First in an Occasional Series:
What Poor Looks Like: The spirit and struggles of people getting by
Once, they were all young together, Margaret, her brother John, and a blind neighborhood kid named Stevie Judkins – who wore pants that, Margaret recalls, “never reached his ankles.” His mother would drop Stevie at their small house on 25th Street on Detroit’s west side, and while John played guitar, Margaret would teach Stevie piano chords.
“He played a lot with one finger, and I showed him how to use two hands to make it sound better,” she says. “After that, all he wanted to do was music. He said if he could beat me playing piano one day, that would be the best thing in the world.”
The blind kid grew up to be Stevie Wonder, and he would beat Margaret at the piano and, you could say, pretty much everything else. Wonder, now 64, is an internationally famous recording star, has 22 Grammys, more than 30 Top 10 hits, owns or owned luxury homes on both coasts, and boasts a net worth reportedly in excess of $100 million.
Meanwhile, Margaret and John (who was Wonder’s earliest musical partner) still live together in the house on 25th Street, a decaying, one-bathroom structure that is slowly being reclaimed by the earth. Weeds and brush grow high, grass has overtaken what used to be sidewalk, and inside the dark, largely windowless interior, small flowers are growing up through a hole in the bathroom floor, where a raccoon recently burrowed inside and “about scared me to death,” Margaret recalls.
The house, rotted by any standard, is all Margaret Terry, 72, and John Glover, 66, say they can afford, living on the meager fixed incomes of Social Security checks. In this way, they are similar to thousands of other seniors in Detroit. But they have been robbed five times, Margaret says, “at least twice because people think we got money on account of we know Stevie Wonder.” Their plastic blinds are always shut, she says, “because they shoot guns around here.” An extension cord hangs across the ceiling, borrowing electricity from one place to the next. The walls are cheap paneling, the water only works in the bathroom sink, a broken boiler is in the middle of the kitchen and there is barely room to walk amid suitcases, boxes and plastic bags of clothes, the result of John moving back eight years ago, after his place was robbed while he attended a funeral.
This is what poor looks like in Detroit.
But so is this. In the rear of the house is a cramped room stuffed with John’s keyboards, guitars and memorabilia. And resting high on a wooden plank is a gold record for the song “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be In My Show),” a No.1 hit in the 1970s for Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr.
Baby, come as you are
With just your heart
And I’ll take you in…
You wrote that song, Glover is asked?
“Yeah,” he replies, softly. “I wrote it.” He points to a shelf of old albums, by artists as varied as the Jackson 5, Tom Jones, the Supremes, and Donny and Marie.
“Wrote for all of them, too.”
Meanwhile, sitting in the outer room on a faded couch, her graying hair braided long and hanging halfway down her sweatshirt, Margaret recalls a record she once made in her younger days called “This Will Never Do.” She has no copies anymore. (“I got nothing to play it on anyhow.”) But you can search it on the Internet and hear her sweet, lovely voice singing a soulful tune, with John on guitar and what he claims is a preteen Stevie Wonder playing the drums.
Once they were all young together, three musical Detroit kids. The piano they gathered around, a Wurlitzer upright, still sits in the corner, yellowed and dusty. It was the launching pad for a Motown legend.
But that rocket took off long ago.
“I was hoping we could sell it,” Margaret says now, her hands clasped in front of her. “I don’t know who would want it, but if someone would – you know, a piano Stevie Wonder learned to play on? – maybe it could help us.”
This is what poor looks like in Detroit: a city population a third of what it once was, an unemployment rate of 16% and 42% of its residents – including Margaret Terry and John Glover – living below the poverty line.
But those are just numbers. Numbers don’t reflect seven decades in one house. Numbers don’t speak of history, hardship, slipped opportunities or cruel timing. Numbers don’t detail the roller-coaster lives of those left standing in the shadows of Motown.
Stevie Wonder once wrote the lyrics “living just enough for the city.”
Here is one such tale.
Stevie on bongos, John on guitar
“We did somersaults,” John Glover recalls. He is telling of the day in 1961 that his cousin Ronnie White, one of Smokey Robinson’s Miracles, brought a 14-year-old John and an 11-year-old Stevie Wonder (then Stevie Judkins, his estranged father’s last name) to Motown Records to meet the legendary Berry Gordy Jr. According to Glover – and numerous written accounts – the pair was signed as an act, although history rarely speaks of the “other” kid in the room. Even Glover knows “they were really interested in Stevie, not me.”
