The Mo­town sound­track to the 1967 De­troit ri­ots


Sunday Herald - - NEWS -

THEY called it the night of “hal­lu­ci­na­tions”, a mo­ment when all the worst vi­sions of ur­ban cri­sis came fright­en­ingly to life. A ball of con­fu­sion swept through De­troit and the lo­cal mu­sic scene, Mo­town, ac­claimed through­out the world, came face-to-face with forces it was power- less to con­tain, four days of ri­ot­ing which left 43 peo­ple dead, 1,189 in­jured, and the cap­i­tal city of soul mu­sic in ru­ins.

By mid­night on Tues­day, July 26, De­troit’s sky­line was scorched red with burn­ing gas fumes. The city that had been home to The Supremes, The Four Tops, The Temp­ta­tions and Smokey Robin­son had around the world be­come syn­ony­mous with six­ties soul but much of its in­fra­struc­ture in­clud­ing record­ing stu­dios, soul clubs and juke joints were de­stroyed. Al­though the mu­sic’s bit­ter­sweet jour­ney would con­tinue for many years to come, some­thing pro­found hap­pened in the bru­tal month of July 1967 that changed De­troit’s im­age for­ever, weak­en­ing its once-ma­jes­tic grip on black mu­sic.

Hol­ly­wood’s most fa­mous fe­male di­rec­tor, Kathryn Bigelow, has sifted through the de­bris of the sum­mer vi­o­lence and her new film, sim­ply called De­troit, is vis­ceral, re­lent­less and un­for­giv­ing in its por­trayal of the ri­ots. She fo­cuses on a rogue po­lice unit as it sav­agely un­coils and the mur­der of three African-Amer­i­can youths at a seedy late-night venue called the Al­giers Mo­tel. The case has never been suc­cess­fully pros­e­cuted and to this day re­mains one of the great in­jus­tices of the six­ties: “Black Lives Mat­ter” with a Mo­town sound­track.

It all be­gan at a mati­nee con­cert at De­troit’s Fox The­atre, where a lo­cal soul show, the Swingin’ Time Re­view, was in full voice. MC Robin Seymour wel­comed the head­line act, Martha And The Van­del­las. From the stage, Martha Reeves looked out at an or­nate the­atre au­di­to­rium as the show was broad­cast live on The Big Eight On­tario’s CKLW-TV, an en­tre­pre­neur­ial tele­vi­sion sta­tion based across the river in Canada.

Among the as­sem­bled cast were a pop­u­lar ac­ro­batic soul dancer, Lester Tip­ton, a silky-voiced vo­cal­ist named JJ Barnes and the leg­endary George Clin­ton’s soul group The Par­lia­ments. Re­put­edly, Reeves had launched her set with a rau­cous ver­sion of the hit song Danc­ing In The Street – con­nect­ing it to so­cial dis­or­der in the minds of lo­cal politi­cians. Un­aware of the ex­tent of the ri­ot­ing out­side, Reeves was told that the the­atre had to be evac­u­ated. Back­stage in crowded dress­ing rooms were some of De­troit soul mu­sic’s ris­ing stars – the in­clud­ing Deon Jack­son and lo­cal teen sen­sa­tions the Dra­mat­ics, whose nov­elty song Inky Dinky Wang Dang Doo was tear­ing up the Michi­gan pop charts. For the Dra­mat­ics the show would be the pre­quel to the most tragic and deadly week­end of their young lives.

Martha Reeves fol­lowed po­lice or­ders claim­ing in her bi­og­ra­phy: “With mi­cro­phone in hand I went to cen­ter stage and as calmly as pos­si­ble an­nounced that wide­spread ri­ot­ing had bro­ken out and De­troit was on fire ... I will never for­get the kind of re­spon­si­bil­ity I felt to an­nounce some­thing like that and not start a stam­pede of peo­ple run­ning for their lives.”

WITHIN 10 min­utes of re­ceiv­ing po­lice in­struc­tions, au­di­ences hur­ried from the au­di­to­rium and dis­persed through the grand lob­bies to the de­cay­ing streets out­side. Mu­si­cians and half-dressed sup­port­ing acts hur­riedly va­cated the stage area, leav­ing per­sonal ef­fects be­hind.

The Dra­mat­ics and their en­tourage of teenage friends, mostly kids from the lo­cal Per­sh­ing High School, caught a pass­ing bus, which, as fate would have it, was head­ing in the gen­eral di­rec­tion of the ri­ot­ing. It was to be­come the most fate­ful jour­ney in the rich his­tory of De­troit soul mu­sic and one that was to res­onate through the city’s court sys­tem for years to come.

The Dra­mat­ics headed for a no­to­ri­ous hang­out called the Al­giers Mo­tel, to act big and hang out but un­wit­tingly it took the young men to­wards an ex­pe­ri­ence that one of the Dra­mat­ics de­scribed darkly as “the worst day of our lives”. By the end of the week­end, three of their as­so­ciates would be shot dead and two of the group – Larry Reed and Rod Davis – were beaten to a state of near-un­con­scious­ness. Davis suf­fered neu­ro­log­i­cal dam­age and was left trau­ma­tised for life, and both left the group and drifted into ob­scu­rity.

Bigelow’s movie drama­tises the chaotic and claus­tro­pho­bic killings as seen through the eyes of Larry Reed, played by the Sag­i­naw soul singer Al­gee Smith. Much like her pre­vi­ous film The Hurt Locker it ac­cen­tu­ates the tense and ugly male­ness of spe­cial en­force­ment units, when their lurch into bru­tal­ity goes unchecked. It’s a film about a dark night of the soul and how the Mo­tor City stared evil in the face. Stu­art Cosgrove is the au­thor of De­troit 67: The Year That Changed Soul (Poly­gon). It is the first in a tril­ogy of six­ties soul and so­cial change. The sec­ond book, Mem­phis 68: The Tragedy of South­ern Soul, will be avail­able in hard­back in Oc­to­ber and the tril­ogy’s fi­nal book, Har­lem 69, will be pub­lished in 2019. Kathryn Bigelow’s De­troit is in cin­e­mas na­tion­wide

I went to cen­ter stage and as calmly as pos­si­ble an­nounced that wide­spread ri­ot­ing had bro­ken out and De­troit was on fire FILM RE­VIEW MAG­A­ZINE

Pho­to­graph: Getty Im­ages/ Mon­dadori Col­lec­tion

Four days of ri­ot­ing in Detriot dur­ing July 1967 – height­ened by the mur­der of three AfricanAmer­i­can youths at a city mo­tel – left 43 peo­ple dead and 1,189 in­jured

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