Maurice King: Detroit Music Master

By Jim Gallert with Lars Bjorn

On Monday, December 28, 1992, some of Motown’s biggest stars gathered at the Union Second Baptist Church in Detroit to pay their final respects to Maurice King, a man whose talent helped them to develop into world class artists.  The Spinners and Stevie Wonder were among the hundreds of mourners who gathered that cold December day.  Inside the church the atmosphere was warmer and filled with beautiful sounds.  Gladys Knight, whom King first brought to Detroit as child of twelve, sang a song.  Later, Martha Reeves declared to King’s son Evans that King was “the reason we’re still in show business.”  Many musicians were there that day; they’d worked with, and respected, Maurice King.  In Detroit, at least, King was a celebrity.

Mr. Maurice King, courtesy Evans King

In a career which spanned nearly half a century, King played important parts in Detroit music:  He was a bandleader at the fabled Flame Show Bar, the most important outlet for Black entertainers during the 1950s. He was musical director of artist development at Motown Records for ten years. After Motown he served as music director for the Spinners, guiding them through countless appearances, conducting six-to-60 piece ensembles, and arranging their music. In his last years he mentored younger musicians like D.C. Drive. He died in Detroit on December 23, 1992.

An excellent musician, Maurice King was also soft-spoken and sophisticated, a man who expressed himself clearly and confidently. He had a strong personality and always did things ‘his way’.  King had a good sense of humor, a knack for winning at cards, a weakness for brightly colored tuxedoes and custom-made attire. His music arrangements were distinctive and audacious. A perfectionist who eschewed drink and smoke, King settled for nothing less than the best.  He was a consummate professional.

Born the youngest of six in the heart of the Mississippi Delta — Renshaw, Miss. — in 1911 and raised in neighboring Greenwood, Clarence (Maurice) King was inspired to play clarinet after hearing a minstrel band while in grammar school. By the time he graduated from high school, King (now playing alto saxophone – it was less of a struggle) was tagged a “gifted child.” He moved to Nashville, “the Athens of the south,” in the early 1930s to study music at Tennessee A&I State College (now Tennessee State University).[1]

King’s budding leadership skills, and his talent, landed him the job of assistant Music Director for the school’s band, the Tennessee State Collegians, led by trumpeter/arranger Sammy Lowe (on leave from the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra). King’s job was to select and arrange their music and rehearse the band.

King got involved with an attractive freshman named Eddie Mae Waller. After Eddie Mae became pregnant, both students dropped out of school. Eddie Mae moved back to Mississippi to stay with her family and await the birth of their child, and King stayed around Nashville and began working full time as a musician. The two were married in late 1933. Clarence King, Jr., was born in 1934, followed by Evans Waller in 1937 and Karen Diane in 1950. A fourth child, Gregory, died shortly after birth.

Maurice, Eddie, Evans, and Clarence King. Courtesy Evans King

Eddie Mae’s father got into a serious fight with a white man and, as a result, he and his family moved to Detroit and stayed with relatives. Clarence remembers meeting his dad for the first time at age two when King joined them in Detroit. They lived in a frame house, on Hunt Street, in a racially mixed neighborhood, in the near East side of the city. Maurice (King hated “Clarence” and renamed himself) didn’t join the American Federation of Musicians Local 5 until 1939. He scouted for work, placing arrangements with various Chicago and Detroit-based bands.

Saxophonist Jac Cooper, a white high school student, met King around this time.  Cooper and his friends were assembling a dance band, and King used them to try out new arrangements.  King’s focus was always on music – he wasn’t concerned with color, just talent, and he utilized qualified musicians regardless of race.  Mixed-race bands, even in the democracy of jazz, were rare; Benny Goodman led the only national band to feature Black and White musicians in the same group.  Maurice later took flak from fellow African American musicians who took a dim view of the mostly white bands King assembled for in-person performances, but he was unfazed by their comments. 

“I first met Maurice while helping Ken Stone form his first local band,” says Cooper. “We were all just school kids and Maurice wrote his fabulous arrangements and rehearsed us several times each week and really taught us everything…I remember Maurice packing us whities up…and going to the old Melody Club downtown and we’d set up and he would direct us in playing those way out arrangements. He was so proud of us and we of him.”

