Detroit was burning.
Headlining a string of shows for a hometown crowd, the singer of “Heatwave,” “Dancing in the Street” and other hits announced that rioting had spread through the city. Leave calmly, she said, and return safely to your homes.
Fifty years later, the leader of Martha and the Vandellas still can’t quite believe it happened. “Imagine going out there lighthearted and ready to work,” she said. “My heart was beating so fast after returning to the dressing room.”
In the days that followed, Motown’s “Sound of Young America” — on the stage and in the studio — was silenced by the sights and sounds of sirens, gunshots, fires and military tanks along Detroit’s streets. For about a week, as the city was convulsed in violence that began when police arrested black patrons at an after-hours bar, the studio went dark.
Motown was near the epicenter but largely spared during unrest that enveloped 25 city blocks and claimed 43 lives.
What happened in the streets was a wake-up call for many at the label that churned out hits by the Vandellas, as well as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Temptations, Four Tops and others. The rioting, the deadliest of dozens that raged that summer in U.S. cities, raised consciousness and even recalibrated the music alongside the Vietnam War and assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
At the time of the riots, Motown truly was “Hitsville USA.” According to author and Motown expert Adam White, the labels that comprised the company had eight singles in the Billboard Hot 100 that week, including two songs in the top 20 and a couple more that were covered by others. Although Motown tunes continued to play on the radio during those deadly days of unrest, it was the first time in years that the studio at 2648 W. Grand Boulevard, famous for manufacturing music around-the-clock, had gone quiet for such a long period.
Motown’s recording session logs, now kept in a New York City vault maintained by the Universal Music Group, show work halted on July 22 and didn’t resume until July 31, according to company officials.
As chaos descended, loyal Motown staffers thought it would be business as usual.
“All day Sunday … TV was totally involved in covering as much as they could — in spite of that there were some of us who got up Monday morning and made our way to work,” said Pat Cosby, who worked in the studio’s tape library. “We did hear gunfire as we’re on the Lodge (freeway) and even then we’re thinking, ‘I got to get to work.’ We did not realize the overall destruction that was going on.”
Cosby recalled that she and her colleagues were met and “basically turned around at the door” by Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. The man who founded the label in 1959 with an $800 family loan told his employees that, much to his dismay, the sonic assembly line had stopped.
“Berry says, ‘You’re putting your lives in danger. What are you doing here?'” Cosby recalled. “He was both proud that we were remaining true to the task, but at the same time it was like, ‘You better get in safe harbor.'”
Otis Williams, the lone surviving original member of the Temptations, recalls hearing “a .50-caliber machine gun being fired” on the street where he lived.
“My girlfriend and I laid down on the floor of the apartment building — we didn’t want to be want to be hit,” he said.
A few days later, he remembers taking a drive through “the city that was under fire and on fire,” and he wanted to see for himself “if they didn’t burn down Motown.”
“Amazingly enough … it was untouched,” Williams said. “I could not believe that Motown didn’t suffer. It was almost like somebody said, ‘No, you can do whatever else to Detroit, but leave Motown alone.'”
Claudette Rogers Robinson, a member of the Miracles who was then married to Smokey Robinson, recalls living on the city’s northwest side blocks from Livernois Avenue, a riot-stricken major thoroughfare.
“This guy was rolling a baby grand piano out of the store and down the street,” she said. “Everyone was saying, ‘Don’t go out, don’t go out,’ but I’ve always been way too curious. … I only saw a small portion of it — I went back home because Smokey was not happy with me doing that.”
The Miracles “were the love singers” not “message singers,” Robinson said, but her group responded to the violence in its way. A year later, the Miracles recorded “I Care About Detroit” as a public service in a bid to promote harmony. The act also scored a hit in 1969 with a cover of Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John,” which memorialized slain leaders, including King and the Kennedys.
“It had an effect, definitely. You can’t live in this world and not be affected by the things that surround us,” Robinson said.
Motown wouldn’t be as lyrically direct as “Motor City Is Burning” (recorded by legendary bluesman and Detroiter John Lee Hooker a couple months after the riots and covered a year later by Michigan-based punk pioneers MC5) or Gordon Lightfoot’s “Black Day in July,” which the Canadian folk singer released in 1968. But spurred by some artists, Gordy sought to tune the tension between being reliable hitmakers and reflecting what was happening — literally and figuratively — outside his door.
“The songs were beginning to reflect the turbulence in America,” said White, who wrote 2016’s “Motown: The Sound of America” with Barney Ales, former company executive vice president and general manager. “Motown was willing to address those difficult topics more in ’68 — producers, songwriters, artists. That was a consequence of the political and cultural upheavals happening in America.”
The rioting left its mark on Motown’s hit makers. Chris Clark saw the fires consuming sections of Detroit from a plane as she prepared to land. The young singer — among a small handful of white artists signed to the company — was moving to Detroit but would have to wait several days until things had calmed down to make music.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m glad my folks can’t see this,'” said Clark, now living in northern California.
Clark recalled “just kind of laying low” during the riot. She heard that recording engineers ran out of Studio A with two-inch master tapes, gunfire erupting around them, “in case the building burned.”
Wade Marcus, a Motown musician, producer and arranger, soon saw the futility of music-making amid the mayhem.
“What we tried to do, the first day or so … we tried to make things stay normal, but we just couldn’t,” he said.
For Marcus, those days are not so easily forgotten. He lived on Clairmount Street, down an alley from where the riots began, and dread lingers in his voice as he narrates scenes: A sniper across the street from his home shooting at police officers and National Guard troops, people rampaging through stores and the streets, “young guys” pulling into gas stations and filling cans to set fires, “some fella” in an alley trying on a pair of shoes among many he had stolen from a store.
“He asked me if I needed a pair,” Marcus said. “I said ‘No, no thank you.'”
He recalled a 1950s tour with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton during the Algerian uprising, when authorities searched the venues for bombs before every performance.
“The Algeria situation was scary but what was scary about Detroit was it started just grew and grew and grew,” he said. “I’m still feeling the effects of the ordeal. … It scared the hell out of me.”
Follow Jeff Karoub on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffkaroub His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/jeff%20karoub