Remembering the 1967 Detroit Riot, part 1: “Before the whole damn studio went up in flames”

by Brian Matzke on July 10, 2017

“Before the whole damn studio went up in flames”:
Motown at the start of the 1967 riot

The Automobile and American Culture
David L. Lewis and Laurence Goldstein, Editors

Before Motown
A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-60
Lars Bjorn with Jim Gallert

One Nation Under A Groove
Motown and American Culture
Gerald Early

I Hear a Symphony
Motown and Crossover R&B
Andrew Flory

Guitars, Bars, and Motown Superstars
Dennis Coffey

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Detroit riot, also knowns as the 12th Street riot, one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in American history. University of Michigan Press is marking the anniversary with a series of blog posts examining the history and culture of Detroit and the legacy of the 12th Street riot.

It’s difficult to talk about the history of Detroit without talking about the history of the automobile. The early twentieth century saw Henry Ford, Ransom E. Olds, William C. Durant, John and Horace Dodge, and numerous others open offices and factories in Southeast Michigan. It’s unclear why this region became the center for the industry; as John B. Rae puts in The Automobile and American Culture, “The vital point is that they were there, in the right place, at the right time, and with the right talents” (9).

Those talents flocked to Michigan from all over the world; in 1900 Detroit was a mid sized city with a population of 286,000, but by 1920 it was the fourth largest city in the country, with a population of over a million. Initially, this population boom was driven by immigration, and by 1925, half of the city’s population was foreign born. But the Great Migration saw a large number of Black workers move to Detroit from the U.S. South, dramatically changing the city’s demographics. In 1910 there were 5,700 African American residents of Detroit, or 1.2 percent of the population. By 1930 the city had 120,000 Black residents, who comprised 7.7 percent of the population.

These new residents created a vibrant and unique culture, and in particular, a distinctive sound. Detroit was always a town with a thriving music scene; in the 1930s, people danced in ballrooms to local big bands like the Walton Band and the Cecil Lee Orchestra, and in the ’40s and ’50s, Jazz clubs provided exposure for a diverse range of musicians and showcased a variety of new talents. In the 1950s, the Blue Bird Inn on the west side of town was at the center of modern jazz in the U.S. Miles Davis played there when he stayed in Detroit in 1953-54, as did notable local musicians like Barry Harris, Alvin Jackson, and Frank Grant.

Of course, the sound that Detroit would become famous for, that would become the city’s biggest global export (second only to cars) was Motown. Berry Gordy launched Motown Records in 1959. It one of several hundred R&B record companies to open in the music industry’s post-World War II period of expansion, but it would dominate the genre for much of the 1960s and create an intimate association between R&B music and the city of Detroit.

Given that hundreds of R&B record labels emerged across the U.S. in the 1950s and 60s, it’s not entirely clear why Detroit and Motown gained the cultural prominence that it did, but Gerald Early speculates that one reason may be the heavy emphasis that predominantly Black Detroit public schools placed on music education. He writes:

It is a common myth that blacks learn about music in their churches and like all myths it has a considerable amount of truth. Yet black secular music education provides as much, if not more, training for blacks who seek a music career than churches do…. Consider this fact about Motown: The three major early groups of the company–the Supremes, the Temptations, and the Miracles–were put together at their high schools (75-77).

Early asserts that Motown could not have happened without strong public school music education programs, and those strong public school programs existed thanks to the economic prosperity brought by the automotive industry. One vision of Detroit culture in the post-war era, then, is a vision of black socioeconomic mobility brought by a strong American industry.

This was often the image that Berry Gordy’s company consciously projected to the world. As Andrew Flory observes:

Motown often asserted black identity to serve its crossover agenda. Most obviously, the company’s artists used comportment, choreography,  and image fabrication to depict an idealized black middle class. Against the backdrop of the rising soul movement, Motown groups like the Supremes and the Temptations were visibly “uptown” performers during the last half of the 1960s, performing on prime-time television programs like The Ed Sullivan Show and their own specials and working in high class cabaret nightclubs. These groups used musical style in pointed ways in these mainstream venues, recording standards and interpreting their hits in hybrid forms (5).

This desire to project an image of “uptown” Black Detroit complicated Motown’s relationship with emerging black radicalism and with the 1967 riots.

Still, racial and economic tensions simmered in the city since the demographic changes of the great migration. Black residents faced discrimination in both public and private housing, and workplace racial conflict became more open, with white workers going on strike to protest racial integration in the auto factories. The 1967 uprising wasn’t even the city’s first major riot; these racial conflicts had previously escalated to the point of mass violence in June 1943, when fights between groups of white and Black residents spiraled into several days of turmoil, which did not stop until federal troops intervened. The 1943 riot left 34 Detroiters dead, 9 white and 25 black, most of whom were killed by white police officers. Twenty-four years later, the 1967 riots resulted in 41 dead, 8 white and 33 black. Over the course of five days in July, it resulted in over 1,000 injuries, over 7,000 arrests, and over $40 million in property damage.

Compared to the rest of the city, the music industry was relatively well integrated, which created an uncertain relationship with the riots and the tensions that had led to them. Dennis Coffey had been one of Motown’s most in-demand session guitarists in the 1960s, performing with the Temptations, the Supremes, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye. In his memoir, Guitars, Bars, and Motown Superstars, Coffey describes being in a recording session when the riots broke out:

We started the tape machine and kicked out the jams, wanting to get the tracks recorded before the whole damn studio went up in flames. In Detroit, we always had both black and white musicians in our sessions, so at the time we didn’t feel the riot as racial. In fact, we weren’t really sure what the hell was going on, so we just completed the songs, grabbed the tapes, and got the hell out of there (44).

It would take some time for people to figure out what the hell was going on, and how it had started.

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