Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul Stuart Cosgrove, 2015
“I have some rights of memory in this kingdom.”
I feel a bit like this about Detroit. I grew up in Toronto and have only visited the Motor City once or twice but my grandmother was born there and my father often spoke about family connections in Michigan. Of course the Detroit that he visited as a child in the late 40s was a different place to the city Stuart Cosgrove describes in his new book, Detroit 67:The Year that Changed Soul.
Detroit, when my dad visited, was the embodiment of the Dream as it stood in the mid 20th century. The cars, like the ambitions, were large, ornate, and obscenely comfortable. As the last of the independent automotive companies were absorbed by the big three, enormous personal wealth and top heavy management structures supplanted the creative spirit of the car industry. From the southern states came African American migrants in search of a better life and relief from Jim Crow. No one could have foreseen the next chapter and no one in 1948 would have recognized the city described in this book.
Detroit 67 begins with a long section outlining the day to day activities and troubled internal relations of The Supremes. The Motown gossip is here – yes, Berry Gordy was involved with Diana Ross – but the focus is on Florence Ballard who will, in Cosgrove’s account come to embody, not only the move by Motown Records towards a more corporate model, but also the decline of Detroit itself. The story then shifts rather abruptly to John Sinclair and the beginnings of the MC5. The connection, at first, seems tenuous. Sinclair hated Motown, though he had once shopped in Gordy’s unsuccessful record store for obscure jazz sides. The MC5 were about as far removed from The Supremes as would be possible in one city.
Part of the challenge he has set himself in this deceptively ambitious book is to make that connection. The Supremes spent 1967 appearing on network TV, shaking hands with Lyndon Johnson, visiting Vietnam vets in hospitals, and playing Las Vegas and mainstream venues like New York’s Copacabana. John Sinclair and the MC5, on the other hand, spent the year hounded by the police, the FBI and right wing extremists. The MC5 occasionally played on bills with lesser Motown acts but not The Supremes, of course. Berry Gordy loved duets. Imagine the Rob Tyner/Diana Ross version of It Takes Two. A missed opportunity for sure!
“It Takes Two” Diana Ross and Rob Tyner
So how does he bring it all back home? Where does The Supremes’ 1967 cross paths with John Sinclair’s?
In July of that year, riots broke out in Detroit. The mainstream media referred to them as ‘race riots’. Some African American commentators said it wasn’t a riot, it was a rebellion. The sixties began in Detroit over those three days. Motown, the dominant cultural force in the city, suddenly seemed quaint and a bit naive. Luckily, for Berry Gordy, Norman Whitfield turned up to drag the record company into the new world of post JFK, post MLK, and post Hendrix at Monterey America.
Sinclair and the MC5 had been political for some time but the riots seemed to lead Sinclair, at least, into the murkier world of underground radicalism, culminating in the formation of the White Panther party and the attempted bombing of a CIA office in Detroit.
Berry Gordy fired Florence Ballard and was himself ‘fired’ by Holland Dozier Holland, the songwriting and production team who had spun so much gold for him. He didn’t move the whole show to LA for another five years but the writing, as they say, was on the wall for Motown’s relationship with Detroit. Like everyone else, he got the hell out of Dodge after the riots and the city was one step closer to those abandoned library photos so beloved of Facebook users.
So what does it all mean? Well, to begin with, the book isn’t about Motown Records or The MC5 although there is plenty of information about both if you are curious. It isn’t really, despite the subtitle, about soul music. It also isn’t, as many reviewers seem to believe, about Florence Ballard or even The Supremes. No, Flo’s depressing rags to riches to rags story is a metaphor here for the year itself. Cosgrove is writing about the American Dream and her story is emblematic for a period when it began to run out of puff for most people. The riots, the Vietnam war, the increasingly grim situation for many African Americans despite the civil rights period, and the growing economic downturn that is destined to hit the working class hardest, are all contained in Flo’s sad story. Cosgrove is a stylish historian and this all works very well indeed.
Detroit 67:The Year that Changed Soul is the first book in a trilogy. The next one is titled Memphis 68 and will no doubt focus on Stax Records and MLK’s assassination. Motown, known for its dreamy harmonies and occasionally syrupy lyrics, was a far darker place than Stax. Berry Gordy loved the idea that his company was like a family. Of that, there is no doubt! Particularly if the family name is Macbeth or Borgia. Meanwhile, at Stax, a generally happy group of performers and studio musicians produced a body of music that was anything but light.
Go figure! And go read this book!
Teasers: The truth about Tammi Terrell, Marvin Gaye, and David Ruffin. Finally!