Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul

Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul



The Pequod Review:

Who would have thought a Scottish journalist would write one of the most intelligent and detailed historical accounts of the rather insular city of Detroit? Stuart Cosgrove's Detroit 67 is a thrilling and well-structured story that covers primarily a single pivotal year (1967) in the city's history. He focuses specifically on Detroit's music scene (especially its flagship label, Motown Records) and the violent riots that would fundamentally damage the city's reputation. In many ways, Detroit has still not fully recovered.

Cosgrove's month-by-month approach allows him to go deep into specific events while also placing each moment in the wider context of the city's cultural history. He has clearly done his work through impressively detailed research. This becomes apparent early on when he shows his awareness of truths that are not part of the standard Detroit narrative but are well-known by locals — starting with the fact that the city's economic decline long pre-dated the 1960s unrest:

Detroit’s economic miracle was by [1967] largely illusory. The city’s image as a boomtown had for many decades disguised underlying patterns of industrial decline. Between 1953 and 1960, seven major manufacturing plants closed on the East Side, resulting in the loss of over 70,000 jobs, mostly for black workers, and dozens of ancillary businesses had shut down. The umbilical cord that linked Motown to Mayor Cavanagh’s "model city" was being cut, and if the city and its most famous musical corporation were bound together, then it was not through success but in adversity. The year 1967 marked a turning point. Detroit’s budget was in the red for the first time in years, and events seemed to be conspiring against the Mayor. The escalating cost of the snowstorms crippled the city — more than 25,000 tons of salt had been scattered on the roads, double that of the previous winter, and Detroit was facing a budget shortfall of $11 million. It was the first time in his career that Cavanagh had been forced to use the leprous word "deficit."

And Detroit was changing physically. The freeways had slashed through the city, destroying old neighbourhoods and tree-lined avenues alike. A ten-year battle against Dutch elm disease had been lost after a strain of beetle imported in untreated antique furniture from Holland had spread virulently. Despite a city-wide programme of chemical spraying, Detroit had lost more than 120,000 trees, and once-shaded avenues were now marked by deformed rows of rotten timber. Those who could remember the city in its magisterial postwar days mourned the passing of the elms, and many clung to a widespread myth that dying elms could be cured by pure alcohol. Entomologists had long dismissed the idea as erroneous, but housewives could periodically be seen in side streets pouring liquor onto the roots of neighborhood trees in an act of caring desperation.

He also pinpoints the fragmented and dispersed nature of the city, which remains a key reason for its current troubles:

Seen from on high, the map of the city had not only been redrawn by the new freeways creating a concrete grid of avenues and access roads, but on closer examination Detroit was in fact a set of people and subcultures who cohabited but never really met. There was the hippie Steering Committee, the young rock gods of the Grande Ballroom, the disgruntled officers of the Detroit police, and a legion of car-assembly workers drawn from the tense communities of Polish and African-Americans. There were disenchanted young men who moved from unemployment to Vietnam, the radical soldiers of Black Power, the independent producers who saw soul music as their Klondike, and the caravan of older gospel Christians who had seen their homes destroyed to make way for freeways.

But the main focus of Detroit 67 is on Motown Records, a record label that in the 1960s would produce some of the most exhilarating music in American history. He starts by exploring the unique cultural factors that led to such an innovative music scene in the first place:

Detroit had an enlightened public-school system that brought classical music, choral training and jazz into ghetto classrooms. The city had hundreds of churches dotted along its main boulevards, and the gospel choirs were among the most competitive in black America. More importantly, Detroit had a magnetic force that drew talent towards it. It had been a hub of inward migration for over 200 years dating back to the Underground Railroad network that helped fugitive slaves escape north to Detroit and then over the river to freedom in Canada. For decades it was the southern states that provided Detroit’s human capital. All three members of the Supremes could trace their family’s roots back to the Deep South; Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams of the Temptations had been part of a more recent migration and came north from Birmingham, Alabama; Marvin Gaye had relocated from his native Washington DC, via jazz and doo-wop; and an eccentric barber named George Clinton had moved from New Jersey to join the local Revilot label and to lead yet another emergent group, the Parliaments. Most came prospecting for gold discs and found themselves in a city of unrestrained rivalry, vocal brilliance and bitter feuding. 