King joined a Works Progress Administration (WPA) concert band around 1940, and caught the eye of Leroy Smith, a pioneering Black Detroit society bandleader. Smith offered King a spot in his own WPA band. Smith was a polished and savvy bandleader who moved to Manhattan in 1921 and led bands at prestigious New York nightspots before returning to Detroit in 1934.

Leroy Smith, in his salad days.

In my 1986 interview with King, he characterized Smith’s band as a “classic band, a society band, a band that played the best jobs, a very colorful band. He had strings and the whole shot. He had his pick of whoever he wanted…I never knew the beauty of playing with beautiful musicians in Detroit until I got into his band… (trumpeter) Russell Green, (saxophonist) Louie Barnett were in his band. The intonation was there, they were all good readers.”

The three years he spent in Smith’s band put the finishing touches on King’s deportment and sense of style. He used lessons learned from Smith in his own bands. King considered Smith 

“Something like an idol of mine, like a father. He taught me how to be a leader. He played my arrangements, but he didn’t play my arrangements in the tempos that I wanted. He used to play “Stardust” at those society tempos…not slow, “bright”. I questioned him about that once, and he was very polite. And he said, ‘well, I’ll show you. And, the next night he played it slow, and there wouldn’t be anybody on the dance floor, hardly. He’d play it fast, and everybody would get up and dance. Smart man. Louie Barnett, at the Flame Show Bar, many times when we’d get those standing ovations, he’d say, ‘yeah, Leroy taught you well.’

Leroy Smith Orchestra, c1930s. Maurice King is first reed on the left.. Smith is behind and left of King. Smith returned to Detroit in 1934 after a decade of success in Manhattan. This is a W.P.A. band. The cellist is Ardine Illidge, who would later play in Earl Hines’ all female string section during WWII. Image courtesy Russell Green.

King got several job offers, including one from renowned bandleader Jimmie Lunceford. The loss of saxophonist Willie Smith (King’s main inspiration on alto) in the summer of ’42 left a huge hole in Lunceford’s band: Smith led the reed section, played most of the alto sax jazz solos, sang, and was also featured on clarinet; he was a tough act to replace, or follow. Maurice didn’t sing, but it was his reluctance to play clarinet which cost him the job.

In 1943 King was contacted by the manager of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, one of several “girl” bands active at the time, and asked to take over as Music Director, an offer Leroy Smith urged him to accept.

King referred to the ISR as “the world’s greatest all-girl band.” Aside from the novelty aspect of female jazz musicians, they had sex appeal, and often women with no performing experience or little talent were hired. Maurice was aware of this, and he restocked the band with competent female musicians regardless of looks, or race; the Sweethearts included black, white, mulatto and asian women. Unlike his predecessors, King kept his relationship with the women on a purely professional basis.

MK and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, During WWII on a ship going Over There. Courtesy Evans King

 “His personality won great favor with the girls and his musical leadership capabilities resulted in the band’s continued ascendancy toward artistic perfection and sustained popularity,” says Sweetheart’s biographer D. Antoinette Handy.”

Saxophonist Roz Cron summed up King’s method: “Maurice immediately put us through the most grueling rehearsals. It was a tough struggle, but we made it.”

King’s patience paid off. “When I worked with the girls I would show them a passage in an arrangement and how to phrase it, four bars at a time. We’d keep on going over it, and finally, when it jelled, you could see their little eyes beam…”

Maurice Steps Up with the I.S.R. Courtesy Evans King.

King composed their signature tune (Galvanizing), wrote and arranged most of their music, guided them through film appearances, (including That Man of Mine with actress Ruby Dee) and an overseas tour to entertain U.S. troops for the United Service Organizations (USO).  By 1948, times were getting tough for the entertainment industry. Money was tight.  Club owners discovered that six or seven piece R&B combos could attract as many patrons as a sixteen piece big band, and they were much cheaper to hire.  Big bands were on the cusp of extinction, and, after the death in 1949 of their founder, Rae Lee Jones the I.S.R. succumbed.

