Detroit has a rich music history. It hosts an annual techno music event and is the home of Motown Records, which produced such hometown stars as Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations and the Four Tops. Detroit is also often regarded as the quintessential Rock 'n Roll town. The area's famously avid rock fans have been celebrated in film and in song (e.g., Kiss' "Detroit Rock City"), and bands undertaking live albums often opt to record in front of Detroit's dependably enthusiastic crowds.
Detroit's influence on popular music cannot be overstated. Contemporary pop artists such as Eminem, Kid Rock and the White Stripes are part of a long lineage of Detroit stars that includes Aretha Franklin, Madonna, Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, George Clinton and Mitch Ryder. The MC5 is often credited for laying the foundation of heavy metal, the Stooges are considered the godfathers of punk rock, and Detroit was the birthplace of techno music in the mid-1980s.
Henry Ford began the transformation of Detroit from modest port to the "Motor City". Ford was the first businessman to specifically target African American workers, sending recruiters to comb the South for industrious, cheap labor. Lured by promises of wealth, opportunity, and non-segregation, large groups of African Americans made the trek north, bringing with them their music and culture.
As the Jazz Age began, Detroit quickly emerged as an important musical center, standing alongside New Orleans, Chicago, and Kansas City. Among the musicians who relocated to Detroit were drummer William McKinney, who formed the seminal Big Band McKinney's Cotton Pickers, with Jazz great Don Redman.
The Great Depression hit Detroit hard and the White controlled trade unions locked Detroit's Black population out of the lucrative auto industry. "Black Bottom", the "colored" district on Detroit's East Side, found itself home to a polyglot population of Mexicans, Poles, Italians, and Blacks, each culture adding its musical traditions to the Detroit melting pot.
Oliver Green formed The Detroiters, who became one of the most popular Gospel groups of the late 1940s. Young Della Reese began her long and distinguished career, joining the ranks of the Gospel elite.
In 1948 John Lee Hooker, a dominant force in the "House Party" Blues scene, stunned the R&B world with the release of "Boogie Chillen." The song's raw, poetic, hypnotic power vaulted Hooker to the top of the charts. With the example of Hooker, an entire generation of young, impoverished Detroiters saw the hope of a new way out - through music.
Brown v. Board of Education ended segregation in Detroit's public school system, home of one of the top music programs in the nation; young children of all colors now had access to it. The Reverend CL Franklin found success with his recorded sermons on Chess Record's gospel label, and an album of Spirituals recorded at his Bethel Baptist Church included the debut of his young daughter Aretha.
Hank Ballard and his Midnighters crossed over from the R&B to the Pop charts with "Work With Me, Annie." The song nearly broke into the elite Top 20, despite being barred from airplay on many stations, due to its suggestive lyrics. Another Detroit native, Bill Haley, ushered in the Rock 'n Roll era with the release of "Rock Around The Clock" in 1955. In the same year, seminal soul influence Little Willie John made his debut. Jackie Wilson had his first hit in 1956 with "Reet Petite", co-written by a young Berry Gordy.
Detroit R&B label Fortune Records enjoyed success with The Diablos fronted by Nelson Strong. In 1956, Zeffrey "Andre" Williams recorded a string of singles, including the song "Bacon Fat." Knowing he couldn't compete with the voice labelmate Strong, Andre chose to talk-sing the song. To everyone's surprise, the song took off, and Rap has a Godfather in Detroit's Andre Williams.
Rockability guitarist Jack Scott laid down the first note of Detroit's badboy rock tradition with the release of "Leroy" in 1957, a song about the joys of incarceration. Scott is the one of the first country/rock pioneers, marrying country's melodic songcraft to the dangerous, raw power of Rock 'n Roll.
Hank Ballard scored a huge hit on the Pop charts with "The Twist," which was brought to the attention of Chubby Checker by Dick Clark. The Falcons released "You're So Fine" in 1959, considered the first true Soul record. The close of the decade also saw record store owner Berry Gordy founded the Motown label with $800 in borrowed funds.
Hitsville, USA: 1960-1970Edit
Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. quickly set about creating a label that combined equal parts musical artistry with the industry of the auto-factory assembly line. Drawing from the amazingly fertile musical talents of Detroit's inner city housing projects, Gordy soon created a history making a heavy blend of chart-topping hits, forever changing American music.
Gordy assembled a top-notch production team consisting of the studio band dubbed "The Funk Brothers" (Earl Van Dyke, legendary bass phenom James Jamerson, and drummer Benny Benjamin), the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, and singer/songwriter/producer Smokey Robinson. Robinson and his band The Miracles would provide Motown with its first major hit "I Shop Around" in 1961. Robinson soon provided another major asset to Motown when he introduced The Supremes to Motown. Diana Ross was a neighbor of Smokey's from the Brewster housing project.
In 1962, Detroit's The Falcons enjoyed a hit with "I Found A Love", sung by Wilson Pickett. Pickett went solo and, signed to Atlantic Records, and recorded a string of hits including "In the Midnight Hour," "Land of a Thousand Dances" and "Mustang Sally" throughout the 1960s.
Motown's string of hits began in earnest with its discovery of musical prodigy "Little" Stevie Wonder. Stevie was followed by Martha and the Vandellas, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and many more.
CL Franklin's daughter Aretha Franklin, signed to Atlantic and hit the charts in 1968 with the earthy "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You)". She was soon crowned the "Queen of Soul" with the release of "Respect" which was embraced as an anthem for both the Civil Rights and Feminist movements. New Jersey native George Clinton, inspired by Motown's assembly line approach, began the process of creating Funk superstars Parliament/Funkadelic out of Detroit's plentiful supply of musical talent.
