Turn It Down: Loud dispatches from Lansing’s music

Motown Record’s ‘Ich-I-Bon #1’ was inspired by an Owosso donut shop

Looking back at Nick and the Jaguar’s scorching 1959 surf instrumental sceneLooking back at Nick and the Jaguar’s scorching 1959 surf instrumental

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Motown Records will always be associated with its string of brilliant pop-infused R&B hits by The Supremes, The Temptations, The Miracles and a long roster of others. The sound founder Berry Gordy masterminded alongside Smokey Robinson defined a generation of ’60s youth and continues to inspire the hitmakers to this day.

However, the label veered from its formula a few times, especially during its infancy as an independently owned imprint. The classic example of a Motown one-off is “Ich-I-Bon #1,” a proto-surf rock instrumental by Nick and the Jaguars, a Pontiac-based trio. The only words heard on the scorching track is the group yelling ““Ich-I-Bon! … number one …” at the onset of the two-and-a-half-minute song. 

Released in August of 1959, months after Gordy launched Motown with a $800 loan, the single was issued via the label’s Tamla Records imprint. The pounding rocker mirrors the surf sounds of the legendary Dick Dale, though Dale wouldn’t release his debut record until 1962—three years after “Ich-I-Bon #1” was cut to vinyl at American Pressing Company. That pressing plant in (of all places) Owosso, Michigan is where all of the early Motown releases were pressed. Owosso residents recall seeing not only Gordy, but other Motown stars at various diners across their farming town. Occasionally, Gordy tasked the still emerging artists with making the three-hour roundtrip drive to pick up boxes of freshly manufactured records at the plant. 

With a long discography of releases being recorded nonstop, the Motown crew became quite familiar with the small cow town. It was hit after hit, so many trips were made. Just one of the go-to Owosso spots for Gordy was Itchi-Bon Donut Shop, located on 527 S. Washington St. in downtown Owosso. 

Known for its high-calorie menu that included French Crullers, Banana Fluffee pastries, Peanut Butter Cream Bismarks and Maple Cream Filled Triangles, Itchi-Bon was the popular morning breakfast hangout for area construction workers and other chatty locals, but it was also the perfect bakery for Gordy to grab some coffee and a sugary snack before his jaunt back to the Motor City. 

The smell of freshly baked donuts and cigarette smoke that often wafted through the air at Itchi-Bon must’ve struck a nerve with Gordy because, in the fall of 1959, he suggested Nick & the Jaguars name their freshly cut single after that very bakehouse—hence the slightly obnoxious group-yell at the start of the tune. 

Nick & the Jaguars, which comprised guitarists Johnny Ferro and Marv Weyer, also featured drummer Nick Ferro, who is credited as the writer of “Ich-I-Bon #1” on the yellow Tamla label. A year prior, the group backed The Ferros, led by Johnny Ferro, on “Come Home My Love,” a doowop single released via Hi-Q Records. Then, Nick Ferro’s father Gus introduced his son’s trio to Gordy, who was still finding his footing as a label head. 

Soon after his short-lived surf-rock foray, Gordy would stick closely to his hit formula, and understandably so. It became the sound of a generation, alongside The Beatles. But these one-off singles are always fun to explore, especially when it’s so drastically different from the Four Tops and Mary Wells. “Ich-I-Bon #1” is an auditory document of a young Gordy fumbling about and searching for his niche in the music business. That said, iconic labels aside, this instrumental is remarkable. Its energy is primal yet cinematic. You can almost hear the guitars and saxophone booming across a Quentin Tarantino flick. 

As for The Jaguars, they were headliners across the Detroit area for a bit, but dissolved not long after their Motown venture (which also included a single under the name The Biscaynes on Gordy’s Ridge Records subsidiary). Beyond that, the late guitarist Marv Weyer went on to become a notable Michigan rockabilly artist. 

Today, Itchi-Bon Donut Shop is long gone, but Jack White’s Third Man Records is helping to keep the song alive. In 2015, the label partnered with Universal Music to bring Tamla’s classic early Motown records back to vinyl. “Ich-I-Bon #1,” the mighty odd one out, was chosen in that series of seven 45s. 

Also, as a side note, on Oct. 30, 1972, American Pressing Company inexplicably burned to the ground. The massive late-night blaze coincided with Motown’s big move to California and the end of their mutually lucrative partnership with the vinyl plant. It’s a fiery, mysterious end to the perplexing Owosso-Motown connection. 

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