FREE PRESS MUSIC WRITER
Friends painted a portrait of saxophonist Thomas
(Beans) Bowles as a gentle giant of Detroit's
music scene on the eve of his funeral today.
Bowles, who died last week at age 73 after a long
battle with cancer, was remembered Friday as a
man whose musicianship, professionalism, warm
heart and historic work in the studio and front
office at Motown Records made him the spiritual
father of Detroit's jazz scene.
"He would always tell me, 'Man, you can be as
great as you want to be,' " remembers Marcus
Belgrave, the international trumpet star who has
lived in Detroit since the 1960s. "That helped me
when I was struggling. It gave me that lift that I
Bowles died last week at age 73 after a long
battle with cancer. Funeral services are at 11 a.m.
today at Central United Methodist Church, 23 E.
Adams. A band led by longtime Bowles associate
Teddy Harris Jr. will perform during a family hour
at 10 a.m.
Bowles was not a flashy soloist, and he certainly
wasn't a household name such as Stevie Wonder,
Marvin Gaye and the other Motown stars whose
records he graced with his saxophone and flute
work. But if most people didn't know Bowles by
name, they knew him by sound.
He wrote the melody for the smash hit that
launched Wonder's career, "Fingertips Pt. 2," and
his smooth flute or resonant baritone sax added
his personality to Gaye's "What's Goin' On," the
Supremes' "Baby Love" and Martha and the
Vandellas' "Heat Wave."
Motown insiders say that Bowles was an unsung
hero behind the scenes during the early days of
Berry Gordy's company, when Motown was less
an empire than an experiment. It was Bowles who
originated the idea of the Motortown Revue,
which took Motown's young talent on the road,
spurring record sales and jump-starting careers.
In the early '60s, Gordy brought Bowles into his
fledgling company in the artist management
division, where he mentored dozens of the label's
young stars -- Wonder, the Supremes, Martha
Reeves, the Temptations, the Marvelettes and
Gladys Knight. Bowles chaperoned their tours,
taught them the ropes of show business and how
to behave on the road.
"I called him a mother hen for the girls and a father
figure for the boys," said Esther Gordy Edwards,
founder of the Motown Historical Museum.
Bowles -- nicknamed String Bean, later Beans,
because of his lanky, 6-foot-5 frame -- was born
in South Bend, Ind. He took up the clarinet at
about the age of 9 and was working professionally
as a saxophonist at age 16. He came to Detroit in
1944 to attend Wayne State University. He later
toured with such musicians as Illinois Jacquet, Bill
Doggett and Lloyd Price.
In the 1960s, Bowles led a Detroit band called the
Swinging Dashikis, which often backed up
Motown acts. He also served as chairman of the
Graystone Jazz Museum in Detroit.
"He had one of the most unique baritone sounds
you'll ever hear," Belgrave said. "It was so rich.
He could light up a band with his sound. It was
like his personality."
MARK STRYKER can be reached at