From Detroit to LA, How Violence Caused Motown Music To Escape

There was a time when the city of Detroit, Michigan, shone bright with the talent of three young singers from the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects. Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Diana Ross formed the popular trio known as The Supremes, and their albums and TV appearances got people of every race and gender singing. The three African-American singers’ lives and success story inspired movies like Sparkle (2012). But their first hit “Where Did our Love Go?” was oddly produced inside an ordinary house over 2648 West Grand Blvd, also known as Hitsville U.S.A., later the official Motown record company. This record house helped launch the careers of many other artists like Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, and its distinctive pop-soul albums played a key role in the racial integration of the nation until it had to relocate due to the extreme violence of the Detroit Riots of 1967.

The Supremes – “Where Did Our Love Go?”

Motown Sound became a crossover success for African-American singers who were still facing discrimination at this time. White families would not watch black TV shows or stand the idea of black performers on radio and TV, but they were fine enjoying the Motown bands and singers’ appearances on Sunday TV shows, the same way they played their records and danced to their melody. There was something odd about it because, while white people were still prejudiced towards the black community, they couldn’t help but to enjoy their songs, which were mainly about love. Little by little, the image of African-American artists became accepted. For example, some of Motown’s first album covers didn’t show the artists’ face. It wasn’t until the company started hitting the Billboard Hot 100 that the artists became world wide known and their faces became as important as their voices. However, music wasn’t strong enough to heal the pain of 400 years of slavery and racial oppression. By 1967, things in Detroit had gotten out of control.

Dusty Springfield introduces all the major Motown acts of the time to a British audience.

It didn’t seem like it, but music and politics went hand in hand. Although Motown’s songs weren’t about social conflicts and discrimination, they did become a symbol of black culture and showed they weren’t any different from white people – something that racists disliked. It was when the riots broke out that Motown Sound resonated with the black community more than ever because it spoke of their rightful place in society. No one would have guessed that Martha and The Vandellas’ joyful song “Dancing in The Streets” would become a protest anthem three years after its release in 1964. Detroit went from musical paradise to a metropolis on fire that led to the death of 43 people and thousands of injured people. This eventually caused the home-turned-studio of Motown to relocate.

Martha and The Vandellas – “Dancing in The Streets”

How did the riots start?

The Civil Rights movement took place from 1954 to 1968, but in 1967, the United States faced a series of 159 race riots also referred to as the “Long Hot Summer of 1967.” The riots in Detroit, for instance, were mainly between black people and the police, and it all began on a Sunday morning on July 23rd, when police intended to raid an unlicensed bar called “Bling Pig.” By this time, racial tension was higher than ever and when police arrived to the bar, they found more people than expected and decided to arrest them all. There are many versions of how this conflict started. Some people say a rock was thrown and that was it: chaos, flames, and shootings unfolded. Overall, the 12th Street Riot lasted for about 5 days and it went down in history as the deadliest and most destructive one in American history.

Detroit had changed forever. The city was almost in ruins, and it wasn’t a good place to produce music anymore. The Motown recording house moved to LA, leaving behind all the artists who started out at the local bars and theaters of Detroit. Consequently, the record company continued to produce music elsewhere and even expanded to the television and film industry but was eventually absorbed by another corporation. The house where The Supremes and other artists first recorded their albums is now a museum with record covers and photographs of all the musicians whose careers were launched in that same street. Although the house had changed its location, Motown would be always associated with Detroit, and its artists will be remembered as the African-Americans pioneers who made a historic crossover.


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