The Motown soundtrack to the 1967 Detroit riots
AS THE NEW MOVIE DETROIT OPENS IN CINEMAS THIS WEEKEND TO MASS ACCLAIM, SCOTTISH BROADCASTER STUART COSGROVE, AN EXPERT ON THE HISTORY OF THE CITY’S MUSIC SCENE, CHARTS THE ROLE MOTOWN PLAYED IN THE RIOTS WHICH CHANGED AMERICA ... AND STILL RESONATE TODAY
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
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