Motown Records, 1963, and the Heat Wave in Detroit

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White Michigan, and white America, was forced to recognize African Americans' struggle for equality. Like their metaphor for romance that Martha and the Vandellas sang of in 1963, the movement for equal rights was like a "Heat Wave."

by Mike Mosher


I. Can I Get a Witness

On June 23, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King gave speech at the Great March in Detroit, where 200,000 Detroiters protested segregation in housing. Auto factories had brought African American people from the southern US in large numbers to Detroit and other Michigan cities, yet their neighborhoods had increasingly grown separate, and rarely equal. A writer called Waistline reminded readers of the June 2013 Peoples' Tribune that the fatal shooting of prostitute Cynthia Scott, shot in the back that year by Detroit Police Officer Spicer who was not brought to trail, further angered the black community. At the Great March, Dr. King's speech was a version of the "I Have a Dream," later given in the August 1963 March on Washington. The imagery articulated a dream that resonated with his audience, and the Detroit speech was released by one of Berry Gordy's record labels that year as a long-playing album called The Great March to Freedom (Gordy G-908).

White Michigan, and white America, was forced to recognize African Americans’ struggle for equality. Like their metaphor for romance that Martha and the Vandellas sang of in 1963, the movement for equal rights was like a "Heat Wave." Some imagery from Motown Records' songs and performers (for whom every appearance in public, or before a camera, might be called a performance) that charted in 1963 suggested civil rights victories and the optimism of the early 1960s. In "Pride and Joy," Marvin Gaye sang about a lover, but it could describe the feeling when racial barriers were removed. "Mickey's Monkey," by The Miracles, was a fun party-time track that helped recoup from tired racist epithets. Martha Reeves wrote in her autobiography that

Major Lance’s big 1963 sensation "Monkey Time" had hit the Top Ten when black people had gotten over the stigma of being referred to as "apes." Everyone especially liked the way he did his monkey dance to his hit recording…The dance called "the monkey" became so hot so fast that Holland-Dozier-Holland instantly wrote the song "Mickey’s Monkey" ...to capitalize on it. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles also took their monkey song to Number 8 on the charts a couple of weeks later.

II. Money (That’s What I Want)

Motown embodied the optimism of John F. Kennedy, the new President who was a northern Democrat, in whom hopes for progressive legislation in civil rights and international relations were placed. Though rivaled by Memphis, 1960s Detroit was the center of black pop music creativity. Berry Gordy's Motown Records created short, affectionate songs by African Americans that enjoyed great crossover radio success, and purchase by white and black teenagers.

In her 1997 autobiography, singer Gladys Knight notes how Gordy
...was the son of a Detroit plastering contractor, who had worked as a chrome trimmer on the Ford assembly line while hustling talent and producing records on the side. Frustrated after being ripped off by bigger players and going through bankruptcy with his first record company, Berry began Motown in 1960 with an initial investment of $700 borrowed from his father, a former Georgia cotton farmer. Seven years later, Berry's new record company was worth $30 million.

Some notable 1963 releases from Motown Records included song by elegant girl groups: "Heat Wave" and "Quicksand" by Martha and the Vandellas, “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes" by the Supremes, and "Beechwood 4-5789" sung by The Marvelettes. As at Motown Records, women largely did the unheralded work of organizing the Detroit, and DC, political marches at which Dr. King preached.

Was Motown a feminist enterprise? Like any organization or corporation, one gets a sense that the essential legwork was usually done by women, who were under-paid, or volunteers, or somewhere in-between. In her passionately subjective 1990 memoir, Gordy's ex-wife Raynoma tells of Motown's early days, crediting herself with much of the devoted legwork that helped Berry Gordy realize his half-formed dreams of success. Skilled in music and dance, blessed with perfect pitch, Raynoma made herself indispensable with musical plus business skills. She gave Gordy, then a freelancer to white-owned company, the idea to start a music company called Rayber. When capital was short, and she learned to her dismay that Gordy had a few prostitutes in his employ, she turned a trick (just one, once) for another madam just to see what it was like and bring in some cash; the new company's first project, in, 1959 was the ironically-named record by Barrett Strong, "Money (That's What I Want)". Later, she convinced Gordy that they should start their own record label. Then she agreed for that label, Tamla, to be transferred to Gordy's sole ownership. As she tells it, she slept platonically in a double bed with Gordy until he finally kissed her, then they made love that night.

