Perfect Sound Forever

Motown Goes Hollywood:
The Liberation of Detroit

Holland Dozier Holland with Berry Gordy
All photos courtesy of the HollandDozierHolland website

by Phil Mershon and Elizabeth Fritze

When Berry Gordy Jr. moved the Motown empire to Los Angeles in 1971, his plan was for the world's premier record company to go into the movie business. If you have a hard time thinking of any Motown-produced pictures other than Mahogany and Lady Sings the Blues, perhaps that fact best sums up the wisdom of Gordy's decision. In a 1994 interview with Detroit Free Press writer Gary Graff, the one-time mogul admitted his lapse in judgment. "We would have been better off with the record thing," Gordy acknowledged, "if we had stayed in Detroit."

 There's no telling what pop music would be like today had Motown stayed where it belonged. But there can be no denying that once "The Sound of Young America" (as Motown was often known) headed west, some outstanding new sounds popped up, almost in direct reaction to Motown's departure. Indeed, Motown's stellar writing-production team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland had a few years earlier left the stable and formed their own label: Hot Wax/Invictus. But until Gordy took his troops to Hollywood, nothing HDH created prospered at all. Exit Motown and--wham! Freda Payne, The Chairmen of the Board, Flaming Ember, Laura Lee, Honey Cone, 100 Proof. The vast majority of the entries here instantly hit the charts in waves! A middle-aged Detroit music fan named Armen Boladian launched Westbound (pun definitely intended) Records at the same time Invictus began taking to the hit parade, and in the process gave much needed career breaks to the Ohio Players, Funkadelic, and the Detroit Emeralds. Even the staid and stubborn Stax and Paramount labels branched northward with, respectively, The Dramatics and Detroit. So for two to three years, nobody really much noticed that Motown was gone. The hard-edged and gritty tracks that followed weren't the Motown forte anyway, and by the time these acts petered out, Motown itself was in such artistic disarray that only the inestimable power of its 1960's artists allows it to retain credibilty.

 By 1970, the false consciousness trappings linking the economic ideologies of capitalism and communism ceased to exist. In their place stood the finger-pointing polar opposites and sworn enemies of Conflict Theory and Realpoliticks. The first of these was so weighed down in academic armor that no self-respecting urban guerrilla could relate to it, and the latter dressed itself so thoroughly in ethnocentrism that its very devisiveness made its stone cold logic infinitely illogical. These inherent flaws did not stop ideologues from carrying out very real oppression against millions of people, a state of existence with us to this day. The artists whose songs appear below may not have known or specifically cared about theories of economic hegemony or creeping decimalism, but their music clearly responded to the leaden conditions around them. Revisionists claim the 1960's as a time of substantial musical protest, but the reality is that the oft-ridiculed 1970's embraced far more rebellion against the status quo than anytime in the Twentieth Century.

The centerpiece of this period--musically, if not chronologically--is Sly and the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On. Thirty-plus years later, absolutley nothing even approaches this album in its ability to convey the feel of being clubbed senseless by the unwashed hatred of imbecilic leaders and dog-lapping followers alike. To further convey a sense of manifestly dangerous outrage in such a numbed out condition elevates this album above all but a handful ever recorded.

At the same time we had Marvin Gaye asking--more politely perhaps; I mean, he was asking--how and why things had come to be so screwed up. His demeanor, like that of Sly Stone, was heavily drugged, somewhere between being punch drunk and totally narcotized, yet still warring with an inner frustration and churning, bubbling hostility. No sooner had the shock waves subsided than Curtis Mayfield, the lovely and sensitive man who a few months years had bored us to near-death with "Gypsy Woman," shot up from under the manhole cover and connected the drug-disease with the inherent corruption in our power systems, and still made us want to dance to it! This all-too-brief period of Black Power Renaissance still occasionally echoes in the early songs of Run-DMC, Dr. Dre, and Tupac.

The Glass House "Crumbs Off the Table" (Invictus, 1969)

 Holland-Dozier-Holland's first single on their own label kicks loose with a wailing blues harmonica and curly-cew guitar figure, announcing something big was barreling down the pike. Sherrie Payne's hungry housewife blues chick-a-booms as she berates her man (who works twelve hours a day, by her own admission) for being too tired to love her when he gets home. The nagging might be one reason for his lack of attention, but her voice (funkier, if not richer, than sister Freda's) should fire him up no matter how hard his day.