Motown Records was founded and led by Berry Gordy, an aggressive and entrepreneurial businessman who approached music production the same way General Motors approached automobile production:

Gordy was years ahead of his time. He was obsessed with sales charts and publishing data, and how music was perceived by the different ages and demographics across America. His curiosity was instinctive and it anticipated major changes yet to come in the recording industry. At times his passion for music tipped into an autistic-like control. He was able to identify faults in a recording within seconds, and he worried away at recording takes as if he were counting on an abacus. Although he was wealthy enough to own the most up-to-date sound systems in America, he preferred to listen to his songs the way real people did — on box record players, on transistor radios, and in cars. Gordy often went against the acoustic grain of his studio engineers and turned the volume down, reckoning that many people listened to music in the background, not at its highest volume. He would sometimes drive around the block to listen to a song on his car radio rather than at the studio desk and he preferred voices that were pleasing but distinctive: singers like Tammi Terrell, Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, and the tempestuous David Ruffin of the Temptations. One of his favourite voices belonged to his eccentric and emotionally unpredictable brother-in-law Marvin Gaye, who had married Gordy’s sister, Anna, in 1963. But Gordy was also deeply judgemental and often consigned new songs to the scrap heap on the basis of the first few incriminating beats. Careers had been cut short in those few decisive opening bars, and so artists across Detroit had come to respect and resent him in equal measure.


Gordy was systematic about music. He had a recipe for success and was prone to repeat the same formula until the market itself moved on, but even then he had an unshakeable belief that, like Hollywood, Motown’s success was predicated on storytelling. He argued vociferously that all great songs should have a central narrative and, where possible, the stories should be told in the present tense. Many great Motown songs adhere to the rules: "My Baby Must Be A Magician," recorded by the Marvelettes, is a love song that conjures up love and magic; Smokey Robinson’s "Tears Of A Clown" uses a circus storyline to describe the mask of unhappiness; and R. Dean Taylor tells the story of a home haunted by lost love in "There’s A Ghost In My House." Gordy had worked out that rival studios like Stax in Memphis, Chess in Chicago and Jewel Records in Shreveport reflected the blues or country sounds of their local music scene, but he was adamant that Motown did not just make sound — it told stories. Otis Williams of the Temptations claimed that Gordy often seemed more trusting of female advice, and he had gathered from his sisters that women loved songs in which men were forced to plead for love. It might have been questionable psychology, but a remarkable number of Motown hits involve emotionally desperate men pleading, begging and confessing. 

But Gordy was a flawed manager, unable (or unwilling) to keep some of his most talented employees happy:

By the spring of 1967, four different factions were testing the management’s patience at Hitsville. Discontent within the Supremes loomed largest, but the Funk Brothers were also complaining about being cut out of production credits and losing out to producers. There was some merit in their arguments. Many of the semi-improvised backing tracks that underpinned numerous Motown songs owed their inventive style to Earl Van Dyke and his band of studio brothers, but they rarely benefited from royalties. A third disgruntled faction was a clutch of less successful acts who felt sidelined, and since the end of 1966 some of them had held regular meetings at the home of producer Clarence Paul. A labour union of sorts emerged from those social gatherings, and they grumbled more loudly and lobbied for improved access to recording facilities. But when it came to profitability and the bottom line, it was a fourth pocket of discontent that was to prove most threatening to Motown. Holland-Dozier-Holland, the label’s most successful writing team, had become resentful about the level of royalty payments and disillusioned that they had not been offered Motown stock and given a stake in the business. The previous twelve months had heightened their resentment. Along with John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Beatles, Holland-Dozier-Holland was the most successful songwriting team in the world, and they felt undervalued. It was not a simple case of exploitation either. The music value chain was far from simple. Producers often resented the attention that the singers attracted; singers came to understand that the real money was in compositional credits, not in performing; and the management knew that records were not always hits, and that many recordings had to be cross-subsidised. At the end of that production chain were the Funk Brothers, making historic music for next to no reward.

Gordy was just as stingy in his treatment of superstar performers. Here Cosgrove describes the details of the Supremes' record contract:

By now the Supremes had signed a second and improved contract with Motown, giving them greater security and better deal points. They were now guaranteed a share of just below eight per cent of net sales but tellingly, this time around their income was tied to the wholesale price of a record, not its retail price. Statistics provided by Motown claimed that "Where Did Our Love Go" sold 1,072,290 stock copies, leaving each of the Supremes with revenues of $7,237.96, and from that, income development and studio costs had to be deducted. It was a better deal than before, but far from a great one. Superficially it was much more money, the girls could earn increased wages, and their income rose from $50 a week each to $225 a week, but like many before and since, the Supremes’ attention was diverted to wages and cash money rather than longer-term rights protection or revenue on future sales. Without questioning, or seeking recourse to lawyers, all three girls signed the new deal, one that has since been described as "a contract so one-sided that it became the model for all future Motown contracts." This level of naïveté was not uncommon. Motown’s southern rival Stax signed a major national distribution deal with the New York-based Atlantic Records on the basis of a conversation, and Sid Nathan’s King Records out of Cincinnati, the home of James Brown and Florence Ballard’s cousin Hank Ballard, issued contracts that were, in the words of one industry insider, "a legal gun to the head." Singer Martha Reeves has admitted that she had signed contracts that were onerous, but knowingly conceded that Motown provided an escape from the Brewster Projects and the assembly lines. "Motown had signed us all to ironclad contracts, and they turned us into international stars."