About Berry Gordy and the black singers he gathered and recorded, Gladys Knight recalled in her autobiography
Motown had developed nearly all of its talent from within. It was known for taking young talent from Detroit's housing project, street corners and honky-tonks, and refining rough-edged, rhythm-and-blues singers into pop performers…[Gordy] ran Motown like a star factory. His groups were put on salary even if they were selling millions of dollars worth of records. In other words, the royalties all poured into someone else's pocket…

Berry Gordy first saw his stable of performers in a milieu of Rat Pack 1950s show biz, brassy jazz bands, Harlem veteran choreographers, careful dress in dinner jackets and gowns. The Motown singers' were coached in dance skills by veteran choreographers, their performances rigorously critiqued, their poise in public refined by charm school teachers. To back up these singers he assembled a multiracial crew of skillful Detroit jazz musicians playing sessions who soon called themselves The Funk Brothers. These songs, with simple chord progressions, were given propulsion in the recording studio by the city's skillful jazz musicians.

III. Heat Wave

In June, 1963 Martha and the Vandellas' first album Come and Get these Memories released on Gordy Records. Their second one Heat Wave, was quickly recorded and released September 1963 to capitalize on the hit "(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave". Reeves recalled
Here we had our first Number 1 single and no album to go with it, so we recorded one—in one night! That's how fast we had to produce our second album, Heat Wave. We couldn't lose the momentum the single had created…We recorded everyone else's hits because it was the trend of record companies at the time to cover all of the top songs of the day.

Besides their hit, the rest of the album were songs that were hits that year for other artists, mostly white: "Then He Kissed Me," "Hey There Lonely Boy," "More (Theme from Mondo Cane)", "Danke Schoen," "If I Had a Hammer," "Hello Stranger," "Just One Look," "Wait Till My Bobby Gets Home," "My Boyfriend's Back," "Mockingbird." Following five shows in Baltimore, they recorded, then flew back to perform four more. In a three day stretch in September her vocal trio also recorded backup vocals for Marvin Gaye, and performed nine shows in Baltimore book-ending their trip back to Detroit. Some sort of hypodermic injections revived their overused throats.

You say to yourself, "Go get it, girl," and you never look back!

IV. You Lost the Sweetest Boy

Meanwhile Raynoma Gordy was trying to manage both the Motown office and her relationship with Berry Gordy. Eventually, in autumn 1963, Raynoma suffered such harassment by Gordy's new companion Margaret that she suggested a New York office be opened, and she'd manage it. And right around then, Raynoma conflates the death of JFK and the demise of her romance with Berry Gordy.
November 1963. For those of us who lived through it, there will always be that memory of where we were when it happened. I was on my way up to the office in the Brill Building, which stood at the edge of Times Square. And it was as though the shot in Dallas rang out through the city streets of New York. The news was blasting everywhere, from stores and car radios and offices. People were pushing and shoving to get to the newsstands. Faces were wet with tears. The city was shrouded in despair. And collective shock. President Kennedy had been assassinated. My first reaction was disbelief. He had represented the idealism of the country. He was our hope and our spirit and now he was gone. I thought at once of Berry, and at that moment the phone rang in the office. "I guess you heard about Kennedy." His voice was strained. 'Yes." there was a long silence."I thought about who I could call to talk to about this"... ...I was unable to come to grips with the fact that Kennedy was dead. She later recalls
The president's death continued to affect us. That day in November cast a darkness over the months to follow. The future seemed more uncertain to me than it ever had before, as though the world needed to start all over again.