Five Stairsteps "O-o-h Child" (Buddah, 1970)

 The Burke children had over a dozen soul and R&B hits on Curtis Mayfield's various labels before signing with Buddah and releasing their sole pop hit. Along with the early singles of the Jackson Five, the Five Stairsteps were responsible for a resurged interest in black group pop. The striking and absolute paranoia in the falsetto-to-tenor lead as he assures his love that "things are gonna get easier" is among the most unsettling in all pop music. There's no doubt he doesn't believe a word he's saying; he simply has to say something, and chooses these words as carefully as possible. Anyone who only knows the remakes of this by Lenny Williams or Valerie Carter should discover the real thing. And the simultaneously restrained and unleashed drumming on the Stairsteps' version dispels any suggestion that this was soft rock.

100 Proof Aged in Soul "Somebody's Been Sleeping" (Hot Wax, 1970)

 Back when one of radio's prime contributions was to introduce listeners to music before they heard it on TV, in nightlubs or record stores--in other words, back when radio was the essential source of new music--"Somebody's Been Sleeping" sounded almost nothing like the other songs eminating from the new H-D-H headquarters. The flavor of the arrangement, the laconic urgency of the vocals, and the take on the subject matter all shouted Memphis, or possibly even Macon, Georgia. But by the second or third time through, those telegraph guitars hinted that something a bit more Motown-oriented was going on. That can only be because of the producers' earlier connection to that same exact style on the Supremes songs they'd invented years before. It couldn't have hurt that backing singer Joe Stubbs was blood brother to the Four Tops' Levi Stubbs. Whatever the source of the connection, this remains one of Hot Wax's idealized blends of Stax-era soul with the producers' legitimate roots.

Freda Payne Greatest Hits (Invictus/Fantasy, 1991)

As the 1970's began to roll, one of the changes happening was that Motown lost Holland-Dozier-Holland. Eddie, Lamont and Brian formed their own label, Invictus Records. One of their first singers was Freda Payne, a Detroit girl who had sung in the chorus of The Pearl Bailey Show, served as an understudy for Leslie Uggams, sung for Quincy Jones, and most especially had sung lead for Duke Ellington's band. Eddie Holland persuaded Payne to join the label and shortly the four of them released three mighty fine post-Motown marvels. "Band of Gold" had everything a Supremes record ever had, except it had a gutsier singer than Diana Ross and none of the infuriating slickness of a Motown record. The particular mix of singer, songs and arrangements was still glitzy show-biz, but abrasive show-biz, superficially the kind of apparent dreck the Wayne Newton's of the world would love, then on second glance, the very kind of emotionally raw unveiling that his ilk detests. Even the trendy "The Unhooked Generation" was pop, no question, but it was also soul. And it was dance music. It had swing and a lot of rhythm. The autumnal "Deeper and Deeper" didn't do as well, but "Bring the Boys Home" was the first anti-war hit song by a black woman, sort of the flip side to Edwin Starr's "War." Though Payne continued to record throughout the decade, her other releases only made the R&B charts. "Cherish What is Dear to You" and "You Brought the Joy" are particularly fine.

MC5 "Kick Out the Jams" (Elektra, 1970)

 The first generation of legitimate rock critics united loosely at Detroit's famed Creem magazine. The self-described "only rock n' roll magazine" featured the seminal writings of Dave Marsh, Jaan Uhelzski, Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, Patti Smith and others who accomplished nothing less than defining (rather than reciting) the actual language of the music. The very fact of the magazine contained a slight subordination of political challange to that of cultural upheaval. Politics, in fact, were seen as one of the evils that the culture being created would inevitably destroy. The music of the MC5--and of this song in particular--was precisely the sound of that upheaval. And while there was a tenuous connection between Creem and the band (the leader of the White Panther Party, John Sinclair, the band's manager, had connections at the magazine), the more significant relationship between the two was in the passion that each entity brought to their respective tasks. Both also made an awful lot of noise, a term once used in derision, ever after one of affection.

 A couple years before this album's release, Sinclair developed the ten-point program for the MC5 and any other guerrilla bands interested in joining the fold.

