“Fonce” Mizell: The Funky Fourth of the Corporation (1943 – 2011)
On Monday, July 11, 2011, songwriter/producer/musician Alphonso “Fonce” Mizell passed away at the age of 68. Mizell achieved much success throughout his career, and worked with a great many talented musicians. However, once word of his passing reached the Well-Dressed Headphone Addict, the first thing to come to mind was The Corporation; not the record label, Hog Records, he established with his brother Larry in the 1960’s; not the Sky High production company that he and Larry created to mold some of the best soul and contemporary jazz of the 1970’s. For our liner note fanatics and crate-digging followers, The Corporation is the group of songwriters who crafted the first – and biggest – hit records for a family quintet from Gary, Indiana.
Adept in multiple instruments, Fonce, along with his childhood friend Freddie Perren, sharpened his chops under the watchful eye of his Howard University instructor, jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd. Once arriving in California in the late 1960’s, fellow friend Deke Richards got him employed at Motown Records. In a pairing that can only be described as divine intervention, the three musicians were assigned with writing songs exclusively for the legendary label’s newest would-be stars, The Jackson 5. With Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr., making the group of writers into a quartet; three of the songs they’d write would become part of American music lore for over 40 years: “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” and “The Love You Save.” In addition to composing and arranging portions of each track, Fonce also played the infamous piano melody on “I Want You Back” and bass on the demo for “The Love You Save.” The four members called themselves “The Corporation,” and thus that’s who’s credited as the songwriters and producers of those records. Featuring infectious rhythms, flourishing strings, and lyrics that were equally youthful and wise, the three singles became instant smashes, all going number 1 in 1969 and 1970. By 1972, Fonce and the Corporation penned and produced arguably the most memorable songs in the Jackson 5’s Motown catalog: “Goin’ Back to Indiana,” “Mama’s Pearl,” “I Found That Girl,” “Maybe Tomorrow,” “It’s Great to Be Here,” and “Sugar Daddy.”
Has Fonce Mizell made other contributions to music outside of The Jackson 5? Absolutely. In remembrance, many have, and will mention, his 1970s’ productions, like Byrd’s “Think Twice,” L.T.D.’s “Love Ballad,” Edwin Starr’s Hell Up in Harlem soundtrack, Bobby Humphrey’s Satin Doll and Fancy Dancer LPs, and A Taste of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” all of them successful both in their own time and resurrected by a grateful generation of Hip Hop artists, DJ’s and producers. Yes, all this has contributed to his legacy, giving him legendary status in his own right. However, when I think of Fonce Mizell, I’ll remember him as a board member of The Corporation, and a proud parent to all those miracles sung by the Jackson 5. In fact, it’s only after hearing those projects from the likes of Byrd and Humphrey in retrospect that you begin to recognize Fonce’s contribution to The Corporation: understated, yet memorable percussion and colorful, exciting key changes. And while those J5 tracks all possessed a similar – for lack of a better term – formula, each one had its own unique personality, all catering to the harmonies of Michael, Jermaine, Jackie, Tito and Marlon so perfectly, that when the songs are played today, they sound as if the five brothers just walked out of the recording booth, with smoke still rising from James Jamerson’s bass and David T. Walker’s guitar. Not only will the aforementioned hits live on, but so will other superb album tracks like “Nobody,” “You Made Me What I Am Today,” “I Will Find a Way,” “If I Have to Move a Mountain,” and “I’m So Happy,” which were all just as full of funk, heart and prodigious power as the biggest hits Motown ever had. He’ll be in my heart whenever I think back to one special Christmas morning when I received the first four J5 albums on cassette tapes and experienced those songs for the first time, allowing them to absorb themselves into the pores of my subconscious and soul, where they’ll remain beyond the existence of me and all others who have gone through the same.
To Alphonso “Fonce” Mizell: May you rest in peace. Every time your opening piano glissando of “I Want You Back” jumps out of the stereo, we’ll be reminded that you will now live forever.