Berry Gordy’s town house on the exposed corner of Outer Drive and Monica was trapped in a furious wind tunnel.
The median hiding the road opposite had become barricaded by what looked like a steep porcelain wall of drifting snow, two frozen trees hung heavy like sentries over the doorway to his home, branching downward and blocking the exit, so Gordy was reduced to the routines of a prisoner, pacing the room, speaking solemnly to himself, and looking out every few minutes through the gray-iced windows at the same unchanging view: the white prison-yards of his hometown.
A deathly quiet had descended on the Motor City. Snow had fallen silently for three consecutive days, and it came with such gentle fury that it smothered the life out of America’s busiest city.
Suddenly and dramatically, a city synonymous with the clamor of industry had fallen eerily quiet. Most people hid indoors, guarding themselves from the cold or unable to dig a path to their cars, and those few brave souls that did try to get to work were left stranded on street corners, shrouded in military-surplus overcoats and blowing into frayed woollen mittens. Others smoked to stay warm and huddled together waiting for buses that never came. Cars were left abandoned in side streets, and Highland Park looked like a scene from a different decade, where wandering ghosts from the Great Depression stumbled across intersections to the old Ford assembly plant. Over 100,000 automobile workers reported absent from work, Dodge Main in Hamtramck was closed, Chrysler’s Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle Plant ground to a halt, and Ford’s giant River Rouge plant was on short time. A layer of dense smog hung over the stranded trains at Dequindre Cut, where rusting freight containers lay half hidden beneath the drifts. The newly installed furnaces at Huber Avenue Foundry had more than enough power to smelt steel, but the temperature stayed stubbornly below zero, and nothing could melt the snow. Schools were closed, flights disrupted, and the few reckless freighters that tried to navigate the frozen waters of the Detroit River were either impacted in ice or made only glacial progress to the lakes.
Berry Gordy Jr was cut off from his world. He was 38 years old, with a closely cropped Afro that had infinitesimal specks of gray settling on the hairline, as if he had been momentarily caught in the blizzards outside. In January 1967 he was one of the richest black entrepreneurs in America and the driving force behind the Motown Record Corporation, the black-owned company that had defied the rules of the recording industry to become the powerhouse of 60s soul from an unfashionable base in the heart of the Rust Belt. In the previous fiscal year alone, over 75 per cent of the company’s releases had been hits, and Motown’s major acts – the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Temptations, and Marvin Gaye – were international household names. It seemed to those that had watched his success that Gordy had discovered a modern form of alchemy: turning gospel into gold.
To friends and family, Gordy was a difficult man to fathom. He hid behind a contradictory personality, preferring the thrill of creativity to the managerial machinations of his wealthy business. He was a proud family man who played fast and loose with family values, playing poker, chasing other women and drinking hard liquor. From a young age he had come to romanticise the word “family” – and used it promiscuously to describe Motown as if it were a timeless and impregnable virtue – but as 1967 unfolded it was a term that was to shatter under the weight of over-use. He had grown up in a bustling post-war home, the second youngest child in a family of 10. By January 1967 he had been married three times, had four children, and racked up numerous love affairs. Those that knew of his past as a local boxer described him as at times pugnacious, a man who jabbed at problems but when the fight hardened and the gloves came off, he often weaved away from direct confrontation. Despite his skill in the ring, Gordy spent most of 1967 trying to avoid fights and when Motown’s most talented stars reached a point where they wanted to know more about his business and its worth, Gordy often withdrew and took animosity like a punch-bag.
Gordy had every reason to feel the cold. He had just returned home from Miami Beach, where the Supremes were in residency at the Deauville Hotel; he’d caught one of the last flights to land safely at a bitter cold Metro Airport. The central heating in his Outer Drive home was turned up full blast, but it had next to no impact, and the cold was so fierce he draped himself in layers of clothes: a poplin shirt, neat slacks with hip slit pockets, and a scruffy hooded sweater over his suit jacket. Two forlorn paintings of exotic palm trees hung incongruously on the wall above his piano. He had put them there to bring a touch of exotica to his home, but they hung unhappily – cold, damp and out of place. He was unaccustomed to the silence that had gripped the city. He had worked on the Detroit assembly lines, upholstering new cars, and had grown up
with the endless percussion of the automobile plants. He had even trained himself to beat out tunes in his head, scribbling them in his mind and then recording them on paper when his shift ended. Gordy tried to fight the snowy silence at first – playing the piano, listening to acetate copies of newly recorded Motown songs, and flipping through the latest release sheets. His life had been shaped by vinyl. Records were stacked casually in the back seat of his car, piles of them lay scattered around his office, and those he really liked were stored in alcoves in his home. He had grown up surrounded by the sounds of the Motor City – the atonal journeys of jazz, the wholesome divinity of gospel, the hard-drinking coarseness of R&B, and the sweet choral repetitions of 60s soul.
Already a teenager when the war broke out, Gordy had grown up in a restless and self-confident city driven by arms manufacturing and the automobile industry. In the three years between 1940 and 1943, 500,000 people migrated to Detroit, and like the Gordy clan, over 350,000 of those were African Americans, mostly from the southern states.
But all of that was history now. By the time the Motown Corporation was incorporated on January 12, 1959, Detroit’s image as a boomtown was wearing thin, and the first corrosive signs of decline were beginning to show. Unemployment was rising, particularly among unskilled black males, many of whom were dependent on irregular shifts and low-paid labour in the car plants and armament factories. The underlying realities were plain to see, but the powerful myth of Detroit as “the arsenal of democracy” overshadowed everything, and immigrants from the south still flocked northward to the city’s punishing ghettos, believing that it was a city paved with limitless opportunity.
Within a few freezing early hours of the new year, Detroit had claimed its first victim. Kenneth Biel, a 14-year-old boy from Oak Park, lay dead in the snow, his incoherent face resting on pillows of impacted ice beneath a row of elm trees. When his body was examined at the Wayne County Morgue, his death was initially attributed to intentional carbon monoxide poisoning, but his parents reacted badly to the news and resisted any suggestion of suicide. A subsequent investigation determined that the teenager had been drinking cheap whiskey and slumped down drunk by a tree not far from his home. Still hunting for dignity in his death, the family denied that their son had ever drunk alcohol, but the police confirmed that buried beer bottles had been found nestled in the snow, and patches of spilled liquor had burned into the rock-hard Michigan soil below.
Kenneth Biel was from Detroit’s Motown generation, a young white teenager discovering girls, music and cheap thrills and growing up in a city witnessing change on a massive scale. But like most of the events that were to unfold in 1967, his death was shrouded in doubt and his funeral mired by dispute. His friends disagreed with his parents, who disagreed with the police, who in turn were not wholly convinced of their own version of events.
It was a tragedy that proved to be prescient of the year ahead. 1967 was destined to become a year of unexplained deaths and conflicting narratives, a year in which friendships would fracture into ugly and irreconcilable shapes. Even the morgue where Biel’s body was taken was destined to become an unlikely character in the year ahead, embroiled in cases of missing bodies as Detroit’s death toll mounted and the city’s budget came under unprecedented pressure.
It seemed that the only good news was soul music. For many, Detroit’s conveyer belt of black music had triggered a creative Klondike across Detroit, and small four-track recording studios were now crammed into suburban homes and huddled in basement cellars. More than 400 independent music labels had sprung up in the city in less than five years. The vast majority of these local enterprises were undercapitalised and run by hopeful producers, many destined for obscurity, but it proved to be one of the most creative moments in the history of pop music and for those that found success or even flashes of fame, it was the era that defined their lives. The sudden influx of cash into predominantly poor households overturned the natural order, rivalries were intense, egos went unchecked, and the city crackled with the energetic sound of black America.
“The stream of hits was endless,” Gordy said in his autobiography. “The whole world was fast becoming aware of our artists, our songs, our sound. I was being called a star-maker, the magic man.” Gordy’s magic was in many respects predicated on a compromise. He had softened the rough edges of rhythm and blues, draped the music in the familiar cadences of teenage love, and his girl groups – borrowing from predecessors like the Ronettes and the Crystals – pioneered a highly addictive form of “bubblegum soul” that lent itself perfectly to the still-segregated radio stations of America. Phil Spector, a major influence on the Motown Sound, called it “little symphonies for the kids.” It was in every respect an art of repetition, familiar backing-tracks were refashioned, everyday phrases repackaged and the anxieties of young love were played out as memorable drama.
Gordy’s sorcery was founded on talent, luck, and circumstance. Detroit had an enlightened public school system that brought classical music, choral training, and jazz into ghetto classrooms. The city had hundreds of churches dotted along its main boulevards, and the local gospel choirs were among the most competitive in black America. More importantly, Detroit had a powerful magnetic force that drew talent toward it. It had been a hub of inward migration for over 200 years, dating back to slavery and the Underground Railroad network that helped fugitive slaves escape north to Detroit and over the river to freedom in Canada. That folklore had made Detroit seem like a Mecca in the minds of many southern blacks, and for decades it was the southern states that provided Detroit’s human capital. All three members of the Supremes could trace their family’s roots back to the deep south; Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams of the Temptations had been part of a more recent migration and came north from Birmingham, Alabama; Marvin Gaye had relocated from his native Washington DC, via jazz and doo-wop; and an eccentric barber named George Clinton had moved from New Jersey to join the local Revilot label and to lead yet another emergent group, the Parliaments. Most came prospecting for gold discs and found themselves in a city of unrestrained rivalry, vocal brilliance and bitter feuding.
Motown was based in a converted house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard on Detroit’s west side. It was an unremarkable shambles with only the most basic makeshift facilities. It was situated on a street that had only recently been reclassified to allow commercial businesses, and it sat transparently among local homes and other hopeful businesses, including a doctor’s office, a funeral parlour, the Your Fair Lady Boutique And Wig Room and Mr Sykes’s Hernia Clinic. The Motown neighborhood near General Motors’ headquarters had once been prosperous, but the shingled walls, polite porches and wooden window frames had decayed with the passage of time. Mary Wilson in her book My Life As A Supreme described it as “a small nondescript two-story house that had been converted to a photography studio.” Stevie Wonder’s mother, Lula Hardaway, remembered an office that “was brimming with people and noise – the entire house was teeming, chaotic, always, as if in the middle of an air raid.” Otis Williams of the Temptations said it was “teeming with energy and excitement… everyone there – from the secretaries to Berry Gordy – exuded confidence.” In his memoirs, Smokey Robinson’s staccato description painted a picture of cramped efficiency: “Downstairs became headquarters. Kitchen became the control room. Garage became the studio. The living room was bookkeeping. The dining room [was] sales. Berry stuck a funky sign in the front window – ‘Hitsville USA’ – and we were in business.”
America was changing – too slowly for some, but nonetheless, this small row of unremarkable houses had become the fulcrum of the most dynamic music business in the world. Soul had made Berry Gordy phenomenally rich. Although he dressed fashionably in slick-cut suits, he was always one of the more understated members of the family. His sisters Anna and Gwen, who had preceded him as label owners in the local independent music scene, were among Detroit’s black demimonde and stepped out at night in ermine and mink. Gordy’s second wife, Raynoma, described the sisters as being bigger than the music itself. “Show business was Gwen Gordy’s middle name… She was exquisite from head to toe, with an assortment of gorgeous black wigs and dyed shoes to match all her outfits. Her face was flawless, and her figure was so stunning that later she would become a fashion model.” By contrast, Gordy’s suits were off the rack. He had a half-hearted moustache and close-cropped hair in a vaguely military style that had changed little since he had served in Korean War. And while the big stars of Motown travelled with monogrammed luggage, Gordy’s bags usually carried the imprimatur of BOAC-Cunard, the airline that ran weekly flights from Detroit to Europe. He was not an ostentatious dresser, nor was he someone that wanted stardom for himself.
Diana Ross, the statuesque lead singer of the Supremes, once described Gordy as “a genius open to abundant possibilities.” He had molded the Supremes over five years and guided their careers to the very top. “He never thought small,” Ross claimed. “No matter how difficult the challenge, he could envision and hold on to the big picture, and he had little time or patience for anyone who wouldn’t go there with him.” Ross first fell in love with Gordy on the road in 1965 as they travelled together from venue to venue, and she soon began to speak of him as both a father figure and a lover, “an incomparable visionary, a dynamite character.” She remained devoted to Gordy even in the face of hostile criticism, while she saw his virtues as a leader, others denounced
him as control freak, a womaniser and a reckless gambler. They were all right but only to an extent. Berry Gordy was in every sense the personification of his hometown, a massively contradictory character capable of acts of phenomenal generosity and ruthless calculation. Even his closest allies saw his determined streak. The singer Smokey Robinson described him as “self-confident – he always knew he would make it.” Marvin Gaye thought that Gordy’s ability “to combine finance and romance was the essence of cool,” while Otis Williams of the Temptations witnessed a more acidic kind of leadership. “Berry inspired us,” he wrote in his retrospective autobiography, Temptations. “He knew what it was about, had a lot of confidence, and was full of piss and vinegar. He knew he was going to make it and made you believe it too.”
Gordy was years ahead of his time in one key respect. He was obsessed with sales charts, publishing data and how music was perceived by the different ages and demographics across America. He preferred charts of any kind to dense script. Although his curiosity was native and instinctive it anticipated major changes yet to come in the recording industry. At times his passion for music tipped into autistic-like control. He was able to identify faults in a recording within seconds, and he worried away at recording takes as if he were counting on an abacus. Although he was wealthy enough to own the most up-to-date sound systems in America, he preferred to listen to his songs the way real people did – on box record players, on transistor radios and in cars. Gordy often went against the acoustic grain of his studio engineers and turned the volume down, reckoning that many people listened to music in the background, not at its highest volume. He would sometimes drive around the block to listen to a song on his car radio rather than at the studio desk and he preferred voices that were pleasing but distinctive: singers like Tammi Terrell, Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops and the tempestuous David Ruffin of the Temptations. One of his favorite voices belonged to his eccentric and emotionally unpredictable brother-in-law Marvin Gaye, who had married Gordy’s sister Anna in 1963. But Gordy was also deeply judgmental too and often consigned new songs to the scrap heap on the basis of the first few incriminating beats. Careers had been cut short in those few decisive opening bars, and so artists across Detroit had come to respect and resent him in equal measure.
The new year was in its infancy, and yet Berry Gordy Jr had already experienced extremes of temperature – the dry heat of Miami and the brutal cold of Detroit. The Supremes were performing at the Casanova Room at the fashionable Deauville Hotel on Miami Beach and had been contracted to do two shows daily using a local pickup band, the Les Rohde Orchestra. They sang Baby Love in Santa hats and posed for photographs beneath the sweltering Christmas sun. Incongruously, the three young black girls from inner-city Detroit posed on the beach and smiled at Kodak Brownies in the sunlit lobby. The stick-thin lead singer, Diane Ross, had by now glamorised her name to Diana Ross. Her friend, the stockier Florence Ballard, had shortened her name to Flo, while the third Supreme, the coquettish and fashionable Mary Wilson, was content to just be Mary. They sang happy holiday songs, signed autographs, flirted with the cameras, blew kisses to high rollers and smiled at staff in the hotel lobby. Fans gave them the “stop” sign where ever they went. It had become the trademark opening of their worldwide hit Stop In The Name of Love, a rush of adrenaline that the rock magazine Rolling Stone described as quixotic: “The sound mixes with your bloodstream and heartbeat even before you begin to listen to it.” It did and maybe always will, but by 1967, the Supremes had sung the song so often and performed the actions so many times, on stage, at music-industry conventions, and for fans’ photographs, that it had become an everyday obligation they all in different ways had come to resent.
In reality, the Supremes’ outwardly cheery and enthusiastic personas had by 1967 become a carefully controlled deceit, their friendship was under severe strain, they had travelled extensively for three years without a break, and were exhausted – to the point of breakdown – by damaging disputes over workload and status. Although Christmas had thrown superficial glitter across the surfaces of their lives, back in their Miami hotel rooms the girls brooded alone, often phoning home to Detroit for advice and emotional support. It was an unholy and unpleasant mess, poisonous venom had bored into the heart of the group, and friendships that had been forged during excited teenage years were wrenching bitterly apart.
Gordy had made a short round trip to Florida in the last days of December 1966, ostensibly to choreograph the Deauville residency and supervise network television coverage of the annual King Orange Jamboree Parade. But his real motive was to act as a peacemaker and try yet again to bring a semblance of harmony back to the group. He had spent the last six months trying to bring the disputes within the Supremes to an end and had become anxious that the infighting and bitching were about to go public. Hostile journalists were hovering around looking for a story and although Motown had always counselled the girls to behave in public that too brought strain. Gordy was not naive to the dynamics within the Supremes and had frequently chastised his girlfriend, Diana Ross, about her role in provoking disputes. He instructed the road crew to enforce corporation policy at all times, reminding the Supremes that Motown had a family image and the last thing he needed was bad press, tantrums or empty bottles of liquor in hotel bedrooms. His instructions were crystal clear and more lasting than his promises. He told them things would improve and within a few days, they would be on a flight back to Metro Airport, and then they could take a short break, hand out gifts to their family back in Detroit, and bicker in the comfort of their own homes. For now they were to look happy, wave to the crowds and blow kisses to the cameras.
By the Christmas of 1966, American television networks were at their competitive height, and sales of colour TV sets had taken off. Gordy had been an early convert to the promotional potential of television and was convinced that the networks were the next logical phase of Motown’s success. He had mapped out TV as a priority for the company in 1967 and instructed Motown staff in Detroit to make a strategic shift of focus from radio to television and from small-scale live shows to television spectaculars. Gordy’s aim was to make musical history by taking black music to the living rooms of white America, which until then had been culturally resistant to soul music. Network television was by now a priority over everything, including family, friends and even concert engagements. Throughout the year, as their itinerary became even more hectic, the Supremes were to appear on all of the major network television shows – The Ed Sullivan Show, The Andy Williams Show and The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson – but their youthful and vibrant self-confidence on-screen masked a bitter and self-destructive war behind the scenes, one that would erupt into public view as the year unfolded. The Supremes were being pushed to the point of exhaustion, and all three of the girls were on prescription drugs, trying to shake off a catalogue of illnesses. A deep malaise was tearing at the soul of the most popular girl group in the world.
On the first day of the new year, as Detroit lay engulfed in snow, the Supremes led a parade of 30 marching bands and 10 carnival floats down Biscayne Boulevard under a humid afternoon sun. They recorded two promotional shows. One was an NBC telecast from the Orange Bowl, broadcast on the morning of January 2 and presented by Lorne Green, best known as Ben Cartwright, the quintessential father figure from the TV series Bonanza. Lorne joked with the girls live and acted as if he was the caring father of a multi-racial family. The second show was a prerecording of the Ice Capades, a variety show on ice starring American ice-skating champion Donald Knight and life-size characters from the The Flintstones. It was scheduled for broadcast in February 1967.
On January 3, Gordy received a series of frantic phone calls from Miami to his home in Detroit. There had been a car accident and two of the Supremes had been rushed to hospital, and there were fears that one or more of them were on life-support. Information was sketchy, and neither the police nor hospital staff could give a full account of what had actually happened. An officer with the Miami police had tried to reach Gordy but failed to get through and so Motown were forced to respond to questions from local reporters without being in full possession of the facts. The vacuum of information was inevitably filled with worries but it eventually emerged that a car accident involving three private cars had taken place at the junction of Sixty-Fifth and Collins, just south of the Deauville Hotel, and that various passengers – including two of the Supremes, Diana Ross and Florence Ballard – had been rushed to the hospital. Police had already charged a Motown security guard named Barry Don Oberg with dangerous driving. By the time the patchy news reached Detroit, the girls were in separate rooms at Miami’s St Francis Hospital. Shows were hurriedly cancelled and audiences turned away disappointed. When the full picture began to emerge, however, it was significantly less dramatic than Gordy had been led to believe. The girls had been on their way to an afternoon fishing trip when the crash happened, and although they were kept in the hospital overnight, Ross and Ballard were subsequently released with only superficial wounds. Mary Wilson had stayed back at the hotel to relax by the pool, possibly an act of personal respite, as she had increasingly become caught in the middle of near persistent disputes between Ross and Ballard and rather than take sides often simply ducked out.
Despite a widening distance between them, Ross and Ballard cuddled and consoled each other on their way back to the hotel, and it momentarily appeared as if the trauma of the car crash had allowed peace to break out. Gordy hearing it all second-hand had good feelings about the crash and told his sister Esther that it was a wake-up call that might just shake the girls out of their constant bickering. But it was wishful thinking. Back at the hotel, another argument erupted, and each of the Supremes returned to their separate rooms in bitter silence. Divisions within Motown’s biggest selling group were already deeper than the Detroit snow.
Detroit’s Warren-Forest neighborhood was silent too. Deep snow drifts had stacked up alongside the wire fencing near a stretch of old converted stores by the John Lodge Freeway. Inside the ramshackle buildings were some of Detroit’s most adventurous minds. These were the headquarters of the Detroit Artists Workshop, the Committee to End the War in Vietnam, and the offices of a group of political subversives who were known by the mysteriously bureaucratic name “the Steering Committee.” They had launched the year with a mission statement that threatened social unrest: “This is truly a new year. We have been preparing for 1967 all our lives, and we are ready for it now.” Trapped by the snow, they passed their time playing jazz, planning disruption and plotting the downfall of America. Over the next few years, their names were to become notorious across the city. There was John Sinclair, a jazz-obsessed journalist from Flint, Michigan; Gary Grimshaw, a graphic artist from Lincoln Park; Jim Semark, a poet and student at nearby Wayne State University; and Rob Tyner, a local singer whose real name was Robert ‘Bob’ Derminer but who had adopted the surname of jazz musician McCoy Tyner. Tyner was the lead singer of a then unknown Detroit guitar band, the Motor City Five, which by the end of 1967 were re-christened MC5 and were destined to become the vanguard of Detroit’s other great musical sub-culture: insurrectionary garage rock.
The Steering Committee was plotting social change, borrowing promiscuously from cool jazz, the American beat poets and Detroit’s black Muslim firebrand, Malcolm X. In one audacious manifesto, they threatened to disrupt Detroit with rock music, declaring “a total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock and roll, dope, and fucking in the streets.” They had fashioned numerous half-secret identities, sometimes working under the name Trans-Love Energies, sharing office space with LEMAR (LEgalize MARijuana), and hosting fundraisers for the antiwar movement. But unknown to the storefront radicals of the Steering Committee, they had already been infiltrated by undercover police officers working for the Detroit narcotics squad, and their lives were about to turn upside down. The Steering Committee was on a growing list of underground groups whom the FBI’s counterintelligence network had identified as a threat to American security, but within a matter of a few years, despite being monitored almost daily, they delivered on their bombastic promise. MC5 became a self-styled “guitar army” and one of the most controversial rock cadres in the kaleidoscopic history of rock counterculture.
Detroit was divided by race and social class, and although the hives of creativity that grew up around Motown and MC5 developed only a few miles apart, the racial characteristics of Detroit meant that they occupied profoundly different worlds. Berry Gordy was the undisputed boss of Motown; of that there was no doubt. If the Steering Committee had anything as conventional as a leader, then it was an affable jazz freak named John Sinclair, who wrote passionate diatribes for the jazz magazine Downbeat and had recently been released from DeHoCo, the Detroit House of Corrections, where he had served a short sentence for possessing marijuana.