  1. Full endorsement and support of Black Panther Party's 10-Point Program
  2. Total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock n' roll, dope and fucking in the streets.
  3. Free exchange of energy and materials -we demand the end of money!
  4. Free food, clothes, housing, dope, music, bodies, medical care - everything free for everybody!
  5. Free access to information media -free the technology from the greed creeps!
  6. Free time and space for all humans -dissolve all unnatural boundaries.
  7. Free all schools and all structures from corporate rule - turn the buildings over to the people at once!
  8. Free all prisoners everywhere - they are our brothers.
  9. Free all soldiers at once - no more conscripted armies.
  10. Free the people from their "leaders" - leaders suck - all power to all the people freedom means free everyone !
We print this "program" here because--better than anything any critics could ever hope to write--because it precisely conveys the sound and impact of the MC5. If it seems moronic or dated, well, that's the point, isn't it? The most musically significant item is number 6. Although we're not quite certain how one goes about freeing time and space, the idea of eradicating boundaries between performers and fans remains a central issue in popular music.

Flaming Ember "Westbound #9" (Hot Wax, 1970)

 With the consolidation of the recording industry and studios in Los Angeles and New York, it may seem peculiar to many readers that not so long ago a lot of cities between the coasts hosted music as good or better than that being cut in LA or NYC. Muscle Shoals, Nashville and Memphis, Chicago, Cincinnati, and of course Detroit: these and other music meccas throughout the country generated far more than style-specific sounds; they indulged the wildest impulses of their creative genuises and in the process produced some genuine crap, along with gutsy gems like "Westbound #9," one of Detroit's hardest-rocking white-r&b treats. Listening to the singer rail about the hypocrisy of Deacon Jones in a voice that sounds like Alex Chilton (of the Box Tops) after somebody woke him up with a nose full of coke, nearly outclassed by the ravaging rhythm section, the easy assumption is that this group was a hard-ass band of Chairmen of the Board wanna-be's. A closer listening to the words tips the scales nearer the Temptations though, especially when singer/drummer Jerry Plunk explains that his mind "hitches a ride on the westbound number nine" every time he thinks about the magnitude of the local spiritual leader selling out. This number may not have been quite as transcendent as most of the Hot Wax/Invictus singles, but the hyper-drive of its basement grit groove sure makes the temporal plane attractive.

The Chairmen of the Board Everything's Tuesday (Invictus, 2000)

 Carolina Beach Music is hard-edge rhythm and blues with a bass line that by turns raises and dips. As the lead singer and composer for a Tidewater gang called The Showmen, "General" Norman Johnson discovered that his group's R&B sound fit the bill when they played their first North Carolina Beach gig. Prior to that success, his most laudable achievement was an homage to rock 'n' roll called "It Will Stand." While the demand for Beach Music continued strong as ever, by the late 1960's the crack songwriting team of Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland were fed up with the Motown hegemony (and hedging money) in Detroit and decided to impose with their own label. One of their two biggest stars was the Chairmen of the Board (Johnson, Harrison Kennedy, Danny Woods and Eddie Curtis). Unlike the slick sheen of Motown, this music was porous. It didn't sound fractured; it sounded as if it could fracture. Even though the Chairmen found their biggest commercial success while working out of Detroit, their sound was precisely what the North Carolina crowds had been waiting for. Johnson sang as if he had just dislodged a wad of latex from his throat and was freely toying with all the wonders his voice could suddenly convey. Plus it was danceable soul music. The Chairmen even had the nerve to release a great hit single named after themselves! At the time, panoramic paranoia was all the rage in soul music. Yet here these four were, just wanting to get everybody down on the floor--er, beach. Oh, it was glorious: stuttering, swaggering, chewing on the words and giving them the sweet roll out, like Italian rock of the 1950's in reverse and twice as fast. If this doesn't fit your idea of Beach Music, maybe you haven't been to the Atlantic Ocean lately.

The Detroit Emeralds "You Want It, You Got It" (Westbound, 1971); "Feel The Need" (Westbound, 1972)

 Early Seventies soul outfit led by Abrim and Ivory Tilman. Moving up north from Little Rock, the Detroit Emeralds arrived just in time for Motown to relocate to Los Angeles, thereby allowing the brothers to briefly fill an enormous soul gap in the Motor City. "You Want It, You Got It" was the hit. "Feel the Need" was the vision. It's more than a tad ironic that A&R man, producer and entrepreneur label executive Armen Boladian named his organization Westbound, because while Motown moved west, Boladian brought a southern musical accent to the great Midwest. Funkadelic, the Ohio Players, the Five Stairsteps all recorded for Westbound. But this small Little Rock funky soul outfit stirred up more of a traditional southern stew than any of their label-mates.