But in a 1977 interview with Rock Around the World newspaper, Stevie Wonder recalled, “Through a very close friend of mine, whom I grew up with, I had the pleasure of meeting Ronnie White of the Miracles. My friend, John Glover, was a cousin of Ronnie White…. John and I had formed a group called Steve and John. I would play bongos and John played guitar. I’d sing and John would play and do some of the harmonies with me…. We did ÃÂOnce Upon a Time’ and ÃÂWhy Do Fools Fall In Love.’… I used to love to do imitations of Jackie Wilson…. I used to do all kinds of flips and stuff.”
It was those “flips” – the somersaults – and snippets of various songs Stevie and John played on guitar, bongos and harmonica that wowed Gordy, Motown’s founder, that day.
“I remember the Supremes were in another studio,” Glover recalls, “and they came in on a break and watched us, too.”
If not for Glover bringing his blind friend to his cousin, who knows whether Stevie Judkins would ever have become Stevie Wonder?
Days later, the two boys each signed a contract with Motown.
It was the last time they were ever at parallel positions.
For Margaret, bad luck and missed chances
What happened in the decades since to John Glover and Margaret (Glover) Terry is a sad and too-common story of missed chances, mismanaged money, family woes and plain bad luck.
Margaret’s record never took off, because, she says, “the guy who was managing me said he wrote the song, but he didn’t really write it. And he had to pull it ’cause the guy who really wrote it said he was gonna kill him and me.”
Six years older than John and nine years older than Stevie, Margaret didn’t have the time or patience to wait for a break. She drifted away from music and took various jobs to pay her bills – and kick money back to her family, six brothers and sisters, an upholsterer father and a nurse’s aide mother, all of whom, at one time, shared the single bathroom, 1,100-square-foot house on 25th Street.
“We slept in bunk beds or out on the couches, and my mother taught us how to make do if the toilet was occupied,” Margaret says. When asked to elaborate, she says, “Buckets, bags, you name it.”
A high school dropout at the time (she later earned her GED at night school), Margaret followed her mother, Ruth, into working at a nursing home. She married a man who went to jail a few months later and quickly divorced him, never even moving out of the house. On Christmas Day of 1971, her father slipped on the steps of her sister’s home and “cracked his head like an egg.” He died that afternoon. Margaret quickly became the family caregiver, a role that has defined and swallowed her ever since, tending to her grieving mother, a bipolar sister, eventually her mother’s second husband.
“No matter what I tried,” she says, “this house kept pulling me back. It was never gonna let me go.”
Even when she married a second time, in 1980, the ceremony was held in the front room, next to the piano that she and Stevie Wonder once sat at together. Margaret and her new husband tried moving in with his sister a few miles away, but within a year, they were back at 25th Street, sleeping on a twin bed, tending to Margaret’s sister who had returned home with seven children.
She has been here ever since, never leaving 25th Street – through the death of her mother, who passed away moments after giving Margaret a hug at the dinner table, through the death of five siblings, four sisters and a brother, through the death of her second husband, Reginald Terry, who was wheelchair-bound the last years of his life.
Now the house is full of ghosts. The piano reminds Margaret of the career she never had. The bedroom reminds her of her father. The kitchen reminds her of her mother. The front room reminds her of her difficult second marriage, which lasted 22 years and included two miscarriages and an often drug-addicted spouse.
Worst of all, she says, every month, the place reminds her that she doesn’t have enough money to keep it up. The leaking roof. The sagging porch. Broken appliances. Rats that come in under the walls. It is a 1900s house with 1900s issues. And with no savings and no real work anymore, she has few options but to grin and bear it, living just enough for the city.
“There were times in the last few years where I thought about a pint of whiskey and a shotgun, I was just that depressed,” she admits. “No water. No heat. Everything collapsing or rotting. This is not a home. Don’t call this a home. It’s a shelter. It’s somewhere to get off the street.”
‘John was a real talent’
Her brother’s trajectory was even more dramatic. While his childhood bandmate (redubbed “Little Stevie Wonder”) was becoming a musical phenomenon, a teenage John Glover was cast aside at Motown. His contract wasn’t renewed and he separated from the label for a few years. Although his friendship with Wonder remained strong (“If he was at the Fox Theatre, I would play with him on those shows”), the soft-spoken Glover was afraid of going on the road. “I’m more of a homebody,” he says.
