Marsha Music

A Grown Woman's Tales from Detroit


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Going to “Cherch” with Bebe Winans

One of my favorite gospel CDs is by BeBe Winans – called “Cherch”; spelled that way to capture the phonetic distinction that we make between Black and White “church” – or, even more specifically – between Black Sanctified/Holiness/Pentacostal/Church of God in Christ church, and the more formal, less demonstrative Black church services (that are actually diminishing in numbers these days, in favor of much more emotional “Praise and Worship”).

BeBe’s CD comes on the heels of the late Bishop G.E. Patterson’s, “Singing the Old Time Way”, a 2 CD set followed by yet another “Singing The Old Time Way Part II” release, both favorites of mine. These efforts capture the music of the modern sanctified church, which is musically much the same as the old sanctified church – and that’s the point.

Songs from the Sanctified Church have remained sort of hidden in plain sight within the gospel music world. This is not the music of the mass choir or even, in some respects, the dynamic solo. These songs, in the main,  are congregational – someone “raises” a song and the church joins in, mostly simple phrases, repeated over and over.  The essence of call and response. Often, several songs will have the exact same rhythm and tune, just different lyrics.

In fact, the clarion song of most Black Holiness churches is called just plain “Yes”, with a  series of instantly recognizable notes.  This one word chant is sometimes jokingly called the national anthem of the COGIC. The lyrics consist of that one word, embellished by little more than cries, shouts, key changes, and embellishments of exhortions to praise, for as many stanzas as required by the collective spiritual consciousness – i.e. The Holy Spirit – of the church. 

Many (especially white) music intellectuals do not know, or cannot make the distinction, that the gospel music of choirs and quartets and groups (like  the Soul Stirrers or Mighty Clouds of Joy) was not the same as the music at regular church services, especially at a sanctified church.

Much of the music of a Dorothy Love Coates, Clara Ward, or Wynona Carr – legendary Gospel singers – was not a part of the song list of congregational chants in Holiness church services. Much of such popular gospel music was viewed in Holiness churches as a sort of gospel entertainment, if you will, and as such often taken in careful doses, or reserved for after church edification.

Such music was highly regarded but often reserved for church “Programs”, those special evening – after regular services – Gospel shows. This was not so much because of perceptions of “worldliness” – though that was often the case – but often because the solo or quartet/group formations tended to uphold or create individual “stars”, or distinquish themselves as individual self-contained groups,  as opposed to the whole congregation – the collective body of singing believers.

Be Be and the rest of the Winans were raised spend their early years at Zion Congregational COGIC, founded almost a century ago by their grandfather, the venerable Elder I. W. Winans.  This now historic church is known in the COGIC world as “Mack Avenue”, after it moved on that street in the midst of the depression, just East of the Eastern Market in Detroit.

It is my family church, too; my grandmother was a founding member, and our families sang and shouted together there down through the years. Bebe and the Winans and I are connected by many degrees of convoluted family/church ties.

Church lore has it that a reason that the Winans left Zion church was that the efforts of “Pops” Winans to feature his gifted young sons and their singing group met with less than enthusiam – and even open disapproval. For a singing group – gospel or not – ran against the church’s culture of collective, congregational singing. 

So, the irony should not be lost that Bebe Winans, of the group that hurled gospel into the modern, post Motown era, has reached back into his traditional, congregational roots at Zion services.

With “Cherch” he has made a CD with music that is closer to the real church services that I know, singing what we call the “old songs”. They are simple, sometimes stark, sometimes layered with rhythm and chords;  the musicality shaped by the customary percussive weight common to Santified music – the tamborine,  jangling guitar riffs; and the mythical Hammon B5 organ. This gospel music is so archetypal in form that one can sometimes hear how it morphed from the Holy Dance music to the secular –  the “world’s” early R&B and Rock & Roll.

These songs are reminiscent of Southern one-room churches in the South, and the old night-time services in Detroit, with the Saints running up and down the aisles (as, yes, I have myself done and will doubtless do again).

It occurs to me in this writing that some of these songs – and those on Bishop G.E. Patterson’s CDs – are almost secret songs, lacking exposure to the mainstream record world, and I have a sense that down through the years there may have been a reluctance about releasing them as records, as if to do so would give up yet one more element of African-American spiritual power.

