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Magic of Motown

Hitsville U.S.A., 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit.

Fifty years after Motown set an up-beat, toe-tapping tempo forever to be associated with the city known as the automotive capital, the legendary music company’s legacy extends far beyond irresistible rhythms, driving bass runs and melodic chord changes.

Indeed, the phenomenon simply called Motown is the subject for university classes delving into the interplay between culture, social change and musical expression. A formal, yet hardly high-brow discussion of the cultural impact of Motown brought together academics, former Motown musicians and critics from around the country at “Michigan Celebrates Motown: The Symposium,” held Feb. 19 at the University of Michigan’s Palmer Commons.

The gathering was organized by the Center for Afro-American Studies, U-M’s American Music Institute and U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance, and University Unions Arts & Programs.

U-M: Serving as a catalyst for a deeper, broader public conversation on the arts

The symposium came weeks after another timely U-M-sponsored conference examining the future of the American orchestra, a summit that delved into pressing financial and cultural issues facing the country’s leading professional symphonies.

“Some people think of music as mere entertainment or a distraction, but we see music as a force that speaks to us in deep ways and helps make us who we are,” said Mark Clague, U-M associate professor of music.

Mark Clague, U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance Professor

Mark Clague, U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance Professor

Clague (photo left), a musicologist, teaches a course on Motown, and co-organized the earlier summit on the future of American orchestras. “There’s a concern about the arts and arts education in American, and as a university, we can play a major role in being a catalyst for an open discussion by bringing together a variety of people,” he said.

Another benefit from “bringing people together” is breaking down barriers between formal and informal music.

“There’s a division between school music and other forms of music, and with Motown, we discover a music informed by public schools, churches and communities,” said Betty Anne Younker, associate dean for academic affairs at U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

“The strength of Motown is a combination of those factors, and we have to get back to understanding how music is inspired from the various places where music education happens,” she said.

Unsuspectingly blazing a path

The emergence of Motown was the result of Berry Gordy’s entrepreneurial formula for mass producing a sound and stylizing the performers on-stage acts, the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, and a culture whereby mainstream radio was growing in influence.

In 1959, a young publicist f handed a record to Chuck Daugherty, then a disc jockey at WXYZ-AM, one of the top radio stations at the time.  He played the record, Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” on his program, “The Hi-Fi Club.”

“I was looking for something that grabbed me,” he said. “I had no idea what color skin the singer had – and neither did listeners.” The record became a local sensation.

Shortly thereafter,  the Motown label was established in April, 1960. Motown’s headquarters until 1968 was at Hitsville U.S.A., 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, since converted into the Motown Museum.

By the end of the decade, the Motown label would record such legendary singers and groups as Jackie Wilson, Smoky Robinson and the Miracles, The Supremes, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder and The Four Tops.

“We were just a bunch of kids making music, not history,” Alan Abrams, who served as Motown’s first publicist when he was in his late teens.  “If I would’ve taken Berry (Gordy) aside and tell him fifty years from now people would be talking about us and teaching courses about us, he would’ve said, “Kid, you need a break. You’ve been working too hard.”

From a cultural history standpoint, however, Abrams was part of an indelible moment in 20th-century American history.

A broader story to tell

“The story of Motown tells us a lot about mid-21st century America, and says a lot about the aspirations of African Americans in metro Detroit to get an education and present themselves to the world,” said Lori Brooks, assistant U-M professor for African American studies.

“Motown also reflects the environment of the auto industry and the energy of the period along with the struggles of African Americans with the civil rights movement,” said Brooks.

While Motown was a success in the music industry, she said Motown’s commodification of its artists had a “problematic” side.

“In some ways, the concerns of how African Americans are presented go back to the 19th century,” she said. “Motown’s ‘charm school’ approach tended to give a simple impression of African American performers.”

Beyond the lasting musical legacy, the decades-long appeal of Motown underscores what is at stake when city public schools neglect or eliminate arts education classes, said Brooks.

“These musicians didn’t come out of a void, but from a rich musical tradition,” said Brooks (photo right), noting many of the artists had music education classes in a public school system in a city where music education is now being steadily dismantled.

Yet despite Detroit’s ongoing economic and public education troubles, 50 years later, the story of Motown continues to deepen and resonant.

“No matter how much I dig into the story, the aura doesn’t go away,” said Brian McCollum, Detroit’s preeminent music critic who writes for the Detroit Free Press.

“Anybody who’s making music in Detroit is aware of Motown. While there’s pride, there’s frustration that Motown left Detroit for LA.”

In the end, said McCollum (photo, bottom left), pride wins out.

“Motown gives the city confidence that Detroit is a music city and is capable of giving the world such a great magical gift,” he said. “It’s part of who we are.”

As long as people sing

Attendees at the symposium included Craig Werner, who teaches literature, music and cultural history at University of Wisconsin; Andrew Flory, assistant professor of music history at the Shenandoah Conservatory; Annie Randall, associate professor of musicology at Bucknell University; and, Michael Awkward, the Gayl A. Jones Professor of Afro-American Literature and Culture at U-M.

“Motown is the foundation of rock and roll, even more than the Beatles and Elvis,” said Werner, who gave the keynote address at the symposium. “Motown desegregated American music, and created the groundwork that ushered in 1960s rock and roll.”

Werner transformed a class on 20th-century African American culture into one of the first university courses to examine Motown as a force for racial and cultural change. “In the 1960s, the radio was the life-line to the world, and whereas rock-and-roll was about defiance, Motown is about community.

“We listen to Motown for the same reason we appreciate Mozart and read Shakespeare – it feeds our spirit,” he said. “The music will be around as long as people sing.”