It seems like it was less than a month ago when I last hit the road for the thirteen-hour drive from Kansas City, Missouri to Port Huron, Michigan–probably because it was. But here we are in mid-June, and it’s already time for Callie and I to strike out again on the ol’ dusty trail, to pick up my son from his mom’s new home in the Washington, D.C. area and take him to spend a few weeks with his dad’s side of the family. The good news is that the trip from Eastern Michigan to Northern Virginia is an especially musically rich one: beginning, I’m excited to say, with quite possibly my favorite music city in the world, Detroit.
Now for the bad news. Turns out the trip is a little too musically rich for me to wrap up my post in time for our actual departure. As a result, I’m splitting this Road Mix into two parts: the first part, focusing on Detroit and ending in Toledo, Ohio, goes up today. The second part, covering the rest of the trip from Cleveland to D.C., will be finished in time for my second Michigan-to-Virginia road trip next month, when I actually move to the area for good. It’s a little lop-sided, I know, but trust me: Detroit alone has enough musical history to make the first two hours of a nine-hour trip feel like enough material for the first half. And besides, even if I had managed to crank the whole trip out in one post, it would probably be like 10,000 words, and even I don’t want to read all that. So anyway, here it is: Part 1 of my two-part journey from the upper Midwest to the lower East Coast.
Much like Chicago, Detroit began its musical life as a northern industrial destination for African Americans during the Great Migration. Also like in Chicago, this mass migration created a vibrant Black community–centered around Maxwell Street in Chicago, and Black Bottom (named for its fertile, dark topsoil, and blessedly not for its racial makeup) in east Detroit–that in turn became a hotbed for blues music. And finally, just like in Chicago, this historic blues cradle was ultimately bulldozed to make way for a more “upscale” neighborhood: in Detroit’s case, the high-rise International Style residential district known as Lafayette Park.
Before all that, however, Black Bottom was a community with a thriving musical nightlife not unlike that of Kansas City‘s Jazz District. And while Detroit’s blues scene may not hold the same worldwide renown as Chicago’s, it did give us John Lee Hooker: the son of a North Mississippi sharecropper who made his earliest recordings, including 1948’s classic “Boogie Chillen’,” at Detroit’s legendary United Sound Studios.
In addition to the blues, Detroit also played host to a major jazz scene in the 1950s, producing a long list of noteworthy players primarily in the hard bop vein. One of these was trumpeter Thad Jones: hailing originally (along with equally noted musical brothers Hank and Elvin) from nearby Pontiac, whose 1956 Blue Note album Detroit-New York Junction featured fellow Detroiters Tommy Flanagan and Kenny Burrell, as well as honorary Detroiter Billy Mitchell.
Meanwhile, the Detroit Rhythm & Blues that would eventually flower into Motown–don’t worry, we’ll get there soon enough–was already taking root downtown. A former doo-wop group called the Midnighters, led by Ford assembly line worker Hank Ballard, played a formative role in the emerging genre of rock’n’roll throughout the decade; then, in 1959, they scored a regional dance hit with Ballard’s original composition “The Twist,” months before Philadelphia’s Chubby Checker took his version of the song to the top of the pop charts.
The biggest name in pre-Motown Detroit R&B, however, was Fortune Records. Founded in 1951 by music publishers Devora and Jack Brown, Fortune specialized in raw Rhythm & Blues by artists including the aforementioned John Lee Hooker–and Andre Williams, whose 1956 proto-rap “Bacon Fat” was the label’s first big hit. Williams, who would go on to write hits like “Shake a Tail Feather” for other artists (and would experience a late-career rebirth at the turn of the century with the help of Detroit’s burgeoning garage-punk scene), supposedly adopted his drawling talk-singing style because he had no hope of competing vocally with his label-mate Nathaniel Mayer: whose own doo-wop flavored 1962 hit “Village of Love” made Fortune’s biggest-ever impact on the national charts. Mayer would make a garage-flavored comeback of his own before his death in 2008; Fortune–ironically, given its name–was much less lucky. The label’s commercial fortunes had fizzled by the early ’70s, and its longstanding storefront on Third Avenue finally shut its doors in 1995. Six years later, arsonists reduced the building to a hollowed-out concrete shell (pictured above); it was demolished in October 2001, and remains a vacant lot.
