Detroit may have endured industrial decline and population flight, but the spirit of its 1960s soul scene continues to inspire, writes journalist and broadcaster Stuart Cosgrove
I can remember exactly where I was when Detroit came into my life, in the kitchen of a council house in Scotland. My mum was staring despairingly at the cooker trying to decipher the hidden codes of an electric grill with only two settings: dry bread or burnt. The news was on the transistor radio, which when not tuned to the Pirate Radio stations floating beyond the reach of UK law, was always tuned to BBC Scotland.
It was a Sunday morning in the red-eyed heat of July 1967 and the news was coming live from America. The news-journalist had an exaggerated and over-dramatic delivery and sounded like he was shouting down one end of a vacuum cleaner hose. “The Motor City is Burning, Detroit is On Fire,” he shouted with a tone of sheer anxiety.
The date was probably July 24, which was day two of the notorious inner city riots that engulfed Detroit and left much of inner-city in ruins. 43 people died, over a thousand were seriously injured and buildings burnt to the ground. But for me, there was something even more precious at stake: this was the home of soul, the birthplace of Motown and the place where the blind prodigy Little Stevie Wonder had first studied braille. As the Motor City was razed to the ground it left a nagging thought in my mind, one day I would go there, see the city for myself and find out what really happened.
Many years later, and by then deeply immersed in northern soul, I travelled to Detroit to hunt for records, scuffling through thrift-stores, hunting down old ghetto warehouses and looking up the home phone-numbers of survivors from the great era of sixties soul. One specific record among many was at the top of my wants-list – ‘My World Is on Fire’ by an unknown singer called Jimmy Mack, released on the long defunct Palmer Records. The record was at the height of its fame on the northern soul scene, and even on a scene that treasured information, no one was certain who Jimmy Mack actually was. His identity remains a mystery to this day, all that was certain was that the record was a storming, up-tempo soul song in the style of Tamla-Motown, gruffer but just as great. The song was written at the height of the riots, and when Jimmy Mack sings the words – “Burning, Burning, My World Is on Fire,’ it is as if he is watching from an apartment window on the corner of 12th and Clairmount, where the riots first erupted. It is a deeply historic record, and one that has survived the vagaries of the decades, and remains a classic of its era.
1967 came to fascinate me for so many reasons. It was the year of the riots, the high-point of the war in Vietnam, when more body-bags returned with dead soldiers to the battered streets of Detroit than at any time before or since. It was the year that Muhammad Ali swept into the city driven by the force of Allah to fight a heavyweight exhibition bout against the local boxer Alvin ‘Blue’ Lewis, a convicted armed robber and street hoodlum. Immediately after the fight, Ali flew to Houston Texas, and to his fate. Still refusing the draft, he was stripped of his titles.
Hidden away from the big political issues was the story of The Supremes, by then the most successful female group in the world, who were disintegrating under the weight of a bitter feud. It was a highly personal breakdown, worsened by the pressure of fame, and ending with the premature death of Florence Ballard and with the meteoric superstardom of her childhood friend, Diana Ross. Like many before and since, including the Pulitzer-prize winning writer John Hersey and more recently the film-maker Katheryn Bigelow, I became fascinated by a less famous event, the killing of three young African-American teenagers by a rogue unit of the Detroit police at and after-party at a run-down Motel on the edges of the riot-zone. ‘The Algiers Motel Incident’ not only hung heavy with the stench of injustice and predated the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign by nearly fifty year.
1967 in Detroit was dramatic from the first day of the year to the last. On the first day of the New Year, the Motor City was besieged by the worst snowstorm in the city’s history. The car-plants and foundries closed and the clattering noise of industry was curiously silenced. The last day of the year was mournful and suicidal, one of Motown’s great songwriters, Roger Penzabene, who had only recently written the maudlin and self-reflective lyrics of The Temptations, ‘I Wish It Would Rain’ took his own life after his marriage fell apart. Penzabene was expected to turn up at a record company party to celebrate Motown’s success but he never showed up, his body tagged in the Detroit City morgue, one of the last deaths of the year.
Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul is published by Polygon and out now