For the commercialization of Gospel music is evidenced by our sacred musical forms performed as the background to everything from raunchy pop singers, to fried chicken and car ads – risking the dilution of its awesome power.

BeBe’s tunes on “Cherch” are songs that, from the first note, resonate through a congregation and place it “on one accord”. His arrangements on a few are more contemporary, but he gets others spot on in “the old way”; they are the very definition of Old Time Religion.

“He’s Got Better Things for You” is a sweet gospel confection, sang the same way that is was sung when I was a child sitting in the balcony at “Mack Ave”, hiding from my grandmother during services; and just the same way it is sung there today. 

The TV concert of the CD is great, one of those that we tape and show over and over on the holidays when company comes – especially the elders. There is a thrilling interlude with Israel Houghton, a major gospel talent who tends towards the Christian Rock genre, but here he has the bombastic, sweet chorded, beat-heavy edge that I love. Israel is a gifted singer and a presence of such substance and energy as to not only hold his own with Bebe, but elevates the song “I Love the Lord/So Good – He Has Been So Good To Me“ to its convocational, ecclesiastical ecstasy.

In this duet with BeBe, Israel skips the saccharine and goes for pure Gospel sweetness; it’s on the CD as well, but not to as great effect as “seeing” the two of them on the DVD version that I saw on BET. Dionne Warwick, whom BeBe affectionately calls “Aunty”, makes a cameo appearance; and in a spontaneous duet reveals the gospel pipes that are at the base of the talents of she and her Houston kin, Cissyand the late Whitney.

BeBe himself is a rousing singer with a beautiful voice; he eschews the Gospel roar for a mellifluous, joyous Holy singing, as close to classical chorale as to the Sanctified shout. His presence is one of the twinkling eye, straightened spine, and quick step of the Holy dance. One can hear the child-like pride in his voice when he refers to his father, the late Pop Winans (whom he looks very much like) and leads the singing on the old “Well Done (Thy Good and Faithful Servant)“. I catch the quick tears in his voice when he says, “That’s my father…..that’s my Daddy”.

I sing in church now and again, and have come to understand the importance – or better yet, the gift – of raising just the right song at the right time – to comfort, to encourage, to help us pull onto “one accord“. BeBe Winan’s “Cherch” brings to my memory more songs for Sundays, from the days when his mother and mine and his grandmother and mine sang them at “Mack Avenue“.

Folks often ask, “what happened to good singing?” in the Black community. It is not dead, it just went to “Cherch” – where all black music at the end of its generation goes to be born again – as Gospel.

Marsha Music

Photos:

All photos taken at historic Zion Congregational COGIC (2135 Mack Ave. Detroit, MI, just east of the historic Eastern Market). Elder Isiah Winans, Founder; Elder James Hall, Pastor

1) Marsha Music at “Cherch”

2) Women on Women’s Day, Holy Fall Convocation 2011

3) Men at the Altar in Prayer, Holy Fall Convocatoin 2011


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The Temptations and Industrial Detroit

The Temptations are among the greatest of the mid-century masters of Sweetness. Though many of their tunes have been Big Chilled into the innocuous background music of baby boomer middle-age, believe it or not, in those early years, their process headed, tight suit wearin’, lean, street dressin’ was as scary-sexy to older, middle class white (and even black) audiences then, as Hip-hop acts are today.

But unlike the current objects of mainstream fascination/repulsion, there was a subtle yet powerful tension created by the apparent paradox of their “fast-life” personae and their pleading, cajoling declarations of love lost and found.

The search for and promise of lifelong devotion – the “Dream Come True” – emanated from these men – the “New Negro” men of those times.

They had roots in the rural South with new lives in the industrial North, like the dudes on the corner of 12th and Pingree – mouth-rolling toothpicks, stingy-brimmed hats cocked “ace-duce”; with a new icy attitude called “cool“ designed to hide the stress and tension of a new kind of hard, urban life.

They were not at all like the previous generation of singers – say the Mills Brothers with their harmonic, wholesome crooning, or the Drifters’ doo-wop paeans to love. Despite Berry Gordy’s polishing and presentation, the Temps looked, on the one hand, like street-corner hustlers – hostile and inscrutable; and on the other, like stolid, dependable brotha’s hitting the clock on the afternoon shift at Chrysler.