Maurice always seemed to be on the move! Courtesy Evans King

After five years on the road with the I.S.R., Maurice was glad to get back home. But he didn’t rest long, as his reputation brought job offers, including one from veteran Detroit club owner Morris Wasserman. Wasserman was preparing to open the Flame Show Bar, at 4264 John R Street at Canfield. John R, dubbed the “street of music” by Detroit’s African-American press, blossomed with entertainment venues as Detroit’s black population moved north and west from Paradise Valley and Black Bottom on the east side of Woodward. The grand opening was set for June 24, 1949. Wasserman wanted to feature national acts seven nights each week, and for this he needed a musical “man for all seasons”: a bandleader, arranger, and composer who could make national stars sound good — and do it with style. Maurice King was the man for the job.

“He (Wasserman) asked if I could put together a band to accompany national acts which would work every night of the week. I told him I could, but the caliber of musicians I had in mind might cost a little more. He said, ‘do it’. I agreed on the condition that I would have control over the music and band personnel. I named the band (Wolverines) after the state animal.”

Flame Show Bar, 1950s. The ubiquitous Hot Dog vendor is shown on the left. Courtesy Evans King.

King took charge of the bandstand in April, 1950, and remained for eleven years. He assembled six musicians with the necessary skills to play anything from jazz to R&B. After some initial juggling, King settled on seasoned players in their 30s: tenor sax ace “Sweet Lou” Barnett, trumpeter Russell Green (comrades from King’s Leroy Smith days), pianist Neal “Ghandi” Robinson, and drummer Elbert “Dagwood” Langford. Two younger players rounded out the septet, bassist Clarence Sherrill and baritone sax man Thomas Harold “Stringbeans” Bowles. King himself played alto sax, but his main task was music director, arranger and leader.

King’s goals for the band?

“I wanted a big band sound, with as few horns as I could get! I’m blessed with the knowledge …of being able to orchestrate in such a manner that a band sounds bigger than you would expect. When I rehearse a band, I insist that every man plays his note with the fullest and roundest sound he can deliver in order to bring out the blend I have created.”

Maurice King and his Wolverines, 1950s. Elbert Langford, dms Lou Barnett, tnr Beans Bowles, bari Russell Green, tpt Clarence Sherrill, bs. King kept his band sounding the same, despite personnel changes.

In order to achieve his goals, King worked methodically with his men, encouraging and teaching them. As Beans Bowles recalled to King’s son Evans: “He was the one who made me the musician I am today. He asked me to join the Wolverines. From then on, he taught me daily and nightly. He showed me how to write music.” Bowles pauses.  Then adds, “He didn’t ‘show me’, he made me do it and then he showed me what was wrong. He’d make me work it out myself. And he taught me logic — taught me how to think.”

King’s arrangements were so effective in highlighting the acts that the Wolverines were often overlooked. However, music aficionados knew how good King’s band was, and a 1952 article in the Michigan Chronicle claimed “…Maurice King’s is one of the city’s most underrated bands…partly because it is a showband.”

By 1962, the Flame was near the end of its run.

Trumpeter Johnny Trudell, just out of his teens, subbed occasionally at the Flame and served as King’s music copyist. They became close friends, and Trudell has fond memories of King.  After King’s sons went out on their own, Trudell and King got even closer.

“He was an elegant bandleader, more like Duke Ellington,” Trudell told me. “Everything was meticulous: his dress, his custom made shoes, his custom made everything. Total class, man. He was a great arranger, an orchestrator in the same sense as Benny Carter, (Fletcher) Henderson. He didn’t need a piano, he just wrote the scores. As a saxophonist he was somewhere in the mix with Teddy Buckner, Earl Bostic, Johnny Hodges, Louis Jordan. Good saxophone player, great intonation. He could play everything he wrote. I learned a lot about my approach to bandleading from him. He was almost like a father to me.” 

Johnny Ray, King, and ?. Courtesy Evans King

Artists like Billie Holiday (appropriately, the first “name” vocalist to play the Flame), T-Bone Walker, Wynonie Harris, Sarah Vaughan, to name only a few, appeared at the Flame. Johnny Ray got his ‘big break’ there. He lived with the King’s for six months and never forgot Maurice’s kindness or his superb arrangements.