Another female vocalist who found success at Motown Records, Gladys Knight, framed her career and family life in the context of the Kennedy Presidency. In her own autobiography, she wrote of the early 1960s
Things were happening out there. It was an incredibly exciting time to be a performer. The music scene was shifting and expanding. Jackie and JFK were doing the Twist in the White House. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles were turning up their night moves in Detroit and Little Eva was doing the Locomotion on American Bandstand...Meanwhile, as my pregnancy progressed, we added…a rocking chair that the guys gave me so I could sing while giving my legs and back a break…After all, President Kennedy was sitting on a rocking chair and getting a lot of good press, so why shouldn't I?
But then more sadly, My second child, Kenya, entered the world in a time of uncertainty and tumult…She was born on November 25, 1963, the day a stunned nation said farewell to its assassinated president, John F. Kennedy, whom we had gotten to know through his sister Eunice Kennedy. She was a fan of our music and had invited us to play at fund-raisers as well as at the White House on a couple of occasions. Like most people, I was shocked by JFK's murder in Dallas two days earlier and I'd been glued to the television when I wasn't performing.

Mid-afternoon, the author of this article was home from school. I sat on the living room rug drawing while my mother ironed, probably her dress for the Cub Scout dinner that evening (she was our neighborhood troop's Den Mother). The phone rang, and someone informed her the dinner was cancelled because of the death of the President. "That's too bad," she said sympathetically but calmly. "Who was the President of the Cub Scouts?" A moment later, her eyes widened, and she shouted "Oh my God! Oh my God!" She said, "Mike, go tell the neighbors, President Kennedy has been shot!" I ran next door, told the beer-bellied (can of Stroh's in hand) dour father of two boys. "President Kennedy's been shot!" He looked at me menacingly "Yeah, so what?" I ran to the next house.

V. Talkin' Bout Boys

The British rock magazine MOJO noted in its August, 2013 issue that in 1963, the UK had been shocked by the Secretary of State for War John Profumo's resignation after lying to the House of Commons about his affair with Christine Keeler, also involved with Russian Naval Attaché Yevgeni Ivanov. A pop record that summer called "Christine," featured "Miss X" on vocals whispering "I'm a good girl...I told you I was good...Your secret is safe with me." Giggling and sighing and all-but-implying that Miss X was Miss Keeler, the record was banned by the BBC in July.

On November 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, a band of Motown-admiring Englishmen called the Beatles released their second album in the UK. Among the non-original songs covered by the band were energetic, rave-up versions of two Gordy productions, Barrett Strong's 1959 "Money" and the Marvelettes' 1961 "Please Mr. Postman". When the album was released in the US in April, 1964 the Band toured the US, played on the Sunday evening Ed Sullivan show and were shown around New York (while being frequently interviewed) by radio personality Murray the K. The cheerful rock band have been credited with helping a staggering, melancholy nation get over the Kennedy assassination in November, and America's youth (including this author) were sold souvenir buttons, Beatle wigs, and trading cards with a slab of hard bubblegum. When the Beatles played Olympia Stadium in Detroit in 1964, the Detroit News' staff artist drew their characteristic Beatle haircuts upon Henry Ford II, Mayor Jerry Cavanaugh, Walter P. Chrysler, Detroit Symphony Orchestra conductor Sixten Ehrling, and electric utility CEO Walker Cisler of the Detroit Edison Company.

Did the Beatles' cover versions increase Motown records' presence in the US? Martha Reeves linked them when she wrote
In 1964 the musical era changed, and Berry's "formula" suddenly clicked. That year marked the debut of the Beatles and the British Invasion, TV shows like "Shindig," and the official arrival of the Motown Sound.
By the mid-1960s, after bands from Great Britain valorized it, local (and Canadian, within earshot) AM radio was filled with Soul music and "Blue-eyed Soul," white singers who sounded black. Arguments persist on whether this is a form of theft, of minstrelsy, or imitation as the sincerest form of flattery and homage.

VI. The Sound of Young America

Motown songs by Martha and the Vandellas and others were the soundtrack, with accompanying visuals, of my early-grade school childhood. Short parables of young romantic love (impossible for a child to comprehend), memorable with their sincere and impassioned voices, beat and bed of clear instrumentation. There was handsome, young President, with a stylish, pretty wife and smart people in his White House, dealing with crises and protecting the nation from Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev and Cuban Premier Fidel Castro. I soon learned that I could caricature Kennedy, like the cartoonists in the newspaper did, if I made a big shock of hair atop his head. I drew Nazi swastikas upon the Communist bad guys until my Republican father ("You draw it, Ray, you know tools," said Mom) carefully drew a hammer and sickle for me. My father was a short, fat man who taught at the University of Michigan, and my mother berated the dress trousers he wore with tweed sport jacket, white shirt and tie, as "Kruschev pants." I was old enough to mentally contrast his style to the smooth black male singers on television who wore trim Ivy League suits, nothing baggy.