If Fortune Records’ history has been left sadly unpreserved, then its onetime chief competitor has been served the exact opposite fate: “Motown” has become synonymous for many with the sound of Detroit music, and the label’s former base of operations is not a vacant lot, but a historical museum. It’s easy to forget, after all of this, that Motown and its sister label Tamla started out as independent record companies in the truest sense of the word: founder Berry Gordy, Jr., another automotive plant worker (and former professional boxer), ran the business out of his home on West Grand Boulevard, converting the photo studio at the back of the property into a recording studio. He founded the company in 1959 from his songwriting royalties for local artists including Jackie Wilson, whose success (especially overseas) with the 1957 single “Reet Petite” provided much of the capital for the label’s launch.
The “Motown Sound” stood in stark contrast to the sound of Fortune Records, and even Jackie Wilson. It was smoother and more pop-friendly, which undoubtedly contributed to its massive crossover success with white listeners. One of the primary architects of the early Motown Sound was William “Smokey” Robinson, whose silky lead vocals with the Miracles and hit songwriting and production for other artists eventually led to his appointment in the mid-’60s as the label’s vice president. You can hear Robinson’s pronounced influence on the established Detroit R&B sound–and his debt to another soul music pioneer, Chicago’s Sam Cooke–in the Miracles’ 1962 classic “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.”
By the middle of the decade, other groups and songwriting/production teams had risen to prominence and continued to shape Motown’s style. Holland-Dozier-Holland, the professional partnership of Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, brought an even more pronounced pop sensibility influenced by the baroque productions of Phil Spector to songs like “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” by the Supremes, whose lead singer Diana Ross was romantically involved with Gordy for much of the ’60s. Meanwhile, producer/songwriter Norman Whitfield and singer/lyricist Barrett Strong favored a grittier sound for their material with the Temptations: eventually flowering into the hard-edged, funky “psychedelic soul” of songs like 1968’s “Cloud Nine,” which earned Motown its first Grammy Award for Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance.
Even at the height of Motown’s chart dominance, however, not all soul artists from Detroit were part of Gordy’s family of labels. Aretha Franklin would achieve her greatest fame with her late-’60s records on Atlantic, backed by the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, but she got her start in Detroit: singing at her father Rev. Clarence LeVaughn Franklin’s New Bethel Baptist Church in Black Bottom (later relocated midtown to Linwood and West Philadelphia). Franklin’s early gospel material isn’t available on Spotify, but “Once in a While,” recorded in 1960 for Columbia soon after her transition to secular music, amply demonstrates the influence of New Bethel and the gospel tradition on her body of work.
Also developing in parallel to Motown during the 1960s was the ongoing tradition of hard-driving Motor City rock and roll. Hamtramck‘s Mitch Ryder and backing group the Detroit Wheels infused their Detroit soul influences with a post-Rolling Stones rock sensibility, leaving their indelible mark on electrifying covers including “Devil with a Blue Dress On” (originally written and recorded by Motown artist Shorty Long). A few years later, proto-punk upstarts the MC5 would push Ryder’s full-throttle blue-eyed soul even further, with acid-fried early singles like 1968’s “Looking at You.” And the Amboy Dukes‘ lead guitarist Ted Nugent, though better known today for making thinly-veiled threats of violence against sitting presidents, was instrumental in forging the guitar sound of Detroit rock with his 1967 version of Big Joe Williams‘ (by way of Van Morrison‘s) blues standard “Baby Please Don’t Go”: raw, overdriven blues-rock, with wails of feedback typically likened by Nugent himself to the sound of breeding animals.
The aforementioned MC5 were notorious not only for their music, but also for their manager: Southeast Michigan poet, Artists’ Workshop founder, music writer, and chairman of the radical White Panther Party, John Sinclair. Sinclair’s counterculture manifesto Guitar Army, written while he was serving a ten-year term at Jackson State Prison for selling two joints of marijuana to a plainclothes police officer (he ultimately served only two, after Michigan’s Supreme Court deemed the state’s classification of marijuana as a narcotic unconstitutional in 1972), borrowed its title from a 1969 song by the Rationals of nearby Ann Arbor. But the definitive Detroit rock band, for me at least, has to be the Stooges: another Ann Arbor-area band–with leader James Osterberg, better known as Iggy Stooge and, later, Iggy Pop, hailing from a trailer park just off old U.S. 23 in Ypsilanti–that followed the MC5 in becoming a house band for the iconic rock venue the Grande Ballroom. Pretty much everything the Stooges recorded in their original three-album run was classic, but 1970’s Fun House has to get the nod: opening track “Down on the Street” is, as far as I’m concerned, the most “Detroit” rock song ever recorded.