Ziggy Johnson shows a chorus line how to “do it” at Broad’s Club Zombie. A good choreographer could put a show “over” and Ziggy was the best. He produced shows in Chicago, St. Louis, Manhattan, and L.A. Author’s collection

The tightly-structured show at the Flame, usually fashioned by veteran showbiz producer Joe “Ziggy” Johnson, was an hour long and featured a headliner, one or two Detroit singers, a comedian, and sometimes dancers, or novelty acts too.  There were five shows on Friday and Saturday and three or four other nights.  The Flame seated 250 patrons, had a 100-foot bar with a “flash” motif and mirrors on three walls. The stage was located behind the bar at eye-level.“Man, everybody used to play there,” Bowles recalled to Lars Bjorn. “We had stage shows seven nights a week. We called it ‘Little Las Vegas’. The whole corner was lit up by the Flame.”

The club attracted a racially mixed crowd; customers from different Detroit strata felt comfortable there. Weeknights were dominated by Detroit’s sportin’ life crowd  — pimps, prostitutes and numbers men. The sharp dressers and more conservative social elements came in on weekends. There were often lines of customers waiting to get in; entry was on a first come, first served basis — unless you laid some cash on the doorman. “That was one, and only one, of the little hustles going on,” Bowles told me with a laugh. “You could get anything at the Flame if you had enough money.”

Berry Gordy, just beginning his career as a songwriter in the mid-1950s, offered a wide-eyed look at the John R music scene in his autobiography, To Be Loved.

All the beautiful people came to life at night — the sharpest-dressed black and white people I had ever seen — jewelry flashing, beautiful furs — something else…John R Street was jumping with clubs like Sunny Wilson’s Garfield Lounge, the Chesterfield Lounge and, nearby, the Frolic Show Bar. But where you’d usually find me was down the street on the corner of John R and Canfield at the most popular of all, the Flame Show Bar. The top acts performed on a stage built right into the bar.”

Gordy’s sister Gwen owned the photo concession at the Flame. She introduced Berry to Flame manager Al Green, who had King and several budding artists, like LaVern Baker, Johnny Ray and Jackie Wilson, signed to personal contracts.  Wilson recorded some of Gordy’s earliest efforts, like “Reet Petite” and “To Be Loved”.  Gordy was impressed with King and later brought he and Beans Bowles to Motown.

AFM Local 5 had no Black elected officials during the 1950s.

King took on extra work during his Flame years. Clarence Jr. recalls him getting arranging work after headliners at the Flame “would hear him with that seven piece band sounding like a twenty piece band.” He wrote the music for, and conducted Powell Lindsay’s production “This is Our America”. King also wrote a musical score for 20th Century Fox and further flexed his composing muscles by writing a ballet.  He ran for the AFM Local 5 Board of Directors in 1958, an era when there were no Black elected officers. King finished dead last, and fellow African-American Hank Warren came in twelfth in a field of fourteen.

Poster for one of King’s side projects, This is our America.

By 1961, changing musical tastes, the inexorable rise of television, and continually increasing salaries of headline entertainers combined to bring the Show Bar era in Detroit to a close. When King finally left the Flame in 1962, he was replaced with an organ trio led by Detroit saxophonist George Benson that included future Motown bandleader Earl Van Dyke. The Flame hung on until 1963. The site is now a parking garage.

King got a job across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario at the Metropole Supper Club, but it was like night and day compared to the Flame. The Metropole brought in national acts and used a 10 or 11-piece “commercial” band to back them up. King’s job was Music Director, conductor and arranger, but he didn’t have direct control over personnel; the Canadian musician’s union had quota requirements and he was forced to use musicians he didn’t select. One can imagine Maurice’s chagrin with the situation.

After the Flame crashed & burned, King went South-to Windsor, Ontario, Canada. He was handed the reins of a ten-piece band, but management hired the musicians. Maurice remained several months. Detroit Free Press, April 1, 1963.

