1965 was the hinge year of a decade. Capitalism’s war against Southeast Asia was blowing its fetid breath in our faces, while a struggle for the most basic freedoms was way past heating up in the land of the free. Those of us who called Detroit home had been picketing segregated restaurants right here in the North since the late ’50s, as well as listening to jazz in coffeehouses, writing poems and noticing that rock ’n’ roll was making the little girls talk out of their heads.
In 1965, I was finishing a bachelor’s degree at Wayne State University and living with a veritable wild bunch in the Artists Workshop over on the John C. Lodge service drive between Warren and Forest. Our declared common purpose: to create poetry, music, art and films that would — in the words of Beat prophet Allen Ginsberg — make the walls of the city shake. Little did we realize that some determined folks here in town were already doing that and more.
On the corner at Forest was a diner run by a short black man named Ford. He had a shaved head, and bulging arms and shoulders that filled out his white T-shirts to make him look like an ex-prizefighter. Ford had a really fine daughter who worked for him as a waitress, but you never wanted to mess with her or even talk funny when he was around, ’cause you’d get one of those long stares that let you know where the door was. Us beatnik white boys used to go in there all the time to “grease” on cheeseburgers, fries, milk shakes and red pop.
Ford had a loud jukebox that played some jazz, but mostly whatever hits the black community was on top of, which meant all that new Motown stuff by Mary Wells (“My Guy”), Marvin Gaye (“How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)”), The Supremes (“Where Did Our Love Go”) and Martha and the Vandellas (“Dancing in the Street”). Ford had held these over from the previous year’s releases, just ’cause he liked how they sounded. And even us stone jazz-tasters, with visions of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman dancing in our heads, paused with pleasure when these tunes came on.
One afternoon the guy who stocked the jukebox brought in a new release from Berry Gordy’s Hitsville factory over on West Grand Boulevard, and Ford popped a coin in the slot. At what must’ve been full volume for that old Wurlitzer, the sound of a gun discharging started off one of the wildest tunes any of us honky dilettantes had ever heard. Right from the get, a funked-out tenor-sax banshee started wailing and then came the words: “I said shotgun / shoot it ’fore we run now / do the jerk baby / do the jerk now.” The lyrics were of the instant-hard-on, dance-with-me-all-night variety, but what grabbed us — fans that we were of jazz wailers Wayne Shorter, Archie Shepp and Sam Rivers — and kept us coming back for more was that tenor sound. It was as if someone in R&B heaven had mixed a cocktail of Coltrane and Earl Bostic then poured it all over a riff from the James Brown cookbook. I leaned over the glowing lights of the music machine and read the title: “Shotgun” by Jr. Walker & the All Stars. Then I ordered a nice cold root beer and we played that tune over and over till the winter evening sun went down.
That was the day when Motown finally got through to me as a “hot new thing” — ironically, that is, since by 1965 it wasn’t exactly new. Starting with the Miracles’ “Shop Around” in 1960 and the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” in 1961, the hometown-phenom record outfit began unleashing an uninterrupted stream of singles upon the American (and soon international) market, a supply that would keep coming until well into the ’80s.
After the epiphany at Ford’s eatery, I started remembering little flashes of musical delight throughout the past five years: Mary Wells’ “The One Who Really Loves You,” her young voice so tender and soulful, and the way she phrases “little me” over a funky cha-cha; Marvin Gaye’s unbelievably rocking “Hitch Hike” (covered early on by the Rolling Stones, without Jagger coming anywhere close to Marvin’s voice); the Miracles’ “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” on which Smokey Robinson’s singing starts preparing us for many years of unrelenting genius (Marvin and Smokey together setting the standard for suave, ultra-male falsetto artistry).
And how many pop tunes in the early ’60s could even approach the thrill of Wells’ “My Guy”? As she closes down this true-love anthem to fidelity, she makes the words do a throaty little dance, like one of those choreographed step sequences vocal groups do onstage: “There’s not a man to-day / who can take me a-way / from my guy.” It’s so erotic and you know she means it.
Speaking of turn-ons, there are obviously countless 2 1/2-minute arias by the Supremes — take your pick, mine being “Baby Love” — on which Diana Ross literally gives both oral and aural satisfaction. The two-darlings-and-a-diva were the quintessential Motown pop success, taking the mothership to undreamed-of levels of notoriety and profit.
The Motown story was amazing for a host of reasons, not least of which was the absolute wealth of talent that Gordy uncovered right here in the Motor City. Wave after wave of distinct musical personalities — from (Little) Stevie Wonder to the Temptations, the Four Tops to Tammi Terrell, the Jackson 5 to Edwin Starr — just kept hitting the shores of American pop with seemingly no end in sight. And the tunes they sang were mini-masterpieces when it came to lyrics (penned mainly by Gordy, Robinson and Holland-Dozier-Holland), arrangements, instrumentation and a reverb that apparently only the acoustics at 2648 West Grand Blvd. could produce.
As the ’60s shifted into high gear and things got downright nasty in these Benighted States, Motown sang its way into our hearts against a backdrop of assassination, deceit and repression. 1964’s “Dancing in the Street” became the theme song for Detroit’s 1967 riot. Black Panthers and White Panthers took over from nonviolent civil rights protesters, as acid supplemented grass on the socializing scene, with much meaner, harder stuff on the way. Edwin Starr’s “War” (1970) was a new kind of single for Motown, one that turned its attention from problems of the heart to issues of conscience. And in 1971, Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On, more importantly an album than a single, with its emphasis on the problems of a world at war in more ways than one.
Now whenever I hear one of those ingenious short symphonies — one of those self-contained seismic events at 45 rpm — from Gordy’s Detroit production line, I remember that in 1972 Motown moved its headquarters to Los Angeles and another illustrious chapter in this city’s ongoing musical history came to a close. But that’s just life in the business lane for you.
Who’s got next?
Hitsville U.S.A. at the Motown Historical Museum is still at 2648 West Grand Blvd., Detroit. Call 313-875-2264 for hours and information.
Return to the introduction for this special collection of music stories, where you'll find links to the other nine records on our list of Detroit discs that shook the world.George Tysh is Metro Times' arts editor. E-mail him at email@example.com