Sunday, 14 June 2015

DETROIT '67: THE YEAR THAT CHANGED SOUL by STUART COSGROVE (2015)


It’s difficult to think of a subject I’d sooner read about than events in the city of Detroit during 1967 and having now read Stuart Cosgrove’s new book, Detroit 67, I also can’t think of anyone I’d sooner have it written by. From January to December, Cosgrove provides a month-by-month, blow-by-blow account of a turbulent year, weaving three predominant strands: soul music from Berry Gordy’s Motown empire; civil unrest, racial disharmony and rioting; white radicals and rock revolutionaries spearheaded by John Sinclair and soundtracked by the MC5.

The so-called Summer of Love underway on the West Coast, things couldn’t have been more different in the north. Detroit was under siege. Riots had taken hold. Building burnt and businesses went up in smoke. Tanks patrolled the streets during the curfew hours. Trigger-happy policemen killed innocent citizens, most tragically in the case of four-year-old Tanya Blanding whose uncle’s lit cigarette was mistaken as sniper fire to which the National Guards responded with a hail of bullets ripping through the family’s apartment. Tanya’s death is but one tragedy in a book populated with disastrous events and fatalities but credit to Stuart Cosgrove for handling each with an unscrupulously even hand.

The messy extraction of Florence Ballard from the Supremes is a central story told in great detail yet Cosgrove doesn’t follow the familiar line of a ruthless Berry Gordy simply sacking her. In Cosgrove’s telling it was the last resort and even then it’s not entirely clear how it happened. Gordy is painted as man who chose to avoid confrontation and didn’t act decisively. He also comes across as a man more interested in the music than the general perception of him as primarily a hardnosed businessman. How Gordy did business came under extreme scrutiny amid a raft of litigation from disgruntled Motown employees unhappy with their lot, and feelings they were being ripped-off, but the Gordy family were far more knowledgeable than kids coming up through the tough streets of Detroit who couldn’t even understand why they had to pay taxes, let alone how Motown was putting money aside for them to do that very thing. How Ballard went from one-third of the most successful girl group the world has ever known to dying in poverty ten years later is a terrible story but those looking to apportion “blame” need to be aware of the business decisions – disastrous ones – Flo made herself and were made for her by ill-judged and poor advice outside of Motown.

Tammi Terrell’s death, aged just 24, is heart-breaking. Collapsing on stage whilst performing with Marvin Gaye in October ’67 Tammi was diagnosed with a brain tumour and died three years later. Her relationship with the Temptations' David Ruffin – which followed a horrific one with James Brown, there’s one particular event which beggars belief – has been the subject of much conjecture. Ruffin’s violence towards Tammi has been said to have caused her death but whatever faults Ruffin had – and there were plenty – the type of tumour Tammi had could not have been caused by being knocked down the stairs, hit with a hammer or a motorcycle helmet. Again, Cosgrove is fair in his reporting of Ruffin and tries to explain how and why he might have been the way he was (in a word, cocaine) not simply that he was an awful individual.  

I could go on listing more. The events at the Algiers Hotel when police beat and murdered black folk, including members and friends of upcoming soul group the Dramatics; Motown staff member and writer of “You’re My Everything”, “I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You)” and “I Wish It Would Rain” Roger Penzabene shooting himself through the head; Martha Reeves’s breakdown; Holland-Dozier-Holland’s downing of tools. The list goes on and Cosgrove devotes time not only to those in the music industry but also those from the wider Detroit community and how events shaped the city and led to the mass evacuation of the area ever since.

I realise I’ve probably made Detroit ’67 sound like a harrowing read. There’s no getting away from the fact that frequently it is. It’s also 600 pages long. But there are plenty of nice little nuggets to be found for the soul fan too; the background to records like Joe L’s “(I’m Not Gonna Be) Worried” and Saxie Russells’ “Psychedelic Soul” among them (a more comprehensive index would've been handy). More importantly it’s also thought-provoking (especially when it comes to divisions of race), balanced and provides lots of detail about a city which, as well as the horrors, has provided some of the greatest music the world has ever heard. Essential reading.

Detroit ’67 by Stuart Cosgrove is published by Carlton, priced £18. 

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