Lead singer David Ruffin wore thick, gumpy glasses and STILL looked cool. Up to that time, most singers would rather go on stage stumbling half blind, rather than appear with specs – especially the thick, awkward frames of those times.

He doubtless proved a blessing to the optometry business in the ‘hood back then; my little brother was finally convinced that our genetic nearsightedness was not the end of the world, once the girls said he looked like Ruffin.

Paul Williams, who always felt, to us, like the “soul of the group”. He sang “Don’t Look Back” at the Michigan State Fair, and, in the audience,  my Mom and I watched the tears run down his face with unabashed emotion on the “The Impossible Dream” – a lounge cliche when sung by others, but for him, it was a stirring Negro anthem for those hot-house Civil Rights days and times.

The cool, basso profundo of Melvin Franklin made us –  kids of the sixties – accept “Old Man River” as more than an anachronistic  river-boat song; but an ode to the South of our fathers, a remembrance of Delta days  as Black men toiled in their new, Northern cities. Eddie Kendricks sang “like a woman” in his career falsetto, yet the songs he led were the fanciful poesy of black  male loving that established the group from the beginning.

“The way you swept me off my feet, you know you could ‘a been a broom
The way you smell so sweet, you know you could ‘a been some perfume”*

In this song, “The Way You Do the Things You Do, written by Smokey Robinson, Eddie had a voice so limber that the word “feet” in the stanza above had five syllables. His voice was always gossamer, fairy light, and he was known to be a quiet, gentle man, yet he could look like the dude on the corner who might cut you, with his lean 12th street looks and brotha’ on the corner stance.

When I was a child, the Temptations and the kings and queens of Motown rode the streets of Detroit like a magic carpet, driving Easter egg colored Cadillacs, wearing suits in matching pastels.We’d see the Supremes shopping at J.L. Hudsons, or the Miracles at a school dance.  I remember the Originals singing “Baby I’m For Real” at the Arcadia skating rink on Woodward Ave. Everyone had someone they knew who was “one of the Temptations cousins” or “my sister-in-law’s brother’s uncle’s friend”- or some other convoluted degree of Motown separation that was emblematic of Detroit’s connection to our homegrown heroes. The “made for TV” movie about the Temptations has become an urban classic, but it in no way does it capture the edgy, gifted complexity of the group, or the times.  

The Temps had the look of both the hustler on the corner and the auto worker, sugar-sharp at a union hall cabaret. Kendricks and Ruffin, lithe and cold-blooded, the rest – and their replacements – proletarian thick and church deacon sharp. They were reflections of the new factory Black men – sweet enough to talk up on a woman, “game” enough to catch her – and with money enough to keep her comfortable, Detroit style –  in a large brick home with two sharp cars.  

Only years, faded memories, and mainstream acceptance have rendered the Temps’ music into innocuous the oldies of soft-bellied men. For they were saber-sharp back in the day, and behind the scenes a few were as edgy and difficult as many a rapper of today.

One does not have to dig deep into their discography for songs that have not been worn into tiresome oldies, but in addition to their many lush B sides and lesser known hits, there’s “Temptations in a Mellow Mood”, an unusual collection of show tunes and standards. One song on this unlikely album that I’ll never forget  features Eddie Kendricks’ glistening lead on “Try to Remember” from – of all things – the musical “The Fantasticks”, which he turns into his own beautiful, wistful beckoning to remembrance.

 

All too many of today’s young Black men cannot experience the virture of “sweetness” and the musicality that came from an urban culture that had as its cornerstone the church, and the security – or at least the possibility –  of a “good” job and a nice car to boot. There are few economic enticements to bolster their appeals to love. Unlike during Motown’s early days, the music of all too many of today’s young men does not allow for such vulnerability —there is no job at Ford (or Chrysler or GM – or anywhere at all, for many) in their future – in the same way that there was in those long gone Detroit days.

Today, pride, anger and machismo alone – morphing all too often into violence – must suffice as a facsimile of manhood, for all too many young men.

The Temptations and other sweet-singing groups of their times reflected a generation of young Black men freed from the defacto shackles of the Southern sharecropping life. Their new, quasi-affluence on the assembly-lines of urban Detroit permitted them the luxury of the glorification of romance. The end of that industrial domination marked the end of that sweetness.