King also took on the role of Music Director at the Fox Theatre, a position he held for six years; Elvis Presley (making his first Detroit appearance, in 1956) was among the many entertainers accompanied by the Fox orchestra. As if all of this activity wasn’t enough to occupy his time, Maurice hosted the locally produced and broadcast “Man on the Street” radio program.  He’d conduct impromptu interviews on a range of topics with ordinary people.

“Man on the Street” started with two interviewers; five months later King was in charge. Detroit Free Press, October 23, 1955.

King, the provider was always involved with money-making projects.  His family lived well because of King’s many talents, but he never spent much time with them. “Even when he was in town, Maurice wasn’t home very much,” Clarence Jr. recalls. “Maurice King never cut grass, never parked a car, never cooked a meal. He did it all with music.” King was a respected – and feared – figure in his children’s lives; he was the boss, even though he wasn’t around.  “My brother and sister wouldn’t drink or smoke in front of Maurice,” claims Clarence Jr.  “My mom and I weren’t afraid of him – we idolized him.  My mom’s attitude shaped our attitude towards Maurice.  He was never there.”

Clarence Jr. became his dad’s confidant, book keeper, and occasional sub at the Flame. As he puts it, “I was reared to be Maurice King Jr. I had my role model living in the same house…I got a saxophone and an instruction book for Christmas when I was 11,” he continues. “Maurice came back from Europe with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm a year later and by then I could play. I’d heard him give so many lessons, I knew how to do everything but blow the horn.”

Maurice  seldom went to family gatherings; if he stopped by, he’d sit outside in his car.

“He’d stay in his car,” his nephew, Odell Waller, told me. “To see Uncle Maurice, you went outside and got in his car. He wouldn’t budge. He’d sit almost sideways and lean against the door of his big Chrysler. It was kind of like paying homage to him, I guess.”

King often conducted business in his car, which served as his mobile office and, perhaps, his throne.  King was a Chrysler man – he bought large, comfortable cars, always.  I met him on several occasions in various parking lots.  We’d sit in his New Yorker and listen to tapes of his band at the Flame.  He was always calm and would patiently re-explain situations to me if he felt I hadn’t ‘got it’.

By 1963, Berry Gordy had established Motown Records as a major force in the entertainment industry, and he hired Maurice King.

“I was the Musical Director of Artist Development”, King recalled. “I taught them (the vocal groups) how to phrase. I arranged their music; I arranged songs for them. I taught them how to blend. I collaborated with their choreographer, did a lot of their staging. I didn’t teach them any dance steps, but I suggested a few to the choreographer (Cholly Atkins) sometimes.”

Johnny Trudell, whom Maurice brought into the Motown fold, summed up King’s contribution thusly: “Maurice brought sophistication and class to Motown.”

King had a reputation at Motown as a father figure, and he spent more time with the Motown acts than with his family – Eddie Mae raised their children.   Maurice was a stickler for appointment times — no group or singer would dare to turn up late for a session with Mr. King. His lessons were taken seriously and appreciated. “He was a part of our longevity,” Gladys Knight told Evans. She first met Maurice in 1956 when he brought Gladys, then age twelve, to Detroit to sing in a Powell Lindsay production.

“He taught us the things that would help us to stay out here, the small things like how we got up in the morning, how we responded to people,” said Knight. “And he kept track of our appearances”.

King, known as Motown’s music troubleshooter, whipped many a road band into shape and occasionally conducted in the studio. Clarence Jr. recalls how his father created arrangements for Motown’s vocalists.

“He had one of those silver Panasonic tape recorders. He’d catch those groups with their little rhythm sections….couldn’t read a note as big as a house, didn’t know theory, but had the ‘stuff’. He could record that, listen to it, and create an arrangement for an eighteen-piece orchestra with the feel of what they had played. The music was very, very difficult.”

Trumpeter Gordon Stump, then a first-call theater musician, worked for King many times at Spinners performances. He recalled King’s music — and his method of maintaining order during rehearsals.  King was of average height with a large belly, but he exuded an aura of power and authority.