So while Wonder was releasing a string of hit songs in the middle-to-late 1960s (“I Was Made To Love Her,” “For Once in My Life,” “My Cherie Amour”), Glover gravitated toward songwriting.
In the 1970s, it finally paid off.
Often pairing with another Detroit writer named James Dean, Glover penned songs for the Supremes (“I Got Hurt Trying to Be the Only Girl in Your Life”), the Four Tops (“Walk With Me, Talk With Me, Darling”), Tavares (“That’s the Sound That Lonely Makes”), Johnny Bristol and Johnny Mathis (“Memories Don’t Leave Like People Do”) and, his biggest successes, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr., once of the 5th Dimension, who made “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be In My Show”) a No.1 hit in 1976 and “I Hope We Get to Love in Time,” also a Glover song, the title track of a million-selling album.
Glover attended the Grammy Awards. He met members of the Beatles. He placed songs on disco and funk albums, and while only a few became hits, he could still point to songs and say, “That one’s mine.”
“John was a real talent,” remembers Fred Bridges, 75, a longtime Detroit musician and producer and currently tour manager for the Four Tops. “He’d come around our studios with Stevie all the time. Everyone knew they were friends. And John played bass on some of our songs.
“Then I turned around, and he wrote that big hit, ÃÂYou Don’t Have to Be a Star.’ I didn’t know he had fallen on such hard times.”
All told, Glover wrote nearly 400 songs that were registered with BMI, and at least 80 that were recorded, from obscure artists like the Fellows to recognizable names like Jerry Butler, Tom Jones, the Jackson 5 and David Ruffin.
Copies of those records are collecting dust now in Glover’s overstuffed music room. He fingers through them slowly, trying to remember which songs on which albums were his.
The presumption is that he enjoyed a big income in royalties.
“Oh, yeah, I got royalties,” he says.
And what happened?
“Well, there was a lot of mess back in those days. And I never had no accountant. I never had no businesspeople around me. I never knew what was supposed to be coming or not.
“And the thing is, those publishing companies, they kept the money in their own family, you know?”
It is true, during the early days of rock ‘n’ roll and R&B, many artists and songwriters were denied fair royalties by record companies, publishers and producers who improperly changed copyrights or hid details about advances. Motown’s legacy is rife with lawsuits against it and Gordy, ranging from Martha Reeves to the famed songwriting team of Holland/Dozier/Holland, all claiming that money was intentionally diverted from its rightful recipients. Songwriters were limited to pennies per record back then, and complex publishing deals could steal away some of that.
“I know so many artists who seemed like they got to the top, but when they died, I had to put clothes on them in the casket,” Bridges says. “It’s horrible. But that’s the price for places like Motown being Motown.”
‘I had to take him in,’ Margaret says
As for Glover, a smiling, round-faced man with a high, genteel voice, there were other problems: “I spent cash for everything. A house. Cars. I was real generous to everybody. And, you know, when the money is coming in, you think like it’s gonna keep coming.”
He admits to bad investments in potential studios, trusting numerous partners who took advantage of his easygoing attitude and piling up debts for child support of his four daughters. He also “was a mess” when it came to taxes, seeing as royalties put the onus on the recipient for reporting. In time, his bad record-keeping landed him in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service, and years of bad accounting – or non-accounting – resulted in fines and debts that effectively wiped out any savings.
“For about 10 years, anything I made went straight to the government,” he recalls. “Even today, whatever gets to me is so small, it’s hardly anything.”
He hit rock bottom around 2006, after his house on Cloverlawn in Detroit was robbed while he was in Tennessee, attending the funeral of his brother. The thieves took most of the possessions he had left, including his equipment. When people called asking him to produce something, “I’d make something up, tell ’em I was too busy or something. Because I didn’t have nothing left to play on.”
Once again, the house on 25th Street became a refuge. John contacted his sister, who always called him “Junior,” and by welcoming him back, she all but invoked the words of his most famous song:
You don’t have to be a star, baby
To be in my show…
“I had to take him in,” Margaret says. “It’s just the two of us left.”
That week, at age 58, when many people start thinking about retiring on their savings, Glover carried his bags of clothes back to the old rickety house where he, Margaret and Stevie Wonder once made music around a piano.
He has been there ever since.
When asked how much he has in his bank account today, Glover breaks into a loud laugh.
