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July 2, 2013

Detroit area helped Berkley native Marshall Crenshaw make it big

By Joshua Gordon
C & G Staff Writer

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Berkley native Marshall Crenshaw grew up around Detroit music that inspired his career, which has spanned 40 years and earned him a song on the Billboard Top 40. Crenshaw, 59, continues to make music today with new singles being released about every four months on vinyl.

BERKLEY — In the early 1960s, a young Marshall Crenshaw would ride around Berkley on his bicycle and take in the local music he heard on a regular basis. When he heard something he liked, he would ride until he found the garage the live music was coming from.

Music was always Crenshaw’s passion. By the time he received his first guitar and started playing with his cousin, Chuck, at the age of 10, he already knew he wanted to play music for the rest of his life.

At the time Crenshaw was growing up in Berkley, Detroit had transformed into Motown and artists like Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye were lighting up the music industry. All the inspiration he needed was all around him.

“During the time I grew up in the Detroit area, the city of Detroit was where everybody looked to,” Crenshaw, 59, said. “That was the energy center of the area; it was really the media center. That is where radio came from and where the culture of the metropolitan area came from. It was a vibrant time for music during those years.”

Crenshaw went on to leave his own mark on the music industry, with “Someday, Someway” reaching No. 36 on the Billboard Top 40 in 1981, and while it was away from Detroit and Michigan, Crenshaw recognizes where it all began and how a lot of his success is due to the metro Detroit area.

From getting his big break as part of the off-Broadway “Beatlemania” musical production by auditioning at the Royal Oak Music Theatre, to his growing success during the 1980s coming with his brother playing drums on his records, Crenshaw is amazed how his career turned out.

But it is not a surprise to him. Crenshaw expected to make it big from the first time he picked up a guitar.

“It was always my intention to make it big — that was what I thought I was going to do as a kid,” Crenshaw said. “I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to get there, or what road I was going to take, but I knew it would be in popular music. I liked being in a band and playing in front of audiences.”

Crenshaw said he was “captivated by popular music” when he was growing up, and listening to his father, Howard Crenshaw, play rock music in the house made it that much more of a dream for him.

Growing up in a small town like Berkley, however, didn’t deter him from thinking his dream would come true.

“I liked being (in Berkley) when I was a kid,” Crenshaw said. “Those were the baby-boom years after World War II, so there were lots and lots of kids in my neighborhood. Everybody was really close, and being in the Detroit area was a sense of pride for me, as I felt comfortable in my community.”

But by the time he was 24 and living in Royal Oak, Crenshaw said he was “just spinning my wheels and had stayed longer than I should have.” Eventually, the opportunity that got him out of town turned out to be something different than he expected.

Crenshaw met up with an old friend from high school who was playing in a band in Alaska, so Crenshaw decided to go with him in 1977 to see if he could get a gig. It never panned out, but Crenshaw drifted around the country for six months before ending up in New York City.

After wrapping up a tour with his band, Crenshaw headed back to the Detroit area, married his long-time girlfriend and was prepared to head to a music school in Los Angeles. But a casting call for “Beatlemania” changed everything.

“I was back in the Detroit area, but just for a moment, when I got a phone call one day and they said they saw my audition tape for ‘Beatlemania’ and were going to be having auditions at the Royal Oak (Music) Theatre,” Crenshaw said. “I went to just see if I could do it and I ended up being the only one from that audition to get hired.

“That gig was huge. I’m not saying it was a great gig, but it was a real huge turning point for me — really my big turning point in my career.”

Crenshaw played John Lennon in “Beatlemania” for awhile, but his real passion remained being part of a band, and with his brother, Robert, already in New York City, it felt like things were lined up. The two got to work and, in no time, had a record deal with Warner Bros. Records.

“I was a drummer and he played guitar, so we wanted to have a band and we sat at a kitchen table and laid out what kind of band we were going to have and everything,” Robert, 55, said. “Everything that happened throughout his career, if I wasn’t standing right next to him, I wasn’t too far away. People started to embrace us and we had critical success, which we kind of expected because it was our goal.”

When people think of the songs Crenshaw had that hit the mainstream, his is the only name that comes to mind, despite Robert playing on all three of his first records. Robert said he knew his older brother was the one who was marketable and he had no problem just playing the drums.

“I love my brother Marshall; he was the principal singer and songwriter, so I really didn’t have a problem because he was the guy, as far as image goes, they at the label wanted to focus on,” Robert said. “When we did shows, I took care of my end really well, but we never had a discussion of having a band name.”

Crenshaw and Robert haven’t been part of a band for more than 20 years, but Crenshaw has continued to make music on his own. Recently, he has started releasing new singles on vinyl about every four months with the idea of combining them for an album down the road.

Crenshaw may be pushing 60, but he doesn’t have an end in sight for making music. He loves what he does and he said he can’t imagine doing anything not related to music.

“I still haven’t reached that point in my life where it is time to stop making records,” Crenshaw said. “I know I will get to that point, but I still want to do it; I can’t help it. My first experience of being in New York City was amazing and gave me a real sense of possibility all of a sudden. Now, I’ve had this long career and it is like a dream come true.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Joshua Gordon at jgordon@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1077.