DETROIT is the poster child for urban blight in the United States, despite many attempts to overcome this negative imagery, and in some cases, a rather stark reality. It is a city which boasts a billion-dollar downtown development, ultramodern motor-manufacturing plants, some excellent museums and one of the nation’s biggest art galleries – but since the 1960s, media attention has dwelt instead on its huge tracts of urban wasteland, where for block after block there’s nothing but the occasional heavily fortified loan shop or unpleasant-looking grocery store. As of late, it is a city on the mend, and local business promoters point to the bustle around Greektown at night and the Motown Historical Museum as signs of a renaissance of sorts.
Founded in 1701 by Antoine de Mothe Cadillac, as a trading post for the French to do business with the Chippewa, Detroit was no more than a medium-sized port two hundred years later. Then Henry Ford, Ransom Eli Olds, the Chevrolets and the Dodge brothers began to build their automobile empires. Thanks to the introduction of the mass assembly line, Detroit boomed in the 1920s, but the auto barons sponsored the construction of segregated neighbourhoods and shed workers during times of low demand. Such policies created huge ghettos, resulting, in July 1967, in the bloodiest riot in the US in fifty years. More than forty people died and thirteen hundred buildings were destroyed. The inner city was left to fend for itself, while the all-important motor industry was rocked by the oil crises and Japanese competition. Today, though scarred and bruised, Detroit is not the mess some would have it, and suburban residents have started to return to the city’s festivals, theatres, clubs and restaurants.
The Motown sound
The Motown sound
The legend that is Tamla Motown started in 1959 when Ford worker and part-time songwriter Berry Gordy Jr borrowed $800 to set up a studio. From his first hit onward – the prophetic “Money (That’s What I Want)” – he set out to create a crossover style, targeting his records at white and black consumers alike.
Early Motown hits were pure formula. Gordy softened the blue notes of most contemporary black music in favour of a more danceable, poppy beat, with gospel-influenced singing and clapping. Prime examples of the early approach featured all-female groups like the Marvelettes (“Needle in a Haystack”), the Supremes (“Baby Love”) and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas (“Nowhere to Run”), as well as the all-male Miracles (“Tracks of My Tears”), featuring the sophisticated love lyrics of lead singer Smokey Robinson. Gordy’s “Quality Control Department” scrutinized every beat, playing all recordings through speakers modelled on cheap transistor radios before the final mix.
The Motown organization was an intense, close-knit community: Marvin Gaye married Gordy’s sister, while “Little” Stevie Wonder was the baby of the family. The label did, however, move with the times, utilizing such innovations as the wah-wah pedal and synthesizer. By the late 1960s its output had acquired a harder sound, crowned by the acid soul productions of Norman Whitfield with the versatile Temptations. In 1968 the organization outgrew its premises on Grand Avenue; four years later it abandoned Detroit altogether for LA. Befitting the middle-of-the-road tastes of the 1970s, the top sellers were then the high-society soul of Diana Ross and the ballads of the Commodores. This saw many top artists, dissatisfied with Gordy’s constant intervention, leave the label, although the crack songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, responsible for most of the Four Tops’ hits, stayed in Detroit to produce the seminal Chairmen of the Board (“Gimme Just A Little More Time”), along with Aretha Franklin and Jackie Wilson. Today, Motown is owned by the giant Universal Music Group.