The Troy Street Observer

Mar 9, 1925: Gil Askey and the Motown Sound

Trumpeter, arranger, and producer Gil Askey was born in Austin, Texas on March 9, 1925. Askey was a short-timer in Boston, living here for less than two years in the late 1940s, but two musicians who were close to Askey spoke of his work at that time with great respect when I interviewed them for The Boston Jazz Chronicles. They were Sam Rivers and Eddie Logan, Askey’s fellow students at Boston Conservatory, and bandmates in the Jimmie Martin Orchestra.

Photo of Gil Askey
Gil Askey in 2002

Askey grew up in Austin—he was in high-school marching band with Kenny Dorham—and played in an Army Air Corps band during World War II. He came to the Boston Conservatory in 1946, and met Rivers, Logan, Gigi Gryce, and Martin. In Martin’s orchestra, Askey played trumpet alongside Joe Gordon and Lennie Johnson, and it was during that time that his talent as an arranger emerged. Askey left Boston in 1948 and returned to Texas to work in a territory band. A year later, he resumed his studies at the Harnett School of Music in New York.

Gil Askey’s Boston days were done. But his career in the 1950s included jazz work with Jimmy Scott and Lucky Thompson, and R&B with Buddy Johnson. In the mid-sixties, Askey arrived at Motown Records, where he became an architect of the Motown Sound and a prime mover behind the success of Gladys Knight, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson Five, and most famously, Diana Ross, with and without the Supremes. In 23 years at Motown, Askey served as writer, producer, arranger, artistic developer, and music director. He was nominated for the Academy Award for best film score for his work on Ross’s  Lady Sings the Blues. (He did not win. The Oscar in 1973 went to another arranger with Boston ties, Ralph Burns, for Cabaret.)

In the 1980s, Askey moved to Melbourne, Australia, where he still resides, and where he still teaches and mentors young musicians.

To hear what Askey was doing at Motown, try taking away the vocals. Here are the San Remo Golden Strings, Motown’s in-house string section, in 1965. Add Marvin Gaye and it would have gone gold.

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    • Thank you for letting me know, Bob. The people I spoke to held him in the highest respect, and they should name a street after him in Detroit to honor all the things he did for Motown. He was another unsung hero of popular music.

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