Dennis Edwards, who lead the group in it’s first Grammy win, was the next inheritor of the lead voice after David Ruffin’s exit from the Temptations. Edwards can be said to personify the shift in not only the group, but the urban culture as a whole; for not only were love songs a part of his legacy but “Ball of Confusion” and “Papa was a Rolling Stone” exemplified the startling shift into the social tumult of the times.

After their early, prolific years and various personnel changes, the Temps emerged in the 90’s with “For Lovers Only” with a stunning lead singer, the late Ali Ollie Woodson. With “Some Enchanted Evening” the lead single, it was  redo of American standards with a nouveau-Temptations treatment,  befitting their maturity, longevity and stature. They were , for a new generation, the Grown Men of love.

The death in 2010 of the magnificent singer Ali Ollie Woodson marked the end to yet another incarnation of the Temptations;  his replacement, the birth of another. They will doubtless sing on, with many – if not most – of their current audiences neither knowing or caring who is in the group, as long as they can sing the Temps repertoire. Nor, it seems, does it matter, for the Temptations exist as a phenomenon, an entity, regardless of personnel. Their music, though an expression of love eternal, was born of a specific – now gone – time and place; they are songs of  Black, urban proletarian men, who, with their historically evolved blend of strength and sweetness, expressed love on behalf of an entire English-speaking generation.

Marsha Music

 

 

All photos from Temptations albums.


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The Techno Fest and the new “Movement” of Detroit

Photo by 2010 Kresge Arts Fellow Corinne Vermuelen, with her generous permission.

Prologue: I wrote this piece in the early 2000s, after the first two or three Electronic Music fests on Detroit’s riverfront.  After years of undergound raves and a start at Joe Louis Arena in the 90’s, the Techno Fest on Hart Plaza started in 2000. An attendance estimate for this first gargantuan event was 1-1.5 million*, and though some mainstream sources opined that the estimate was inflated, I was there and I didn’t doubt it one bit. However, the attendance in 2012, years after the imposition of entry fees, dropped to 107, 343.* (*Wikipedia estimates) But the numbers in 2015 were way back up to more than a million, again, though alas, I never went after they began charging fees after the first few years – way out of my budget. 

So here I was, in the youth of my old age, looking at another generation take its place in the musical history of Detroit – and I was absolutely clear that their presence marked not only a massive dance party, but a sign of  the future of the city. (Btw, this was one of my submissions for which I was awarded a Kresge Literary Arts Fellowship, in 2012.)

                                                    The Techno Fest And The New “Movement” In Detroit

Detroit is the home of the annual Electronic Music Festival, aka Techno Fest – now officially named “Movement” – held on Memorial Day weekends on Hart Plaza. It is one of the seminal events in Detroit as it transitions into a new, post-industrially-dominated city.  From the inception of this festival in 2000, the “movement” that was taking place on the Riverfront was not only to the music, but a synergistic spark in the movement of young whites not only coming to – but  remaining in – Detroit.

Detroit is an overwhelmingly African-American city, yet for this event, the crowd is overwhelmingly white. After decades of their parents’ fearful avoidance of the city, a new generation of suburban kids is not only refusing to be afraid of the urban center, but refusing to leave, setting up residence in downtown lofts and apartments, partying in downtown clubs, and skateboarding in the night on Woodward Avenue.

At the first festivals, there were enough black Detroiters to give the Techno Fest – as it is known – the edginess and cool to make for an exciting musical event for the whites who have come to the city, for up to this point the blacks in attendance have been mostly members of the Detroit’s black cultural and musical intelligentsia. Techno music, with its pan-continental DJs and audience, is not viewed as a “black” dance music of choice in the ‘hood – rap, hip-hop, and the new R&B were the genres that were marketed to blacks.  Doubtless, the African-American founders of techno music, accustomed to mostly white audiences in the US and Europe, were glad to see so many brothas and sistas here in their home town, dancing to the music that they created.