I also feel I would be remiss in not mentioning Bob Seger of Lincoln Park–also home to the MC5 and seminal psychedelic artist Gary Grimshaw–whose early records with the Last Heard (later known as the Bob Seger System), like 1967’s “Heavy Music” and 1968’s “Rambling Gambling Man,” were definitive Detroit rock. Unfortunately, however, those Stalinists at Spotify don’t have any Seger (not even fuckin’ “Night Moves”), so we’ll just have to move on.
Both the MC5 and the Stooges were heavily influenced by the sounds of avant-garde and free jazz, which despite being centered largely in New York had a strong Detroit connection. Bands like Sun Ra’s Arkestra played the Grande Ballroom alongside rock groups (the MC5 even opened for them a few times), and the aforementioned Detroit Artists’ Workshop was a cooperative community venue that promoted the study and performance of contemporary jazz along with other underground art forms. Multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef studied composition at Wayne State University during the 1950s, and dedicated his 1969 concept album Yusef Lateef’s Detroit: Latitude 42° 30′ Longitude 83° to his former home. Lateef was also an early mentor to a young jazz pianist and harpist named Alice McLeod: better known as Alice Coltrane, after her marriage to the post-bop saxophone titan John. Coltrane didn’t make her mark as a recording artist until long after she had left Detroit behind; but listen to her bluesy piano playing on “Jaya Jaya Rama” from 1969’s Huntington Ashram Monastery (also featuring bassist Ron Carter, of suburban Ferndale), and the Motor City influence can be felt.
As Detroit jazz and rock music continued to stretch their respective boundaries, even the commercial Motown Sound began to follow suit. Stevie Wonder, who signed to Gordy’s Tamla label when he was just 11 years old, used the occasion of his 18th birthday to renegotiate for drastically increased creative freedom. His 1971 album Where I’m Coming From, featuring the baroque-soul classic “If You Really Love Me,” was the first of a lengthy string of ’70s soul masterpieces from Wonder: including Talking Book (1972), Innervisions (1973), and of course, Songs in the Key of Life (1976). The same year, another longtime Motown artist, Marvin Gaye, made his own statement of artistic intent with the socially conscious, musically sophisticated landmark album What’s Going On. It’s worth noting that What’s Going On was the first record in the Motown family to actually credit the Funk Brothers: the crack session team who played on virtually all the hits from “Hitsville, U.S.A.” between 1959 and 1972. Listen to the backing track of “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” and you’ll see just how sorely that credit was deserved.
Meanwhile, beyond the auspices of Hitsville entirely, an even more progressive form of R&B was taking root. George Clinton had served as a staff songwriter for Motown for a stint in the 1960s, with the label giving “I Can’t Shake It Loose” to the Supremes and “I’ll Bet You” to the Jackson 5; he’d also cut several records with his vocal group the Parliaments for independent labels around the city, most notably 1967’s “(I Wanna) Testify” for Revilot Records. By the end of the ’60s, however, he was into a whole new thang: turning the Parliaments into a full-blown psychedelic soul act called Funkadelic, driven by the post-Hendrix guitar stylings of Eddie Hazel. Parliament, a more radio-friendly, less rock-oriented incarnation of P-Funk employing the same musicians, soon followed suit. You can hear Clinton still at work spiking the Motown punch with his 1974 version of “The Goose”: a re-recording of another old Parliaments track co-written with Hazel that sounds like the Four Tops on brown acid.
By the 1970s, however, Detroit had slid into an infamously deep decline. Increasing white flight in the late ’60s had exacerbated the impoverishment of the inner cities and bred racial tensions that culminated in five days of chaos and civil unrest in the summer of 1967. After the riots, Detroit was on a trajectory of urban decay that still has not been fully reversed: compounded by the wider economic struggles of the 1970s, the rise of violent organized crime, and the epidemics of first heroin and then crack cocaine. So it’s unsurprising that Detroit also ceased to be a major musical center for most of the 1970s; even Motown moved to Los Angeles at the beginning of the decade.