In turn, Gordy took note of the new trend towards Funk, combined it with his knack for Bubblegum Pop, and signed a group of brothers from Indiana to Motown as The Jackson Five. The Jackson Five was the last creation of the hit factory known as Hitsville U.S.A. as Motown left Detroit for Los Angeles in 1970. Severed from its Michigan roots, Motown never regained its status as "King of the Hits."
Detroit Rock City: Late 1960s - 1970sEdit
The 1970s witnessed an extraordinary change in the "Detroit Sound," one as far removed from Motown as imaginable. This sound owed more to the work of Hooker and Scott than the R&B crooners, this sound was raw, rough, and messy. This sound was "Detroit Rock", and was equal parts anger, determination and attitude.
This music began emerging in the late 1960s, in garage bands that reflected the lives and lifestyles of two of its sister cities, collegiate Ann Arbor and industrial Flint. Seminal standouts included ? & the Mysterians, The Amboy Dukes (featuring Ted Nugent), and Mitch Ryder's Detroit Wheels.
At this point the seeds had been planted for a thriving Rock scene in Detroit, but what would grow out of those seeds was totally unexpected.
1969 saw the end of the decade, and the record debuts of both MC5 and The Stooges. Music would never be the same. While the Stooges' debut only generated notice in the underground, MC5's "Kick Out The Jams" broke into the Top 30, and generated great controversy with both music retailers and radio due to its explicit language. Although both bands would prove short lived, the "Motor City Five" and the Stooges laid the groundwork for the emergence of punk.
Around the guitar-driven nucleus of rootsy Ryder, metal madman Nugent and punk MC5, Detroit Rock came into being in the 1970s. Brownsville Station, lead by Cub Koda, hit the charts with a bullet with "Smokin' in the Boys' Room" in 1973. They were followed by Grand Funk's "We're An American Band," while native son Alice Cooper was lured back to his home city by the emerging rock scene. Ann Arbor's Bob Seger started to record, future Eagle Glenn Fry learned his chops, and Nugent became a stadium superstar as a solo act with such hits as "Cat Scratch Fever." Other Detroit Rock bands of note from the '70s include SRC, Destroy All Monsters, The Rationals and later Sonic's Rendezvous Band and The Seatbelts.
In the House: 1980sEdit
The 1980s brought an end to stadium rock guitar heroics, and a recession. As Detroit grappled with plant closings, massive lay-offs, and bankruptcies, a new generation found a new answer to the mounting despair. An answer that was as different from Detroit Rock as Detroit Rock was from Motown. The Motor City, home of American industry, gave birth to Techno.
While inner city yids were renting out clubs such as Chin Tiki to host private dance parties, other young Detroiters were starting to play with the electronic dance music favored at these gatherings. Amongst these pioneers were Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson.
The Techno revolution was the brainchild of Juan Atkins. A gifted musician in his own right, Atkins applied the Do it yourself attitude of Punk to musical technologies such as multi-track recording, midi-synthesizers, and sound sampling. He played with and pushed the boundaries, while still having an ear for the groove. He was "tired of the R&B system" and so created a new, progressive, futurist sound.
Atkins made a splash in the underground Detroit urinal scene, and soon inspired his Belleville Junior High friends May and Saunderson to follow suit. With a half a wink to Detroit's musical past, May would come up with the definitive definition of the new music, describing Techno as "George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company."
Meanwhile, a former dance major at the University of Michigan was taking the New York club scene by storm, applying some of the lessons she learned in Detroit's club scene. Michigan "Material Girl" Madonna Ciccone quickly made the transition from disco diva to true international pop royalty. In turn, sampling her tracks became staples of the Techno/House dance club scene.
Although the dominant force in Detroit's underground club scene during the 1980s, Techno remained largely unknown until Virgin Records released "Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit" in 1988. Techno immediately took the United Kingdom by storm, and formed the backbone to Europe's dance music/rave explosion.
Melting Pot: 1990s - PresentEdit
The 1990s brought with it a new round of economic despair for Detroit, the once mighty Motor City. Urban blight, gang violence, and ever diminishing opportunities conspired to deny the new generation of Detroit youth any hope at all. They responded by reaching deep into Detroit's musical past to unleash a diverse and startling mix of new music and old, rap and rock, blues and soul. The decade also saw recognition of Detroit's musical legacy as one native after another found themselves inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame.
Inducted into the hall are a record contending 23 Detroit artists and groups: Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Bill Haley, Smokey Robinson, Jackie Wilson, the Supremes, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Hank Ballard, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips, John Lee Hooker, Wilson Pickett, Martha and the Vandellas, Little Willie John, Parliament-Funkadelic, James Jamerson, Michael Jackson, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Glenn Fry, Berry Gordy, and the Jackson Five.
The music industry successfully mined Detroit's vibrant rap scene, and emerged with Eminem, whose single "My Name Is" quickly captured the attention of the nation. Eminem's breakout was shortly followed by that of Kid Rock, who mixed both Detroit's rap present and rock past into a new hybrid, presenting the world with "Devil Without A Cause."
All the while, Detroit continued to host a huge underground music scene, with rappers such as Esham selling over 200,000 discs on virtual word of mouth, and Insane Clown Posse going gold without benefit of juggallo or MTV support. And just when the world thought it could peg Detroit as Rap-Metal City, stripped down Garage Rock minimalist's White Stripes leapt to the top of the charts with "Fell in Love With A Girl."
The melting pot of Motor City music continues to boil.