In the untraditional record release, "Fingertips, Part 2," in 1963, the blind 12 year old musical wunderkind from Saginaw called Little Stevie Wonder keeps singing and jamming on his harmonica after the song has supposedly stopped, much as other young people marched and protested while their conservative parents stayed home so as not to rock the boat. Yet in "Fingertips," ultimately spread over both sides of the 45 r.p.m. single, the grown-up band quickly jumps back in and supports the young renegade in a cooperative, happy resolution to the song. Four years younger than Stevie Wonder, I never knew the era of African American's invisibility in popular media, for they seemed to be on every new television show, if only as guests, and treated by Ed Sullivan (or later, Shindig's Jack Good) with respect.

Whereas for many years there had been a black minority in Ann Arbor, forty-some miles west of Detroit, a child in elementary school couldn't help but be aware of parents' concern about plans to bus children (their white children) out of neighborhood schools in walking distance to achieve racial parity. But black kids were interesting, verbal and expressive, with different skin and hair and stories to tell on the playground. Childish imaginations stretched, imagining our black classmates growing up into those elegant personages in matching gowns or suave suits that we saw harmoniously singing and dancing on television.

February 5, 1964, the Beatles were delighted that "I Want to Hold Your Hand," from their first album, was number one on the US pop charts, and a US tour was in preparation. Said an interviewer at London Airport who caught them as they returned from a Paris engagement, "I must tell you, by the way, that Detroit University [presumably University of Detroit] has got a 'Stamp Out The Beatles' movement." George Harrison and John Lennon muttered "I know, yeah," and "Yeah, we heard something about that," but Paul McCartney piped up "We've got a 'Stamp Out Detroit'!" to laughter all around. The interviewer pressed on, "They think your haircuts are un-American", to which Lennon replied "Well, it was very observant of them because we aren't American, actually."

At our third grade class picnic in late May 1964, two other white boys and I made cardboard guitars, combed our hair forward over our foreheads, and bluffed our way through almost ten minutes of half-remembered Beatles songs. Increased attention to white guitar-based bands momentarily elbowed out black vocal groups who had come out of the earlier doo-wop tradition. The Liverpool Sound also diminished the popularity of early '60s southern California surf music, and its related hot rod culture; when I interviewed him in 1995, hot rod/monster artist Ed "Big Daddy" Roth lamented that the Beatles' popularity turned teenage boys to starting rock bands instead of working on, and customizing, their cars.

In Washington D.C., Kennedy's successor President Lyndon Baines Johnson had years of experience in the U.S. Senate, and was able to get his way with even hesitant southern legislators to push through the civil rights legislation that Kennedy had proposed before his death. Rallies like those organized by Dr. King and others in 1963 were essential to the process. Johnson successfully pushed legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voters Rights Act of 1965, Fair Housing Act and other laws protecting racial integration (and predicted the American south would be lost to the Republican Party for one generation; it's already been two).

Nevertheless, and despite ensuing setbacks, the new era of biracial negotiation rolled on. Motivating energies rolled out of the doors of Mr. Gordy's Detroit audio dream factory, over Ann Arbor and across Michigan. Much as it was anywhere, the propulsive combustion of the year 1963, and beyond, was "like a heat wave, burning in my heart." Which, is to say, to the little kids and youth of America's heartland.


Books consulted:

Knight, Gladys, Between Each Line of Pain and Glory: My Life Story. 1997, New York, Hyperion.

Reeves, Martha, and Bego, Mark, Dancing in the Streets: Confessions of a Motown Diva, 1994, New York, Hyperion.

Singleton, Raynoma Gordy, Berry, Me and Motown: The Untold Story. 1990, Chicago, Contemporary Books.


Though 110 miles from Detroit, Mike Mosher can tell the difference between "Mickey's Monkey," the Monkees, and Theolonius Monk.

Copyright © Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.

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