“Except for the people who were closer to his age, no one called him ‘Maurice’. It was always ‘Mr. King’. That struck me…it wasn’t something he demanded, it was something that happened because of respect. He was a disciplinarian, and he expected professional deportment.  I remember at Pine Knob… the drummer, who wasn’t a local musician, he was a huge guy, he was just burned out, tired, and the air conditioning wasn’t working in his room,” continues Stump. “And he started whining. Maurice made his way through the musicians to him and he took the drummer’s hands, bent his fingers back and brought him right down to his knees. Maurice told him to watch his tone of voice, and the guy said, ‘I’m sorry Mr. King, it’ll never happen again.’ And my mouth just dropped open.”

Because his music was especially difficult for saxophonists, King would always challenge the reed section before rehearsal.

“The first thing that he’d say would be that they can’t play his music,” Stump remembers. “And they would say that they could. It was very much a joke, but he’d challenged them. And it would be a problem if a saxophone player wasn’t used to that style of double-time sixteenth notes. It’s the kind of thing you’d see if you studied Etudes in college. To see that in a jazz band?…if you’re used to playing Glenn Miller and Dorsey stuff, which is all swing eighth notes, and you’re seeing these runs of sixteenth notes with sixteenth rests, you’d be in deep trouble. If he sensed a weakness in a chair, he would really embarrass them. Because he wanted it right. It was kind of a fun thing for him to let everyone else know that this person just couldn’t play his stuff. I guess, if you couldn’t play his stuff, it would make him feel good. It wasn’t mean-spirited, it was just…he was good.”

Gladys Knight and the Pips. Knight is one of the few vocalists King respected.

King loved musicians, period. He respected the time and effort it took to play an instrument well. Clarence Jr. recalls Maurice walking out of his way to give some paper money to a lone street guitarist, commenting to his son, “musicians take care of each other.” King did not consider vocalists to be musicians, and very few of the many singers he worked with earned his respect.

The Spinners

Maurice continued his association with Gladys Knight, and the Spinners, after Motown left town. The Spinner’s hired King full-time as music director. Spinner Bobbie Smith, who still refers to King as “Mr. King”, recalls King’s approach to his music: “The arrangements was very complex…and a lot of musicians couldn’t play ‘em. And Mr. King didn’t allow no mistakes. If you couldn’t play it, you was out!” “You see,” he continues, explaining their performance strategy, “back in the (late) 60s, early 70s, the Spinners had high-performance arrangements. Like, we didn’t really have ‘hit’ records, so he arranged our ‘opener’, ‘cause you got to be strong getting on and off stage. And, like, we had big arrangements, great dance steps on it, and that’s where Mr. King and Cholly Atkins came into play. That type of stuff put the Spinners ahead of people who had ‘hit’ records.”

King created custom charts for the Spinners for twenty years. Detroit Free Press, January 18, 1981

Maurice King summarized his relationship with the group.

“I am their Musical Director, conductor, arranger,” King told me.  “I do all their charts.” The Spinners were preparing for an appearance with the San Diego Symphony Orchestra, and King was excited at the prospect of writing arrangements for the fifty-six strings at his disposal. King loved string arrangements by Don Costa and Nelson Riddle, but he had “my own little ideas” and always arrived at a unique sound and style.

King’s flamboyant attire was also an asset.

“I think one of his outfits was a turquoise tuxedo,” recalls Stump. “People in Detroit know their artists really well, and when they saw that huge turquoise tuxedo come out on stage, they would just start screamin’.  Because they knew that soon after he showed up, the stars would be there.”

King started to cut back on his activities during the 1980s. He put his alto away for good because his intonation was off in certain registers and it affected his three dogs; they would cry when he played certain notes.

“If it had just been one dog I probably wouldn’t have thought too much of I,” he said. “People don’t realize that about dogs, they respond to vibrations, and it was hurting their ears.”

The Times They are Achanging: The 1960s would soon kick the Flame Show Bar to the curb; teens danced to Wild, music, different to what their parents enjoyed. Detroit Free Press, December 29, 1961.

