Suzee Ikeda Went From Motown Artist to Exec, Guiding Michael Jackson’s Early Career
In a rare interview, trailblazing AAPI music exec Suzee Ikeda talks about her start as a Motown recording artist and her special bond with Michael Jackson.
After the Temptations and Four Tops nailed their sets early in the “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever” TV recording in 1983, Shelly Berger, who managed both acts, was walking around backstage puffing out his chest. “I’ve got to be the big star of the night,” he told himself.
Then he encountered Suzee Ikeda, who said softly: “You haven’t seen Michael yet.”
Ikeda, who had worked with Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 as a Motown creative assistant, could see that Jackson’s moonwalk performance that night in Pasadena, Calif., would “break television altogether,” as Berger recalls. Afterwards, Berger sought her out and admitted she was right. In her unassuming way, Ikeda had a way of knowing the facts and seeing the future.
Ikeda, now 73, never made enough noise to be one of the iconic soul-music label’s storied employees: She didn’t have founder Berry Gordy Jr.‘s star power, of course, or the flash of her colleague Suzanne De Passe, who had similarly started out as a Motown creative assistant. She didn’t write “I’ve got sunshine/on a cloudy day” and she didn’t play the bass riff on “Bernadette.” But she held 11-year-old Michael Jackson‘s head when he sang at a microphone so his dancing didn’t wreck the vocal, and she bluntly told Lionel Richie his original “Endless Love” recording had “too much bottom” and insisted he re-do it before it became a 1981 smash with Diana Ross.
But in her way, Ikeda helped keep Motown running for almost 20 years, working in studio after studio with the Jackson 5, the Temptations and others, often with her boss, the late producer Hal Davis, writing down every detail in her cursive script. “She had the responsibility of herding cats to get an album out,” says Nancy Leiviska, the label’s VP of video operations from 1970 to 1984. “She had to be tough. All the responsibility of the deadlines and the delivery was on her.”
Ikeda doesn’t talk much to the press. Partly, this is because it’s difficult to reach her. She doesn’t provide an email address, refuses to text and changes her number every few years. Told this story would be part of Billboard‘s Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month coverage, she pushes back on the entire concept of having such a month: “I think it’s unnecessary, I really do.” She’s not a fan of the label “Asian-American,” preferring instead the outdated term “Oriental.”
She believes she was the first Asian-American employee at Motown and one of the first in the entire record industry; by the early ’70s, Japan’s music business had 200 publishing firms and a concert-promoter infrastructure that would soon help make global stars of the Jackson 5, among many others, but Japanese-American employees were rare at U.S. labels big and small. “I was one of the first ones — or the only ones — to have a position like I did,” she says.
Ikeda’s parents, both Japanese-Americans, defined themselves, in different ways, after their internment experiences during World War II. Her Seattle-born father, Owen, enlisted in the 442nd Infantry Regiment in the U.S. Army, a famous division known for its second-generation Japanese-American enlistees and an aggressive approach befitting its motto “go for broke.” (“They wanted to show the U.S. they were loyal to this country,” she says.) Her mother, from Los Angeles, was bitter that the government uprooted her family. “They took all their belongings. They got thrown into the middle of the desert — she talked about it all the time.”
Suzee’s mom told her, “Don’t let anything like that happen to you.”
She responded, “Oh, don’t worry. They’ll have to kill me first.”
Owen and Nancy Ikeda met after the war, in Arizona, and weren’t allowed to immediately return to the West Coast, so they moved to Chicago, where Suzee was born in 1947. Later, they moved to LA, where Owen worked as a truck driver and Nancy as a seamstress. They aspired for Suzee to attend school to be a teacher, but she turned out to have other talents — and ambitions.
At Garfield High School in LA, Ikeda played violin in the orchestra. A junior-high teacher, Arthur Freeman, took notice and connected Ikeda to his brother, Ernie, a Grammy-winning arranger for classics like Frank Sinatra‘s “Strangers In the Night.” The Freemans knew Ikeda could sing, and they arranged for her to audition at Capitol, Liberty and other top labels. Through the Freemans, Ikeda wound up sitting in on sessions — she witnessed Sinatra knocking out “Strangers,” live, in two takes. Like most American teens in the ’60s, she was a Motown fan, and she was especially excited to attend a Supremes session, although the trio did not show up that day to record their Christmas album. Instead, she met Davis, who invited her to call him.
“Once he said that, I didn’t care about any of the other auditions I lined up,” she recalls.
Ikeda was also pursuing a Hollywood career, with the help of her agent, Bessie Loo, who for decades represented Asian-American actors. She landed bit parts, but, she says, “mostly it was geisha girls or Chinese prostitutes.” She appeared in the Elvis Presley-Mary Tyler Moore 1969 comedy Change of Habit (“about some nuns or something,” she says) and a scorching-hot July commercial in which she played an eskimo in a bear suit with a Styrofoam igloo.
