Motor City Blues: A Review Of Stuart Cosgrove’s Detroit ’67: The Year That Changed Soul&
What you may not know is that his first love, above all of the above, is soul music. This passion is behind his recently published book, Detroit ’67: The Year That Changed Soul. It is a throughly researched and fascinating insight into the music and the times of a city which came to epitomise the turmoil of a nation divided by race and class, while at the same time offering it an unforgettable, and increasingly poignant, soundtrack.
While Cosgrove loves the music, he isn’t so blind as to ignore the faults of many of those involved in making it. What unfolds, not least in the dysfunctional family that was Motown Records, is a tale of changing times and a country trying, and often failing, to come to terms with that. Central to the story is Motown’s high-heid-yin, Berry Gordy, a man who, if I can make a footballing analogy, acts like the musical equivalent of the legendary Dundee United manager Jim McLean in that he liked to get his young charges on long contracts, for as little money as possible, and when they eventually complained about this he was genuinely hurt, believing they should be grateful to him for them being where and who they are.
Gordy comes over, like so many in the book, as a man of great contradictions; prepared to go behind the backs of his nearest and dearest, yet inspiring great loyalty from the likes of Smokey Robinson. Creating a family around him, yet obviously favouring some of his children over others, and ruling like the worst Victorian patriarch. However, the number of family members who remain loyal to him is seriously dwindling by the end of ’67 with many of his relationships strained or broken.
Reflected in the majority of the records his company made, Gordy was obsessed with the idea of romance, and the desire in 1967 for more edgy and political music, particularly due to the rise of the hippies and the continuing Vietnam war, was something he refused to engage with. Never was this so obvious as the times during that year when Detroit literally burned while Gordy fiddled, with rioting tearing through the city, laying waste to its streets.
This obsession with romance over reality had served him well, but revolution was in the air and it had as much effect on Motown as dodgy deals, artist burnout (which was common), and financial and commercial mistakes. During this time, the edgier Memphis based Stax Records seemed to chime with the times far more, something which the rise and deification of Otis Redding epitomised.
Throughout the book, and perhaps most telling in how Motown was simultaneously successful yet threatening to self-destruct, Cosgrove relates the story of The Supremes, who, by December, are more commonly announced as Diana Ross & The Supremes having finally dispensed with founding member Florence Ballard. Her story is a soap opera which unfolds throughout the book as Ms Ross starts to exert control and Ballard is increasingly sidelined. The way Ballard is treated, in contrast to the rise of Ross, shows how Gordy quickly decided who were his favourites and who was to be sacrificed. Success was paramount.
Florence Ballard’s story is only one of many dark tales here, including that of the little known The Dramatics and the meltdown of The Temptations’ David Ruffin, but the most heartbreaking story is that of Tammi Terrell whose avowedly platonic and artistic relationship with Marvin Gaye remains one of the labels most enduring. There is a lot of violence in Cosgrove’s book but the alleged behaviour of James Brown towards the young Terrell is perhaps the most shocking. When she is diagnosed with a brain tumour it is genuinely moving not only because of the unfulfilled potential of this great singer, but you can sense how much it affected her contemporaries. Many of flawed individuals on show contribute to their own downfall, but that is not the case with Terrell (in fact, quite the opposite), and that is reflected in people’s attitude to her terrible situation. Gaye, who is perhaps the most enigmatic individual in the book, becomes deeply depressed having lost his friend and singing partner, and you get the feeling that he never really recovered.
There are other historical characters who appear in this drama, such as Muhammad Ali, Lyndon Johnson, James Brown, Rosa Parks, and Detroit’s legendary pre-punk band MC5 who represented all that Gordy couldn’t comprehend in the shifting cultural zeitgeist. Where the book really excels is in placing events and these individuals in a sociopolitical context. If you think about what was happening in 1967; the Vietnam War, the Monterey music festival, the musical Hair, race riots – then it’s clear that this was a time of political and cultural change and the ‘classic’ Motown sound was beginning to date. When you consider that some of the most important political albums of all time would come from Marvin Gaye (What’s Going On), Stevie Wonder (Innervisions) and The Temptations (Puzzle People), all put out on Motown, this was a situation which would be addressed, but in the heat of ’67 what would go on to become a timeless music was, for a moment, out of time.
With his follow-up, Memphis ’68, on the way, Cosgrove is well set to add yet another string to his already well-strung bow, becoming a reliable chronicler of a neglected area of American culture, telling those stories which are still unknown to most. By using his love of the music as a starting point he has found the perfect way to explore further themes and ideas. If Detroit ’67 was to be made into a documentary, (and what a great one it would make), it would have the most arresting soundtrack imaginable. To make that point more eloquently than either I or Cosgrove could, here is Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell duelling on ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, followed by The Marvelettes ‘When You’re Young & In Love’ and then Stevie Wonder with ‘I Was Made To Love Her’, and that barely scratches the surface.
For all the political upheaval and historical change that Cosgrove describes, it is still the depth, breadth and quality of the music being made which is the most astonishing aspect of his book, despite everything. I suppose it is possible to not like Motown and still enjoy Detroit ’67, but I cannot conceive of anyone who doesn’t like at least some of the songs mentioned as they include examples of song-writing, production and performance at its very finest. One of the pleasures when reading the book was re-immersing myself in the music, and I would strongly advise you do the same. Satisfaction guaranteed.
Here’s the audio version of this review: