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Motor City Is Burning: How Unrest In Detroit Helped Build Motown

In 1967, there was chaos on the streets of Detroit. In this extract from his book Detroit ’67: The Year That Changed Soul, Stuart Cosgrove rings in a year that brought turmoil to Michigan…

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.

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.

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