Laura Lee "Women's Love Rights" (Hot Wax, 1971)

At the exact moment when the women's liberation movement first threatened to descend into the banalities of middle class enlightenment (as it eventually did), Detroit-born Chicago-bred Laura Lee erupted on the R&B charts with this hard-boiled, exploitive, round-house punch. The arrangement is strictly Honey Cone pop-rock. What gives this song its edge is the gutsy yelp she picked up from Aretha Franklin when both were working at Rick Hall's Hall of Fame in Muscle Shoals. "Love who you wanna," she cries. "Cause a man's sure gonna." After suggesting a litany of demands (including weekly dinners at fine restaurants, a set of her own car keys, and regular shopping sprees--all at the man's expense, mind you), Lee cracks the arrangement down the middle as she barks out her justification for such an attitude: the man's probably got three other girls he's supporting across town, so why shouldn't you get as much as you can? None of this may bode accurately for male-female relationships then or now (personally, we'll take Loretta Lynn's more durable and action-oriented hostility any day), but just for the guts required to raise such a rucuss, this song is worth coveting.

Marvin Gaye What's Going On? (Motown, 1971)

 Maybe because he had been everywhere and done everything; maybe because the instinct of middle age was fast approaching; maybe because he intuited that black music was about to experience an opportunity to do things the brain-damaged leftovers from late 1960's psychedelic misanthropy never could--for whatever reason, Marvin Gaye ran the ultimate risk of alienating himself from brother-in-law and tyrannical boss, Berry Gordy Jr. Then again, if the hit-obsessed Gordy considered gambling on anything, this album of pained, funky-town slow down slap back had to be the most convincing long shot of either man's career. It is nothing less than the ideal, if unintentional, answer record to John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band. There may be some autobiography in a few places ("I can't pay my taxes," for instance), but mostly this is Marvin drawing a sound scape of world misery and confusion that all the parties and exhortations of "brother, brother" won't rectify, while only referencing himself as a frustrated observer to an apocalypse he'd like to avoid if only he had the energy.

The Dramatics Whatcha See is Whatcha Get (Stax, 1972)

Stax Records carried on into the 1970's with this Ron Banks quintet who, no matter what they earned for the title track, it wasn't nearly enough. In the midst of a wall-banging festival where points are earned for chewing up words and fracturing them joyously as they leave the mouth, Banks interplays with the other singers in a way that would be comedic if it weren't so damned convincing: "Some people/are made of lies (ooh-ooh ah-ah)/They'll bring you down/and shame your name/(ooh-ooh ah-ah)." Writer/producer Tony Hester knew he had a great danceable funk-ready vocally acrobatic fivesome on his hands and did not let their talent waste. Who but the Dramatics could pull off a parody of a fashion trend and a Sly Stone single all in the same song, much less expose dancing for the sexual prelude it had always been?

The Undisputed Truth "Smiling Faces Sometimes" (Gordy, 1972)

 In the words of Blue Oyster Cult, this ain't the Summer of Love. Producer Norman Whitfield linked up singers Joe Harris, Billie Rae Calvin and Brenda Jorce Evans, forming this loosely tight single that went Top Five at a time when people were suspecting that all those hippie aphorisms were just some corporate lackey's idea of soup in rubber pockets on a food line. The Undisputed Truth said that people who smile in your face just might be looking out for Number One. And as Frank Zappa would soon point out, "You ain't even Number Two."

Detroit "Rock 'n' Roll" (Paramount, 1972)

 For all those who felt that Lou Reed's original version of this song sounded like it was sung and played by a band of sedated toads (not that that was a bad thing), this is what you were waiting for: Mitch Ryder reunited with bad ass drummer John (Johnny Bee) Badanjek, and with some rave up guitarists they formed this one-album wonder combo that sounded like the life the radio had saved was worth the bother. This wasn't the Detroit Wheels, but it was the last great leap of a local legend.

Honey Cone "One Monkey Don't Stop No Show" and "Want Ads" (Invictus, 1972)

 When the crack songwriting and production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland left Motown to form their own record company, they wanted a harder sound that retained the pop whistle of their former label. That may be why both of these songs sound very much like the Jackson 5. Lead singer Edna Wright proves talent's in the genes (Darlene Love is her sister), and so is enthusiasm. We absolutely guarantee that Katrina and the Waves learned everything they'd ever know from "Monkey," including between-line vocal trills. The absolute golden age of black pop music was never better than in the 1971-73 period, when a none-too-friendly competition existed between Invictus, Stax, and Motown, all aiming to be the sound of young America.

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