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Detroit ’67—‘Motown was always about more than just love songs’

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Music journalist Stuart Cosgrove talks about his book Detroit ’67, the first of a trilogy exploring US soul music’s links to radical struggles against racism
Issue 2451
Detroit 67-The Year that Changed Soul

Detroit 67-The Year that Changed Soul

This is your first music book. What lies behind Detroit ’67, and why do you think the city is significant to soul music and the political upheavals of the time?

The main thing is my lifetime passion for the music of Detroit and soul in particular.

The city also has a unique political and cultural place in North America, and is different from other US cities.

It had a majority black population like Washington and New York both have, but Detroit was the great industrial city.

Following the war the “great migration” was very important to Detroit, when large numbers of black people moved from the segregated rural south to the north.

And because of the car plants and arms factories it was one of the most industrialised and militant cities.

There were militant political disputes in the car plants.

Yet by 1967 that was all breaking up—and that’s fascinating to study.


Figures that feature in the book, such as journalist John Sinclair, were more political than record label Motown’s head Berry Gordy. So why do you think Motown’s music fitted the mood? 

Motown was an incredible breakthrough because it was a black-owned company.

It wasn’t reliant on interests from outside, but owned lock, stock and barrel by Berry Gordy and the Gordy family.

You had guys such as John Sinclair, who was part of the counter culture that was sweeping across the world during that time.

In contrast, Gordy was not political or part of that counter culture.

But Motown was making more of a political statement by being a black-owned company.


How did the two link together?

Politics is one thing that makes  Detroit different. There was a working class culture that was radical and revolutionary.

In 1967, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (Drum) was already beginning. Militants such as general Gordon Baker had been in Cuba as part of the radical left movement.

They then set up revolutionary cadres in Detroit.

It was one of the places where the Black Panther Party didn’t have such a prominent status, because Detroit already had a revolutionary industrial movement.

One thing that excited me wasn’t just the counter culture but the city’s alternative history.

That’s where John Sinclair connects to it. He was from Flint in Michigan, which had been a place of industrial militancy going back to the 1930s.

You had the Communist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union and it was part of the mass sit-down strikes.

So Sinclair had grown up in an area that was the epicentre of radicalism.


You’ve used personal accounts and archives to research the book. Is there anything that surprised you?

Detroit was one of the centres of independent soul.

I’ve described it as the “Klondike Country” of soul, with everyone panning for the gold of African American music.

Throughout the 1960s to around 1975 the city was burgeoning with independent labels – such as Golden World – that were competitors to Motown.

Motown music is always portrayed as just about love, but its artists were always engaged with politics. 

There was a lot of support for the Civil Rights movement.

For instance, the singer Kim Weston was part of raising money for the voter registration drives in the South.

I wasn’t really surprised. But that people were doing this hasn’t really been written about before.


What’s next for the trilogy?

The next book is Memphis ’68, set in the six months between the death of the greatest ever singer Otis Reading and Martin Luther King’s assassination.

It’s going to look at segregation in the South and the rise of the Civil Rights Movement.

Then it’s Harlem ’69 – Detroit is set during a year, Memphis during six months and Harlem during just one weekend.

It looks at a concert that was staged in Harlem, New York, that was much bigger than Woodstock or Glastonbury. The police refused to police it, so the Black Panthers had to provide security.

It going to be all about how New York was changing and the end of 1960s soul.


You’re also planning a book on Northern Soul. If you think of the Northern Soul film last year, it didn’t have any context.  What’s the book going to look at?

It’s in the early stages at the moment.

But it’s not just about the Northern Soul scene as a soul scene, but about how Britain was changing in the 1970s.


Do you see any parallels with what’s going on the US? We’ve had the anger against police racism after Ferguson and a few artists releasing work in response to it.

If you look at the August 67 chapter in the book, it looks at how a rogue unit of the Detroit police force shot three young black guys.

It was witnessed by members of The Dramatics band.

Despite going through the courts the family has never got justice.

This is the equivalent of what happened in Ferguson last summer–it was the assassination of a young black guy by a white police force.

When I wrote the chapter a year ago I had no idea it would be so prescient. It shows that Ferguson is not just about what’s happening now, but is historically shaped.

When Hip Hop’s done well and politically, instead of just about self aggregation, it can really communicate something about our times.

It’s an immense way of communicating political change–anything that exposes the racism of the police force is welcome.

Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul
by Stuart Cosgrove,
£18, Clayton Media, out now

Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul with Stuart Cosgrove 
Monday 11 May 6.30pm
Bookmarks Bookshop, London WC1B 3QE
Admission £2, Reserve your place here or call 020 7637 1848


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