The bearded Sinclair was a giant of man. He spoke in hyperbole, and his writings were a hybrid of gonzo journalism, revolutionary rhetoric, and jazz homage. His musical tastes shifted eclectically from day to day, jumping restlessly from free-form jazz to gutbucket R&B and onward to the nascent noise of garage rock. Music and drugs fused in his mind, and he vowed in his prison writings to change America “by the magic eye of LSD and the pounding heartbeat of music.” Within a matter of a few months in early 1967, he became the mentor and then the manager of MC5, who were destined to become the demonic fathers of punk rock. The band’s name was deliberately vague, designed to sound like a car component. Although technically short for Motor City Five, the band sometimes claimed that MC5 stood for the Morally Corrupt Five or the Much Cock Five – whatever the band members made up in the presence of gullible journalists. Sinclair added to the hyperbole describing the group as “a raggedy horde of holy barbarians, marching into the future.” It was not just false posturing. Within two years they would be the most notorious band in America, and Sinclair would be back in jail, this time as an international cause célèbre accused of conspiring to blow up the Michigan headquarters of the CIA.
Sinclair despised Motown. He was suspicious of Gordy and the grip he had over young artists and believed that Motown was peddling an anodyne, compromised and saccharine style of R&B that did not deserve the name soul and had fatally compromised a rougher and more honest form of black expression. Periodically, he used his Downbeat column to comment on Detroit’s local black music scene, and he did it with unrestrained passion, often by taking disparaging side swipes at Gordy’s empire. It was a one-way rivalry. Gordy never replied, and it is not even clear whether he knew he was under attack. Sinclair, like many others of his generation, felt that Motown had diluted the burning liquor of R&B and turned it into a soft drink. In one near-libelous attack, he described Motown as an “exploitation creep scene” and accused Gordy of ripping off naïve and impressionable young ghetto singers, or “spade groups,” as he routinely called them at the time.
It was not the first time Berry Gordy had been accused of exploitation, and it would not be the last. By 1967 his own musicians were whispering behind his back, and the term “exploitation” was to pursue him – often unfairly – for the rest of his working life. Berry Gordy was not a particularly litigious man, nor was he easily wounded. He tended to brush off criticism with a hunched shrug; he had been brought up to see revenge as a distraction from success. He had a work schedule stacked higher than the snow and precious little free time. He was not about to waste it pursuing a bickering jazz critic or the half-chewed polemic of local hippies. Gordy treated the Steering Committee with the ultimate disdain: he didn’t even know they existed. He had never heard of them, never read of their exploits and did not share their revolutionary rhetoric. Motown and the Steering Committee lived in different versions of Detroit, a city where housing was still largely segregated, where communities existed incommunicado, and where an unspoken suspicion had crept into everyday life. Gordy and Sinclair were both hardcore jazz fans who bought records from the same makeshift shops, but they heard radically different things in music. Sinclair was the son of a teacher who heard a revolutionary zeal in jazz and thought it angry, disruptive, and challenging. Gordy had grown up under the stewardship of an immensely aspirational black family that had already escaped the ghetto. He had come to resent the way that African American music was marginalised, or shoved out into the ghettos of success. Gordy was determined to occupy the mainstream and anyone who wanted music to change the world through disruption was speaking a different language.
A growing number of people in Detroit did want to change the world. The war in Vietnam was escalating, and by the evening of January 2, Detroit had lost another victim, but this time the death was far from home. In Vietnam, dense wet fog and swollen rice paddies had bogged down US patrols around the Hoa Basin in South Vietnam, and in a brief flurry of confusion, 18-year-old George Scanlan of the Eleventh Military Transport Battalion, an Irish Catholic boy with 12 siblings from the northeast side of Detroit, was shot in the stomach. It was less than
a week since Scanlan had landed at Da Nang Harbor, and a close friend told the local press that his death was “a call to reality.” Scanlan was the first of several hundred young men from Detroit that would be killed or seriously injured in 1967. Unlike Scanlan, most were black and many had been recruited from the ranks of the city’s unemployed. Gordy had served in Korea and was instinctively predisposed to the military, and although the war in Vietnam would finally impact on Motown, he viewed everything through the prism of music sales and rarely talked about politics. The Steering Committee was less reticent, it was already at the vanguard of a restless Detroit underground that was willing to mobilise against American militarism and stop the war.
Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul by Stuart Cosgrove is out now via Clayton Media And Publishing.