On the other hand, too much hip-hop and rap throughout the festival weekend runs the risk of attracting too many of its fans from the ‘hood – which might make this neo-hippie fest a little too “diverse” for comfort to the whites who are pouring onto the plaza; so a balance is necessary.  Fans come to the Techno Fest from many miles away – not just the suburbs but from Australia, France, Japan, Germany; backpacks full of provisions for this new electronic Woodstock.  During the festival, thousands of kids – mostly white – rest and hang out near a monument on the promenade dedicated to the Underground Railroad, a massive bronze sculpture of a group of slaves fleeing toward freedom to Canada, in plain sight across the river. Only those familiar with the intense divisions between Detroit’s city and suburbs truly appreciate the lovely irony of this scene.

The music could be heard from three main stages and a dozen booths at once, banging off the high-rise buildings that rim the plaza, The DJs use the archetypal beats and sounds of R&B, funk, disco and pop culture – the building blocks of our contemporary aural heritage – to create transnational dance genre. Multiply these samples and sounds by tens of thousands of culturally recognizable beats, phrases and riffs, rearrange them into new configurations, and they are as creative as the original makers of the music from which they sample.

The turntable technicians transform electronic sounds into music, and many, with their sampling, display a prodigious knowledge of the vocabulary of modern cultural sounds. Detroit’s Motown sound developed in part from the relentless rhythms of the mechanized clash and clang of assembly lines of the auto plants in which Berry Gordy and his contemporaries toiled. Today’s youth grew up with different sounds – the ambient noise of video games, computers, cell phones; technology with its hums, bells, bleeps and blips, the aural wall that surrounds today’s environment. All of this electronic sound engendered a musicality that is based on – but is inevitably unlike – the sounds of the rock and roll generation.

Techno music evolved from black middle-class Detroiters able to afford – or hustle up on – the turntables, electronic equipment and voluminous libraries of vinyl record collections that were the original tools of the DJs craft.  I remember when my young brother and cousins – Lawrence Battle, and Bruce and Carl Martin – among that first group of  DJs in Detroit,  were suddenly immersed in sound snippets of records that we grew up with, and lugging car loads of milk-crates filled with records to weekend parties.

Masters of the Dance

On the last day of the first Techno Fest, a new element changed the character of Movement, so that its final day was different than the first. The police had abandoned bag checks and let the crowds pour in, and they showed no sign of thinning. For the first time all weekend, pouring into the main entrance was a growing phalanx of bristling “young Black males”. The mostly white crowd had gradually become “Blacker” and it wasn’t clear what this would mean. These new arrivals crowd the plaza in excited agitation, some with the sullen defiance of the unwanted, the mask to hide their fear of being unwelcome, that their presence is cause to tighten jaw lines and police lines, both.

It is understood that this festival is not for them, but rather for the visitors, though doubtless, Techno’s founders are gratified that, finally, the music that they created will have an audience of Detroit boys from the ‘hood. Over the three days of the festival, word has spread through Detroit that the music is “live” and worth risking the possibility of suburban and police hostility. They know that their arrival is akin to crashing a gigantic private party; nevertheless, they come. They flow into the bowl of the plaza; and the air crackles with their young black maleness. Yet instead of fleeing – as may have happened a decade ago – the young suburbanites jelled into a concentrated mass of excitement and awe.

The festival had blown off the hook – it was electrified. The black youth crowd the plaza, huddle in tight, dark circles. No cute rainbow-hued costumery and Hackey Sack looks for these new arrivals – they are from the shirtless, bedraggled school of urban poverty. They felt out the crowds, spotted locations, sized up adversaires as they worked their limbs into cudgels or stood stock-still in Zen concentration. They were the Masters of Dance and they had come to take their rightful positions. The battle had begun. It was a war, not of weapons, but of strength, grace and mental acuity. The crowds parted like the Red Sea as these new participants step into the whorls of dance that had formed in the ocean of people.

Bass was bumpin’ bass through to the bone marrow. These new dances defied any concept of what was known as dance decades ago but then again, this is not the movement of courtship – as in the Motown days – but of power, motor skills, and muscular control. Their bodies replicate the movement of computerized machines, and it is not romantic, nor really sexual. Thirty years ago black dance broke out of partnered confines into robotic motions of machinery and mime. After they had been embedded in the dance lexicon of the Black community for years, Michael Jackson displayed these moves to the world.