Buried within those contracts was a clause that was to prove injurious in the years to come. Motown was to maintain ownership of the name "The Supremes." irrespective of who sang under that banner. The girls could argue all they wanted about money, complain about early-morning flight times, and bitch about hotel rooms, but Berry Gordy was adamant that he owned Motown, he owned the Supremes’ name, and he had the right to decide who would star in America’s greatest girl group. The law, at least for now, seemed firmly on his side.

Cosgrove also provides mini-profiles of several Detroit musicians that cut through the noise and arrive at more insightful conclusions than is typical of entertainment biographies. For example, his profile of Aretha Franklin, while sympathetic, makes clear just how much she was drawn to violent relationships. Another excellent section covers the tragic story of Tammi Terrell, who was shamefully abused by James Brown and David Ruffin, and would die of a brain tumor at the age of twenty-six just as she was poised for super-stardom:

At nineteen she relaunched her stalled singing career for a third time when Jerry Butler employed her as a featured vocalist in his Chicago Revue. Sometime in 1965, the Jerry Butler Show — featuring Tammi Montgomery — performed live at the Driftwood Lounge at Detroit’s 20 Grand club. Among the audience were Berry Gordy and Harvey Fuqua. Motown was at its acquisitive height, and compared to most independent R&B labels it had cash at the bank. Within a matter of a few days, Gordy offered Montgomery a contract and prised her away from the Chicago soul scene. It was an impulsive decision, underlining one of Motown’s many structural flaws: it often secured the services of singers simply because it could afford to, without any great vision of what it would then do with them, or any real understanding that new recruits could undermine and irritate its own underemployed Detroit talent. In the case of Tammi Montgomery, it meant that a roster of strong female soloists was further disadvantaged. Gladys Knight, Barbara McNair, Brenda Holloway, the female leads of Martha and the Vandellas, fading forces like the Marvelettes, the Elgins, and the Velvelettes, and even the Supremes felt challenged. Within a matter of months, Gordy encouraged Tammi to change her surname to Tammi Terrell, and in the following year she racked up three singles. Her debut was "I Can’t Believe You Love Me," followed by "Come On And See Me" and then a pulsating version of "This Old Heart Of Mine." For all her outstanding talent, though, Terrell’s solo career at Motown was no more than middle-ranking. It was only when the opportunity of recording duets with Marvin Gaye arose that her reputation soared and her status increased.


Many conflicting versions of Tammi Terrell’s life have fought for attention since 1967, but by far the most convincing and detailed comes from Terrell’s sister, who has written about the illness in ways that are refreshingly free from rancour. There was much misunderstanding to clear up. The normally reliable Smokey Robinson had not helped by trying to shift gossip away from Motown and the much maligned David Ruffin to James Brown. In an interview less than a year after the collapse, Robinson claimed that the real reason for Terrell’s illness was that she was injured as a teenager and "as a result, she had to have a blood clot removed from her brain." It was a deflection without any truth or merit. Yet Martha Reeves offered a similar rationalization: "She was James Brown’s woman. That lie they put out about David Ruffin hitting her on the head with that hammer, causing that brain injury to her head, trust me, that happened way before David Ruffin’s time. I know for a fact." But it wasn’t a fact, not in any verifiable sense. Many years later, Terrell’s neurologist, Dr Richard Harner, released a formal diagnosis of her condition to the Montgomery family that challenged all the innuendo and finally laid the Motown rumours to rest. "The kind of tumor she had was a slow-growing tumor," he said. "It was malignant and basically terminal all along. We didn’t tell her the prognosis because we didn’t know for sure; technology was much different then. Some of the symptoms she might have had from the tumor were dizziness, weakness and headaches; these could come on prior to diagnosis and then medications and more pressure could cause hallucinations. Once headaches start, that means there is blockage of fluid. There has never been a case where being hit on the head caused a tumor. Tumors are not caused by trauma." However compelling it might have been for the gossipmongers of sixties soul, there is no credible evidence whatsoever that either the exploitative James Brown or the self-centered David Ruffin were implicated in the death of Tammi Terrell.

There are just so many rich observations throughout the book. Even Cosgrove's seemingly casual lines have real wisdom and authority because of the extensive work he has done to back them up:

Motown was a corporation founded on a contrived surface appearance.


In an unscripted instant, marred by mistake more than malice, a beleaguered white Guardsman from the Michigan suburbs had killed a black child from the ghetto. The Detroit police issued a statement shielded by the language of bureaucracy: "The little girl’s death was regrettable."


One of the many paradoxes of Motown was that its musicians often produced greatness at the height of personal breakdown or disharmony. 

Detroit 67 is everything music history should be. Highly recommended.