Meanwhile, with Motown’s Davis, Ikeda cut a demo version of the Lewis Sisters’ “Don’t Make Me Live Without Your Love,” and in April 1967, she met Motown’s hit songwriters Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland, the latter of whom signed her to a solo recording contract. She wound up recording Disney’s “Zip-a-Dee Doo-Dah” as a single, which came out in 1971, then Syreeta Wright’s “I Can’t Give Back the Love I Feel for You” in 1972. They were on the radio a few times, but didn’t click. “Unfortunately,” she recalls, “the better things are in the can.”
She could tell her career as an artist wasn’t going anywhere, but she hung around Motown producers and asked questions. Soon, Gordy noticed: “Look, I’ve got enough singers, but I don’t have anybody like you, who knows how to do all this stuff.” She accepted a fulltime job offer to be a creative assistant and work with Davis. That’s when she was assigned to the Jackson 5.
“We could talk to each other, because she wasn’t that much older than we were,” Marlon Jackson recalls, by phone from his home near Atlanta. “She still had a lot of kid left in her.”
Often, Ikeda advocated for the Jacksons’ own artistic instincts, even though Davis and Motown could be controlling and dominant. “There were times when we wanted to do certain things a certain way, and she would go to Hal Davis and talk to him about it,” Jackson says. “Sometimes she won our case for us: ‘Let’s try it,’ you know. There was some chemistry there.”
In two hours of phone interviews recalling her Motown years, as well as her later work with Richie, Jackson (during the History era in the mid-’90s) and others, Ikeda is gossipy and boisterous. She dishes about the time 11-year-old Michael, in the Motown studios, elbowed her in private areas she won’t mention (“I think you know what I’m talking about,” she says) and she admonished him with a stern “excuse me!” But she won’t tell everything. She mentions watching a recent CNN special on Marvin Gaye, and pauses to consider telling a vignette about the late superstar. Then she stops herself. “I have secrets that will go with me to the grave,” she says.
Ikeda had empathy for Michael Jackson and they bonded. They developed hand gestures and written notes. She still has the milk crate another studio employee set up so Michael could stand evenly with his older, taller brothers. She taught Michael that when he wanted to gossip about people at Motown, he had to pull the microphone out of the wall so the engineers in the booth couldn’t hear him — a decision that did not always go over well. “He asked me about different songs, who I thought a good songwriter was, who I didn’t think was good,” Ikeda recalls. “We would talk about whatever we had to talk about and plug it back in later.”
Ikeda occasionally provided demo vocals for Michael, and the rest of the group, because her trained voice was high enough to reach their registers. She encouraged Michael to learn to sing in his “false,” or falsetto, which he resisted, because as a brassy, powerful, child singer who could go two octaves higher than middle C, he didn’t need it. Years later, after the Jacksons had left Motown and grown-up Michael went solo with his 1979 classic Off the Wall, she heard “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” “Uh-huh,” was her first reaction. “He learned how to use it.”
Ikeda worked for Motown through just after the “Motown 25” special, for which she acted as a liaison between Motown executives and Jackson. She finally left when Jay Lasker took over the company in the early ’80s, when the late exec’s regime was emphasizing cut-out reissue recordings rather than signing and nurturing active artists. The Temptations and the Four Tops left in this period, and Ikeda didn’t like the label’s direction. Ikeda calls Lasker “The Repackaging King,” because, she says, he was “repackaging the same 10 songs over and over.”
After she left, in 1985, she worked with Richie for a while, mostly turning down the chance to work with pop stars she didn’t know. After meeting her during the Richie-produced sessions for his 1980 mega-hit “Lady,” Kenny Rogers “offered me an awful lot of money,” Ikeda says, but she didn’t know anything about country music so declined. Plus, her loyalties were always with Jackson. For a time during Jackson’s History sessions, it fell to Ikeda to field studio calls and personal visits from well-wishers such as George Lucas and Jeffrey Katzenberg.
After working on projects here and there over the past decade, including a short-lived Motown documentary project with Gordy before he shifted his focus to Broadway, Ikeda retired in roughly 2006. Musicians still ask her frequently to join them in the studio to listen to tracks, and she sometimes indulges them if she has time. She also has her Motown notes, which she shares with musicians so they can recall the details of sessions they played on — sometimes for their own curiosity, but also in case they need legal assistance. “She helped a lot of musicians in later years to recognize that they should also get paid,” says David T. Walker, a Motown session guitarist during the label’s Hollywood years in the ’70s. “She let people know what was going on. She wrote everything down.”
The key to Ikeda’s behind-the-scenes success was that despite her Motown title and experience, she started out as an artist. That gave her the ability to relate to pop stars. In addition to her organizational skills, she had the rare record-business ability to recognize what makes a hit.
“Berry Gordy would be in there mixing his 79th acetate, and her job was to follow up and say, ‘Well, did you mix No. 2 or No. 75?'” Leiviska says. “And she had an ear. She knew.”