“Poppin’ & Lockin’” the abrupt, mechanized, stylized imitation of robots, is familiar now to generations of Black dancers, mastered even by small children in the ‘hood. Body waving, Breakin’, Moon Walking, Runnin’ Man, Robot and Tickin’ – the bizarrely elegant quivering of every joint and muscle at conflicting angles – all these dances grew from hip hop’s beginnings. Most dancers at the Techno Fest displayed their mastery of  “Jittin” , a matrix of extreme, skillful foot and legwork, with its origins in Detroit.

The great racial rhythmic divide doesn’t exist in the same way as in generations past, what with music videos, MTV, BET, et al, and  exposure to black music at exponentially higher levels than previous generations. The white kids, most as segregated as ever in real life, are profoundly integrated regarding music and dance – even if they are learning moves that black kids mastered almost 40 years ago. The first Techno Fests were the bar exams of  dance.

 Dance Wars on the Plaza

The white kids who could “Lock” and Break Dance had dominated the festival’s dance circles and entertained the crowds all weekend – but with the arrival of the Detroit dancers they now stand back in humility and awe. The blacks have come to “take them to school” – and they all know it.  Many of the suburban boys rarely got a chance to see – in real life – the rippling pop of brown limbs and muscles and they study these moves with as much concentration as college entrance exams. Emboldened by attention and recognition, the black dancers from the city challenged one another to ever more physical flights of daring and skill.

The suburban kids and visitors were mesmerized by this urban drama. The blacks were sure of their dominance, suffering no fool gladly to step into the ring with them unprepared, but they were generous as well. The white kids who proved their mettle and went toe to toe with the brotha’s are given respect – smug, serious nods of approval, or wild high-fives, as each dances into the ring and out again.  Dancers strip from the waist up, every visible muscle like rhythmic pythons under the skin.

Added to the layers of consciousness, physicality and race at the festival, there were the whites whose forebears would not or could not flee from Detroit –  the white boys from the ‘hood, lighter facsimiles of the young blacks; skin color alone differentiated them from their darker neighbors; indistinguishable in speech, dress and attitude. They too were stars in this game of bravado and skill and their combination of  urban-ness  in white bodies makes them fascinating bridges between the two worlds – humble enough to accede leadership to their dark brother mentors in the ‘hood, but cocky in their dance mastery and urban skills in comparison to the suburban boys.

Then came the girls from the ‘hood. All weekend the moves of most of the white girls approximated Brittney Spears’ hip-hop lite, and they stepped back in excited incredulity to watch the arrival of the “ghetto fabulous” home-girls. The allure of these new arrivals is primordial; the suburban girls – some of them probably real stars in their hometown schools and malls – are agog at the nubile finesse of these brown, urban females.  There is nothing coy about their moves; this is the hard core “booty shake” of Senegal via Luke Campbell and the East Side of Detroit. Their rhythmic undulating was intense and incredible to behold. As their bodies roiled they stared straight ahead in the dead seriousness of trance. After minutes of these pelvic machinations, they collapsed in childish giggles – just young girls havin’ fun.

The boys from the ‘hood danced in tandem, transferring waves of rhythm to one another, staging mock vignettes, sexual simulations and Chaplinesque parodies for the crowds. Watching this populist art unfold, it is clear that there is a deep, adult intelligence at play in this display of skill and wonder. The battles intensified all over the plaza and black, white, yellow and brown dancers established victories in recognition of their mastery – they are the Shaolin warriors of dance. There were no guns shot, no violence – dance alone was the measure of will and negotiator of the social contract.

At the edge of Hart Plaza the huge, dark figures of the Underground Railroad sculpture stood larger than life; massive, bronze figures fleeing from the ancestors of some of these very young people in their ceaseless, ecstatic movement on the plaza. I stood and reflected that during my own youth such an edifice would be unthinkable; much has changed within my lifetime. This statue of slaves on the verge of freedom stood in the midst of a scene that years ago was only a dream – kids of all colors dancing in Detroit’s dark night.

Photo, on the sculpture on Hart Plaza: by photographer Corrine Vermuelen, Detroit, with her generous permission.

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Epilogue:

The fact that there is now an admission fee for entrance – and a steep one, by Detroit inner-city standards –  virtually guarantees that the innumerable circles of young, Black dancers from the ‘hood – schooling their young visitors and reveling in the partnership of dance – will never be seen in the same numbers again.

But let me tell you,  it was a beautful sight to see.

