Through the ages there have been so many great artists and musicians. Whenever I hear old recordings of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald I try to envision the backdrop of how everyday living was at that particular time. Growing up in Detroit, I know what the backdrop was for Motown. So much has been written about the Motown phenomenon that I find myself trying to avoid repetition. It’s a story that should and MUST be told, but I’m sure by now most people know how Berry Gordy started the company with an 800.00 loan from the Gordy family fund; how he mentored Smokey Robinson in songwriting; how The Primes, and The Primettes became The Temptations and The Supremes respectively, and I can’t wait to see what new details may be revealed in Gordy’s already record-breaking Broadway show “Motown: The Musical.” It’s good that a new generation will get the old story with a visual as seen through the eyes of the founder himself.
I love history and I love historians who take the time to delve into the depths of historical moments in an attempt to paint a complete, accurate picture – things that were happening surrounding and leading up to a particular event like the OK Corral shootout, or the sinking of the Titanic. As I wrote in a previous article, I’d like to know more about the circumstances at Motown and in the lives of the performers before, during, and after those historical studio events when songs like “Where Did Our Love Go,” “My Girl,” “Can’t Help Myself,” and “How Sweet It Is” were recorded. I’m sure there are a lot of untold stories that have gone to the grave, so what can be gleaned from those who were there and are still with us?
Concerning the relevance of Motown during the 1960’s there’s one camp that says Motown was about the money, while another says it played a significant role in the civil rights movement. And to that I say they’re both right. Of course it was about the money. Black folks during that time were disenfranchised on many levels, and generally the endeavor to “make it” was to succeed in entertainment either singing, dancing, boxing, or some other form of amusement. So we had two sides of the same coin: the sound of Motown music was just as rousing and urgent as the civil rights message of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The non-violent essence of the civil rights movement, and the non-threatening Motown music (the sound of young America) both served as venues for a collective Black voice to engage serious dialogue about race in America. Together they served to expedite legislation for equality that was moving at a snail’s pace. Two of King’s speeches – “Great March to Freedom,” and “Great March to Washington” – were recorded and released on the Gordy record label.
I’ve often viewed Motown and the civil rights movement as having the same impact in the 20th century as the Civil War had in the 19th century. There were very significant milestones leading up to both moments in American history. When you really look at some timelines, there are some parallels. For instance, historians record that the first shot fired that signaled the beginning of the Civil War was in 1861. It drew national attention. One hundred years later in 1961 Motown got its first number one Pop hit with “Please Mr. Postman” that also drew national attention and signaled a new era. The Civil War had President Lincoln at the helm; the civil rights movement had President Kennedy. Both were assassinated. Both had historical figures in their midst fighting for what they believed – General Lee Grant, General Robert E. Lee, Frederick Douglass and a host of others during Lincoln’s time; and King, Malcolm X, Sheriff Eugene “Bull” Connor, and Governor George Wallace along with a host of others during Kennedy’s time. All were faced with culture-changing challenges.
While the Civil War was drenched in deadly violence (think of Gettysburg) and the ground-shaking boom of cannon balls, the civil rights movement was about non-violence, and the only ground-breaking/shaking boom (besides the Birmingham church bombing) was coming from the drum and bass in Motown’s Studio A.
During the Civil War the Blackface Minstrel show – an imitation and often offensive exaggeration of Negro music – was popular, but just like Motown did 100 years later, the minstrel show allowed for cross-cultural collaboration and widespread appreciation of the Negro’s contribution to the arts. It was also considered to be the first distinctly American theatrical form.
As a tribute, re-enactments of Civil War battles are staged annually. In 1913 the first major Civil War veteran’s reunion took place. In 2013 Motown veterans were invited to a “Family Night” preview of Gordy’s musical in New York. At the 1913 reunion President Woodrow Wilson said, “We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten – except that we shall not forget the splendid valor.” The spirit and sentiment of his words could just as well been spoken by Gordy as together they all witnessed the re-enactment of the miracle that took place on Detroit’s West Grand Boulevard.
Larry Buford is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. Author of “Things Are Gettin’ Outta Hand” (Steuben Pub) www.amazon.com. E-mail: [email protected] Visit the author at www.larrybuford.com. (213) 220-8101