This is not to say that Detroit was quite the barren wasteland it was stereotypically portrayed as in the late ’70s and early ’80s. New music was still coming out of the Motor City: including the art-funk crew Was (Not Was), whose 1981 debut album sounded like a mix of P-Funk and Talking Heads, and included guest spots by Detroit-area musicians like Wayne Kramer from the MC5, Doug Fieger of the Knack, and former Charles Mingus trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. Around the same time, the Romantics scored national attention with power-pop hits like “What I Like About You.” But these bands were the exception, rather than the rule. And when another musical movement of note did emerge in mid-1980s Detroit, it was one that reflected the city’s post-industrial desolation.
Detroit Techno actually emerged about 30 miles southwest of Detroit: in the small city of Belleville, home of pioneering DJs Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson. The so-called “Belleville Three” were fans of legendary Detroit radio DJ Charles “The Electrifying Mojo” Johnson, who played an eclectic mix of local artists, contemporary R&B and funk acts (particularly Prince), and electronic music by the likes of Kraftwerk, Afrika Bambaataa, and Yellow Magic Orchestra. This sense of eclecticism, as well as the influence of Chicago’s house music scene, led directly to the invention of techno: which May described as “Hi-Tek Soul,” the sound of “George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator, with only a sequencer to keep them company.”
Though they were all mixing electronic music as early as 1981, Atkins was the first of the Belleville Three to release a record, after he formed Cybotron with Rick Davis, a classmate at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor. Cybotron’s “Cosmic Cars,” from 1982, demonstrates Detroit Techno’s unique blend of funk influences with robotic futurism. May was next to make an impact, under the moniker of Rhythim is Rhythim: his 1987 single “Strings of the Strings of Life” was given its name by Chicago House pioneer Frankie Knuckles, whose influence is also abundantly clear on the track. Finally, Saunderson lent a more pop-friendly approach to his work as Inner City, featuring Illinois singer Paris Grey on house-flavored tracks like 1989’s “Big Fun.”
Though it was never a major hub for the music, Detroit’s largely independent hip-hop scene is also worth mentioning. Esham Attica Smith, whose violent, hallucinogenic, occult-themed rhymes have been dubbed “acid rap” or “horrorcore,” released his 1989 debut album Boomin’ Words from Hell when he was just 16. Smith told Detroit’s Metro Times in 2008, “It was the crack era, when I made Boomin’, and that’s where all that really came from… It was all an expression about [’70s-’80s drug cartel] Young Boys Incorporated, Mayor Coleman Young, the city we lived in and just the turmoil that our city was going through at the time. We referred to the streets of Detroit as ‘Hell’ on that record. So that’s where my ideas came from.”
Both Esham’s indie hustle and his vision of Detroit as something out of a horror movie would be taken to an even more cartoonish level by the Insane Clown Posse; but whether you love to hate them or hate to love them (I have yet to meet anyone who actually loves or hates ICP), it’s hard to deny how successful they’ve been at building a lucrative brand. Plus, “Is That You,” from their 1992 debut Carnival of Carnage, allows me to kill two birds with one stone: it features a few guest verses by another metro-Detroit rapper, Romeo‘s own Kid Rock. On the whole other side of the spectrum is DJ Assault, whose comically pornographic music known as ghettotech bridges the gap between Detroit Techno and hip-hop.
But it’s impossible to talk about Detroit hip-hop without mentioning Marshall Mathers, a.k.a. Eminem, who put the city’s rap scene on the map with his massively successful millennial albums The Slim Shady LP (1999) and The Marshall Mathers LP (2000), as well as his performance in the semi-autobiographical 2002 film 8 Mile. Slim Shady‘s “Bad Meets Evil,” featuring Royce da 5’9″, is the first of many collaborations between the pair: both considered to be two of the most lyrical rappers of their generation, and both hailing from Detroit.
Edit 6/23: Ugh, I blame it on my rush to get this post finished, but I still can’t believe I left out beloved, prematurely departed producer James Yancey, better known as Jay Dee and even better known as J Dilla. So to remedy that, here’s “It’s Like That” from Dilla’s solo debut album, 2001’s Welcome 2 Detroit. It’s not as highly-regarded as his 2006 swan song Donuts, but it’s a prime example of the classic “boom bap” production style he lent to everyone from A Tribe Called Quest and Busta Rhymes to Ghostface Killah and the Roots.
