Detroit: “Songs in the Key of Life”

Juke Box

“You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow. This opportunity comes once in a lifetime” – Eminem

How does one city become the cradle of so much music that the whole world knows and loves? From Kick Out the Jams to Stranglehold, Night Moves to Born Free, Devil Gate Drive to Like a Virgin, Lust for Life to Seven Nation Army, the sounds of Detroit, beginning with Blues and Jazz, coalesce into Motown, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Punk, Techno and Rap, and flow from raw polemics to polished ebullient anthems.


It’s Saturday night. I’m watching singer and pianist Brian Dishell perform at a local supper club. His fingers dance across the keys with mesmerizing alacrity, each note pouring out like honey, every mellifluous composition revealing the soul of an inimitable virtuoso. If this were New York, he’d have top billing at Carnegie Hall, but this is Detroit—what Dishell calls “a source city,” where music originates, where musicians gravitate, because that spirit of musical expression has been steeped into the cultural milieu and appreciated over generations.

With my son in tow, we visit the Detroit Historical Musuem’s Motor City Music exhibit. I want him to understand the source of the sounds of the 20th Century that are baked into our lives. He picks up a set of headphones, and with each button pushed, exclaims, “Oh, I know this song!” It’s The Supremes, “Stop in the Name of Love.” In the ‘60s, while the Beatles were the number one male group, The Supremes were the number one female group, and they heralded a new era of possibilities and hope through music. Next song. He’s boppin’ his head and singing along as Aretha Franklin preaches her gospel, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, found out what it means to me…” Our conversation that develops from a song like that, about civil rights and equal rights, is so much more tangible with the visceral effect of watching and listening to the Queen of Soul on screen in this museum.

Detroit Historical Society
Detroit Historical Museum

Now the distinct gravelly voice of Bob Seger belts out, “Come back baby, rock ‘n’ roll never forgets!” The energy is as palpable as if we had a back stage pass to one of his seminal concerts. I let my son take the lead as he gazes at album covers of MC5, Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper and bands that were cutting their teeth in dingy garages and aging ballrooms, leaning into their dreams with nothing to fall back on but their guitars ripping through roots of unrest with no mercy. This is why it’s called Detroit Rock City; and it’s that hunger for catharsis that has drawn everyone from KISS to Led Zeppelin to bask in the uproarious spirit of Detroit’s audiences.

There’s a wall at Eight Mile. It’s called the Birwood Wall, sometimes referred to as Detroit’s Wailing Wall or Berlin Wall, and was erected to segregate neighbourhoods back in the ‘40s. It still stands, but now as a monument. We climb over it and into the park that it borders, tracing the murals that, along with the wall’s very presence, speak to both a racial past and a reclamation of freedom. Without question, one of the driving forces to bulldoze barriers has been the music, in particular, Motown. For many, The Motown Museum is a pilgrimage.

Motown Museum, Detroit
Motown Museum
In the ‘50s, every church in every black community; every inner-city neighbourhood across every state in the US was brimming with talent, but Detroit had Berry Gordy who based his Motown production formula on the Ford assembly line where he used to work. As a song writer, he drew on Detroit’s gospel and rhythm and blues traditions, but added to that a pop influence that was more upbeat and filled with joy. Encouraged by his friend Smokey Robinson, he founded a label to produce music from the great pool of surrounding artists. Robinson’s neighbours included high school friends: Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin and all the members of The Temptations and The Four Tops. Motown was their ticket. Resident stylist, Maxine Powell, groomed them. She’d tell them they were all “God’s flowers,” and it didn’t matter where they came from when they walked in, because when they walked out, they’d be stars.

Pretty soon, artists from across the U.S. packed their hopes and dreams and headed to this musical mecca: Gladys Knight and the Pips arrived from Georgia; The Jackson Five drove in from Indiana; and they all staked their future here. Marking that history are videos, posters, costumes and even Michael Jackson’s Swarovski crystal-covered glove, but the real treat is in the recording studio where all that magic happened.

Motown Museum
Motown Museum
In Studio A we learn the criterion for producing a song at the home of Hitsville U.S.A. Gordy would ask all the artists in the company, “If you had one dollar, would you buy this single or this sandwich?” One of the singles worth more than a sandwich is My Girl by The Temptations. And with that, everyone in our tour group starts singing My Girl and dancing The Temptations Walk. We don’t need a lyrics sheet. We all know it. The shared exuberance within our group of strangers is what it’s all about. It feels so good, and though it’s cold outside, we’ve got the month of May.

The Motown sound is beloved for melodic, warm, ear-catching hooks, but its development also corresponds with the growing civil rights and anti-war movements of the time through songs like Steve Wonder’s Living for the City and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. So, our visit here is not merely about appreciating music, but also, for my son, it’s about attuning to an education in American history.

See Also
Gina Godfrey

Detroit Motown
Motown Museum
We’ve listened to so much great music in one day, but how does that get from the studio onto an actual record? Enter Third Man Records, launched by Jack White of The White Stripes.

If you’re eight-years-old like my son, and listen to music off a computer, you may not have even seen a record before. At this pressing manufacturing facility, vinyl records are made manually. We tour the plant, riveted on each station in which hip engineers press pucks of Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), black or splattered, into 45s and 33s. We’re hypnotized by the process of stamping the raw vinyl through high temperature and hydraulic pressure. It looks so fun, and we both want a job here. Tucked away from the cacophonous production line, the mastering room is absolutely silent. An audio engineer shares with us how he painstakingly preps each song and cuts each track onto the record. It’s a science, it’s an art, and I don’t understand it at all, but my son seems to get it.

Third Man Records
Third Man Records
At tour’s end, we’re gifted a sample record; a fitting souvenir of Detroit: music, composed and pressed at source in the Motor City, where “All we need is music, sweet music. There’ll be music everywhere!” (Martha and the Vandellas)

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