He kept his hand in music through his association with the Spinners, and he mentored the popular rock ’n’ roll group “DC Drive”, teaching them deportment and offering music advice. Brian Pastoria, drummer with the group, told Evans King that “He made us understand and realize a lot about music and life. He heard what we were doing right from the get-go.”

King had projects, like composing a piece for the Detroit Symphony, a logical outgrowth of Maurice’s interest in tone colors and blends. Gordon Stump recalls hearing about “The Detroit Suite” an extended work that may have been completed but hasn’t been performed.   Another vision King hoped would materialize was an LP featuring Duke Ellington’s music (arranged by Maurice) on one side and King’s music on the other. “I wanted to call it The King meets The Duke,” he recalled with a chuckle. Unfortunately, the record company King approached “couldn’t see past their nose” and his idea never came to fruition.

Morris Wasserman (Flame owner) celebrated King’s birthday each year.

Maurice continued his music activities but he foundered after Eddie Mae’s death in 1988.  King always supported his family financially (he put Clarence Jr. and Karen through college) but wasn’t around often enough to be an effective father.  He depended upon Eddie Mae to manage their money, raise their children and take care of his needs.  He didn’t have the necessary survival skills, like cooking and money management, and didn’t seem to be interested in acquiring them – that would take him away from his music.

Maurice wed his longtime friend Nellie Foreman just a few months before his own death on December 18, 1992. “Maurice died because he just got tired of living. He just stopped eating,” claims Clarence Jr.. “He did it his way. He did everything his way.”

His funeral was packed with people he’d worked with, helped, or supported in some type of musical activity. They’d come to pay their last respects to the King of Detroit music.


  • 1 Maurice mentioned meeting Jimmy Blanton while he was a student at Tennessee A&I State College. Blanton is seven years younger, but King remained in the area until about 1938.
  • 2 email from Jac Cooper to Jim Gallert, 1998


  • Maurice King, interview by Jim Gallert, 1986, conversations, 1986-1990.
  • Gordon Stump, interview by Jim Gallert, 1988
  • Beans Bowles, interview by Lars Bjorn,
  • Clarence King, interview by Jim Gallert, 1999.
  • Evans King, conversations with Jim Gallert, 1997-2000.
  • Johnny Trudell, interview by Jim Gallert, 2000.
  • Odell Waller, conversations with Jim Gallert, 2000.

Additional information about Maurice King may be found at 

Maurice King On Record

King’s arrangements were dynamic, audacious works that played a significant role in establishing the Flame as a major entertainment spot.  King bemoaned the fact that his Flame Show Bar band was never given a chance to record some of their better material.

The Michigan Chronicle cited Pennies From Heaven, Indiana, What’s New and Three Little Words as good examples of Wolverine performances, but Maurice didn’t get the chance to record jazz material. The band’s opening theme was a swinging arrangement of My Old Flame, but this never made it on wax either.  The Wolverines did record with Johnny Ray and LaVern Baker, among others.

He cut three sessions for Columbia and Okeh under his own name in the early 1950s, which display the R&B side of his band very effectively; they’re examples of early rock n’ roll.

Make Love To Me is a souped-up and swinging arrangement of the early jazz standard “Tin Roof Blues” with the interestingly named Putney Nails taking vocal honors. (Maurice would chuckle any time I brought his name up, but wouldn’t otherwise comment) The band really swings and Bowles pumps out a hot baritone sax solo.

Make Love To Me, vcl Putney Nails
This is a Maurice King arrangement. It’s audacious, attractive, and attention-getting.

He arranged numbers for pianist Todd Rhodes’ fine Jump band, including the excellent “Prelude In C# Minor”, and many numbers for Detroit chanteuse Kitty Stevenson (mother of Motown’s Mickey), including “Make It Right” and “It Ain’t Right”, both of which she recorded with Todd Rhodes.  Maurice was a prolific arranger, and many of his works were doubtless recorded by other pop artists. 

King’s work with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm is currently in print.

Maurice loved this band. He developed them into a first rate orchestra. Twenty years later, he worked the same magic for Berry Gordy at Motown records.

The excellent self-titled video documentary of the band, as well as several three-minute “Soundies” made by them are on YouTube. 

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