More recently, Detroit enjoyed another brief moment in the sun as a major center of the early-2000s “garage rock” revival. Detroit’s garage-punk history actually dates back to the end of the ’80s and the formation of the Gories: a primitive punk-blues trio whose two frontmen, Mick Collins and Dan Kroha, would go on to front other important Detroit garage bands the Dirtbombs and the Demolition Doll Rods. But it would be the “brother/sister” (actually ex-married couple) duo the White Stripes, formed about ten years later, who took Detroit rock back to the mainstream with a striking visual style and an expanded sonic palette. “Hotel Yorba,” from their 2001 breakout album White Blood Cells, adds a pronounced country influence to the Detroit garage-blues mix, and manages to rock harder with a beat-up acoustic guitar than most turn-of-the-century bands could manage with a wall of amplifiers.
It’s well past time for us to move on, but I do want to end on the note that Detroit’s musical history is still ongoing. Most recently, a few other rappers have been doing their part to keep the city’s heritage alive. Daniel Dewan Sewell, a.k.a. Danny Brown, has received critical accolades and commercial attention for his skewed lyrical perspective on street life. And Sean Michael Leonard Anderson, better known as Big Sean, has risen to mainstream success by expanding the Midwestern hip-hop sound popularized by his mentor and label boss, Kanye West, to Detroit. But as you can see, I could talk about Detroit all day (and have), so let’s continue about an hour south on I-75 to Toledo, Ohio.
Undoubtedly Toledo’s most famous son is jazz piano legend Art Tatum. Tatum lived in Toledo for the first several years of his life before attending Columbus’ Ohio State School for the Blind, later returning to the city for training at the Toledo School of Music and some of his first public performances on the local radio station. His 1934 version of Will Hudson’s and Irving Mills’ jazz standard “Moonglow” is evidence of his genius: without Tatum’s virtuosic sense of improvisation, it’s unlikely that bebop would have ever existed.
Somewhat less significant to musical history, but still worth mentioning, are the instrumental rock’n’roll combo Johnny and the Hurricanes. Formed as the Orbits in 1957 by a group of high school students in nearby Rossford, the Hurricanes specialized in novelty rock covers of traditional songs like “Red River Valley”: transformed in 1959 to their biggest hit, “Red River Rock.” They saw their biggest success in Europe, even playing briefly with the then-unknown Beatles at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany.
Like Detroit, Toledo also has a tradition of African American gospel music. Gospel-soul star Rance Allen has been with Toledo’s New Bethel Church of God in Christ since it opened its doors in 1985: first as pastor, then, since 2011, as bishop. Allen’s 1973 song “Hotline to Jesus” may have been recorded before Allen made his way from Detroit to Toledo, but one imagines that his hotline is coming through clearer than ever now that he’s officially a man of the cloth. ’80s R&B singer Shirley Murdock also started out singing gospel in Toledo churches before she was discovered by Roger Troutman of the classic Hamilton, Ohio funk group Zapp. Her biggest hit, “As We Lay” from 1986, is hardly a devotional song, but the gospel influence is clear both in Murdock’s fiery vocals and in the lyrics’ powerful sense of guilt over an illicit affair.
Most recently, Toledo has yielded a smattering of alternative and indie rock groups. Koufax, formed in 1999, specialize in wiry, new-wavey power pop inspired by the likes of Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. Electroclash band Stylex, active from 1999 to 2007, played early ’80s-style electronic music with a punk-rock attitude. And the Soledad Brothers, from Toledo suburb Maumee, were a punk blues band so raw they were often mistaken for Detroiters before their 2006 breakup. The song chosen for this playlist, “Mean Ol’ Toledo” from their swan song The Hardest Walk, is a spooky acoustic folk-blues, much more docile than their usual material; but at least they went out in a way that reminded listeners what city they came from.
And with that, I’m officially out of time and out of energy. Like I said, we’ll be back in early July with the second installment of this epic road trip mix. In the meantime, listen, enjoy, and if I missed something (I totally missed a ton), let me know in the comments!