freedom and being around other musicians he decided to leave home at age seventeen and head for Los Angeles since his grandparents were very strict and against Rock and Roll and the music scene. While there he made ends meet by playing the organ at churches in the area.
By 1967 he had married his now ex-wife Brenda with whom he would collaborate and write many songs with. The two had met in church and started performing in a little choir called the Stan Lee Ensemble and they were also writing songs together. A minister they both knew came up to them one day and said they should try their hand at performing other than Gospel. He said, "There's a big difference between your salvation and occupation." Living in the notorious neighborhood known as Watts, Sutton moved his wife and three children to Hollywood and took a job as a janitor at Fidelity Studios. It was here that he and his wife recorded some tracks, but they were never picked up for release.
Mike Sutton Meets Stevie Wonder
Mike and Brenda found some managers during the early 1970s who promptly booked them into gay and swinger type clubs throughout the city. One of their managers was taking voice lessons with Seth Riggs who was coaching many top singers. The manager told Mike and Brenda Sutton that Stevie Wonder was looking to audition background singers and if they would like to meet him. Mike said they got to meet Stevie Wonder one night and even performed some of their songs they had written. Wonder liked their work and later introduced the Sutton's to Iris Gordy of Motown Records. The two were signed to Motown as writers and artists and were paid just enough to support themselves. Sutton explains, "We had no knowledge of the music industry and were so eager to get in there and write that we didn't even use an attorney… We just took it (contract) home and signed it. No discussion of money or anything-we just signed it." He goes on to say that the piano he used to write music was even missing a few keys.
The Hal Davis Connection
Things did not take off until Sutton was introduced to the late Motown record producer Hal Davis (Diana Ross, Thelma Houston, and Jackson 5). Sutton had this to say upon first meeting Hal Davis, "I walk up to Hal Davis in his office and thought to myself this is exactly what my grandmother warned me it was going to be like, thug world-gangsters! There were five guys around Davis with hats and sunglasses on."
Davis asks Sutton to perform some of the music he has written thus far and likes what he hears. He tells Sutton that he would like an artist he is working with named Bette Midler to possibly perform the song. It is at this point that Hal Davis discovers that Mike and Brenda Sutton are not earning any money from their Motown contract and that they are using a piano with missing keys. Davis takes it upon himself to speak with Robert Gordy on behalf of Sutton. Within a few hours Sutton has a new contract with decent pay and is told they will go and purchase a new piano for him. Sutton was also given a brand new Sony TC-55 cassette recorder to record all his ideas. Things are starting to look up now and Sutton continues by saying, "Hal Davis and Berry Gordy - everyone was responsible for getting me up there. You hear so many negative things about Motown, but it was the most positive experience in my life.
While the material that Sutton wrote for Bette Midler was never used on her album he continued plugging away and co-wrote a song called Cinderella Stay Awhile with Mac Davis for a new Michael Jackson solo album. After this Sutton kept busy interacting with many other writers and people at Motown. Another writer by the name of Pam Sawyer recommended that Sutton try his hand at producing. This led to Sutton producing a few songs for Diana Ross, but they were never released.
Down To Love Town
Motown felt that the best way to utilize Sutton's talents was to pair him up with another producer by the name of Frank Wilson who had done a lot of work with Eddie Kendricks. The two co-produced on some material with one of them being the "Down To Love Town" album by the Originals in 1976. Sutton co-wrote Down To Love Town with Don Daniels and Kathy Wakefield who would later write James Ingram's One Hundred Ways.
Sutton explains, "Frank Wilson's contract was coming up and "Down…" had a different beat to it then and I was into the "now" Disco sound. In the studio I kept telling the musicians to do it a certain way and Frank finally asked me to leave the studio. They took it to Suzanne DePas who was my boss at the time and they weren't really happy with the album. After Frank Wilson left she called me into her office and asked what we could do with the album." Sutton got a drummer (James Gadson) and a bass player (Henry Davis) and quickly got to work and in about a week had everything done the way he had envisioned it before Wilson's departure from Motown Records. "When it was finished I took it and played it at Hal Davis' office and everyone loved it. Suzanne came by and said, ‘We got a hit here' and asked if we could get a version for the clubs and I said yes." Sutton said he had never done anything like that before, but went to the studio and with the help of staff "cut tape" and re-recorded bits and looped them to extend Down To Love Town, which is the version that became a number one club hit in 1976-1977. Sutton goes on to say that Motown as a whole never really pushed the record, but credits Tom DePierro who was the head of the dance department for "working his butt off" and breaking Down To Love Town in the clubs and Discos.
Sutton continued working with Motown Records till around 1979-80 and was involved with artists such as Jermaine Jackson, Smokey Robinson, 21st Century and Thelma Houston. At a certain point it became clear that Sutton was not going to be able to fulfill his dream as a performing artist so he and his wife moved on.
Cheryl Lynn – Shake it Up Tonight
After leaving Motown Mike and Brenda Sutton found work at Screen Gems writing songs, but it was going nowhere. They had hit hard times and even sold their home and were now living in a motel. One of Mike's old friends and a former prom date was none other than Cheryl Lynn (Got To Be Real). Cheryl was working on a new album, which was being produced by Ray Parker Jr. Mike and Brenda Sutton had written a song called Shake It Up Tonight and asked Cheryl if she would like to perform it. She loved it and it became a sizeable club hit.
Signing With SAM Records
Motivated by the success of Shake It Up Tonight with Cheryl Lynn the Sutton's were signed by Danny Glass of New York's SAM Records as an artist going under the name Mike and Brenda Sutton. Their first 12" single was We'll Make It (S-12342) followed by Don't Hold Back (S-12347). Their third SAM Records single is perhaps their best known called Don't Let Go Of Me (Grip My Hips and Move Me) (S-12351), which was remixed by Shep Pettibone.
After their stint with SAM, Sutton and his wife moved to Rockshire Recods and released Live It Up, Love it Up and Crazy. Still at Screen Gems writing they decided to form an independent publishing company called MiBren Music and wrote some small numbers for use in movies. As time went by though Mike Sutton began suffering from anxiety attacks, which practically confined him to his home. In addition, years of growing apart led to his amicable divorce from his longtime wife Brenda.
Michael Sutton's New Album
As the years went by he gradually got over his anxiety and realized he had a stack of songs he had written and proceeded to shop them around. He has composed songs for television and film such as HBO's Emmanuelle In Space, Black Belt as well as the score to the movie One False Move.
Fast forward to the present and Mike Sutton has released a new album called Hopeless Romantic. In addition he has just produced a few songs for an upcoming album for Pat Boone and started a label called Little Dizzy Records.
Wrapping things up I would like to thank Michael Sutton for taking time out to speak with DiscoMusic.com about his musical career. We wish him all the best.
Written by Bernard F. Lopez (April 9, 2003)
Copyright © 2003 by Bernard F. Lopez
All rights reserved
- "Don't Let Go of Me" by Mike & Brenda Sutton
- Cheryl Lynn: Got To Be Real-Best Of
(Features "Shake It Up Tonight")
- Nervous Does Disco (SAM Records)
(Features "Don't Let Go of Me" by Mike & Brenda Sutton)
- The Originals - The Very Best Of
(Motown CD features "Down To Love Town")
- Sam Records Extended Play Disco Classics
(Features Don't Let Go of Me" by Mike & Brenda Sutton)
- Sam Records Extended Play, Vol. 2
(Features "We'll Make It" by Mike & Brenda Sutton)
- Michael Sutton - Hopeless Romantic