Don’t you have one?
“Yeah. I think I got $25 in it.”
But you’ve earned more than $1 million in royalties in your lifetime?
“Yeah. It was all stupid. People say I’m too nice. I trusted too many people.”
Are they right?
He forces a smile. “Yeah.”
He looks around at the piles of LPs, frayed album covers, fading photographs – and two gold records on a shelf.
“Sometimes, it’s like I never even did any of this.”
Broken pipes and holes in the roof
John and Margaret cannot shower in their house. The pipes froze and broke last November, and without the means to fix them, they must go to friends’ places to bathe. Once there were 96 homes on their block; now there are just five houses standing, three on one side, two on the other, one of them vacant, its door wide open; the rest of the street looks more like prairie than city. Margaret worries about crime, being so isolated. She haggles constantly with repair people to patch holes in the roof and floors.
Neither she nor her brother blame anyone else for their financial position. That doesn’t make it less precarious.
The two get by on monthly Social Security checks, John’s $813, Margaret’s $662 plus a $69 SSI supplement. This places each of them below the U.S. poverty line, the same as 21% of Detroit’s seniors.
Much of John’s money goes immediately to pay family and government debt. Margaret shops for the two of them at a food service outlet, using a Bridge Card. The most expensive thing she and John eat, she says, is chicken breasts, for which she pays $15 for 10 pounds. She buys “syrup rather than Kool-Aid, ’cause you can get a lot more to drink mixing syrup with water.”
She needs a hearing aid, but can only afford the cheapest one. By her memory, she hasn’t replaced a window in 20 years, hasn’t had a new piece of furniture in nine years and “can’t remember” the last time she was in a real restaurant. She fell behind on her property taxes and now owes more than $7,000.
“It might as well be $7 million,” she says.
John, meanwhile, spends most of his time in the cramped room that feels more like a closet, playing a keyboard given to him some years back by Wonder, and writing new songs he hopes could pay the bills. He is working with some younger singers, he says, and going to a Detroit studio periodically.
“He’s figuring if a record deal can come in, we’ll be able to get out of here,” Margaret says. “I sure hope so. I know he’s tired of me asking, “Did they call you about a record deal yet?'”
John sighs and smiles.
“She asks me every day.”
Childhood friends, adult realities
In a 2007 homecoming concert at Meadow Brook Music Festival, Wonder brought John and Margaret up on stage. To a wildly cheering crowd, he introduced them as his childhood friends and spoke of how he couldn’t wait to run to their house to play music. At one point, he handed the microphone to Margaret to say something, but “I was crying so bad, I was too emotional, so I pushed it back.”
Moments like that make people think Margaret and John are sharing the high life with Wonder. Nothing, they say, is further from the truth.
“Stevie is hard to get hold of,” says Margaret, who hasn’t spoken to him since that night. “We told him about the house, about being robbed, and he said a bunch of times we should move into his mother’s old place. But one time when we went over there, someone was already living in it. They kind of chased us away.”
John claims his old friend gave him money (“maybe $5,000”) after the robbery eight years ago, and has given him some keyboards over the years. He shies away from asking for too much help because, as Margaret says, “John loves Stevie. He doesn’t want to say anything bad. He figures Stevie will help eventually.”
Margaret is less patient. She shakes her head. “He ain’t helping us. We asked so many times.”
Calls to Stevie Wonder’s representatives for this story ultimately yielded a phone call to Wonder in Los Angeles from his agent, Brett Steinberg of Creative Artists Agency. Although not wishing to be directly quoted, Steinberg said Wonder expressed happiness that someone was bringing John and Margaret’s story to light, that he acknowledged their long friendship and that he had helped John in the past, but lost his number after the 2007 concert and hadn’t been able to contact him. He asked for (and was given) John and Margaret’s phone information.
Meanwhile, the yellow-keyed Wurlitzer still sits in the corner, a silent witness to days gone by. You don’t expect to find a piano that Stevie Wonder learned on rotting away on 25th Street. You don’t expect to find gold records in a house that could be condemned. You don’t expect a brother and sister who once bounced on bunk beds to still be living here, seven decades later, trying to hold the old place together.
But this is what poor looks like in Detroit. Once they were all young together, Margaret, John and Stevie, unaware that one of them would write “Living for the City” while the other two would play it out. The truth about living, especially in this city, is that there’s a person behind every statistic, and a story behind every song.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.