Me in a moment with DJ Spooky, who performed at the first, and subsequent Techon Fests. This pic is not at the Fest, but at the Detroit Institute of Arts, where during the Q & A, he and I had a….shall I say…. difference of opinion, regarding his redux of the movie Birth of a Nation. But afterwards, as you can see, all was well.

 

 


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The Last Decade – a Quick One in the Detroit Metro Times

Just a little piece in the Detroit Metro Times, Review of the Decade – January 6, 2009 edition. Thanks, W. Kim Heron – editor.

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This decade, African-American music did not die — as has been rumored.

Though James Brown — the architect of contemporary black music — passed away, and the end of the decade was marked by the death of Michael Jackson, their passing solidified their seminal influence of popular music.

The re-emergence of R&B’s Maxwell (Black Summer’s Night)  is a return to the sheer musicianship and showmanship of bygone days. His bespoke, Marvin-esque persona makes him, along with R&B artist Kem, exemplars of the Rebirth of the Cool or, if you will, the Return of the Grown Man.

Neo-soul newcomer Chrisette Michele’s stupendous, lyrical vocal instrument (Epiphany) is a throwback to Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday, devoid of hip-hop tremolos and atonalism. Marvin L. Winans released a breakthrough tour de force, Alone But Not Alone, the gospel musical equivalent of “spiritual, not religious.”

His brother, Bebe Winans, recorded Cherch — an homage to traditional gems of the sanctified church. African-American music found new life and expression in the last decade, and I am hopeful that it will continue to evolve, true to its roots.


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The Death of Isaac Hayes and Memories of a First Date

I received an email from an old friend; my first boyfriend, in fact.

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He had moved to the South few years ago, after retirement, and when he heard the news about the death of Isaac Hayes, he emailed me an anecdote that he had posted on one of the websites he frequents.

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It was about the day, almost 40 years ago in Detroit, when we went on our first real “date”, to see Hayes in concert. He wrote that it was November 30, 1969; How he knows this, I don’t know, but I’ll take his word for it. I decided not to reply right away, but to write about that day, and send it to him.

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Memory being what it is, I’d always remembered that first date was our going to see Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, two new artists on the music scene at that time.
 
But, we were both right. Roberta and Donny were the opening acts for Isaac Hayes that night. It was to be a concert of the “new music” – not the Motown sound, the soundtrack of our town – but the new hip, “conscious” soul.
 
 
Roberta‘s sweet “Strumming’ my pain with his fingers” was sweet, exhilarating, but downright odd back then. Donny, in his “apple cap” and turtlenecks, made bassed-up dance songs about “the Ghetto” – before the term was a prejorative – on LPs mixed-up with madrigals, blues and cowboy songs. We classically trained orchestra and band students loved him.
 
 
Isaac’s Stax Soul sound was familiar, like the Southern Blues of our fathers, but funked up for our new, hip times. We knew he was something altogether different – in a day of sharp-suited Temps, Tops and Pips, Isaac broke on the scene with chains draped on his buck naked chest. A thrilling, disconcerting next step into some new realm of Negritude.
 
 
He turned his masculinity upside down, posturing like Mandingo while singing sweet songs of women (Walk on By), children (Never Can Say Goodbye) and white country boys (Phoenix); so secure was he in a Black manhood that he was helping to define.
 

Heck he even sang silly stuff – Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymstic. I was chagrined in later years, when one of my sons knew him only as the voice of a cartoon, but I was delighted when he met Hayes and asked him to record his voicemail message – so I could hear Isaac Hayes every time I tried to call my son

But I digress.

My boyfriend had gotten tickets for the concert -to be held at the regal Masonic Hall, and I had been getting my outfit together for days; the excitement had rubbed off on my mother, who not only agreed that I could go on the date, but gathered up all her gumption and drove me to the rough and tough part of the East Side, to get my hair done at “Dicky’s”, the premier barbershop of Detroit at that time.

 
It was Afro-chic for girls and women to get our hair done in barber – not beauty – shops in those days, and despite all the long-haired styles that were driving both black and white barbers out of business, Mr. Dicky had taken the ‘fro to it’s beautific, architectural heights and making a whole new career out of Black is beautiful. You had to wait in line for the privilege of getting your cut and “blown out“ for the night.
 
 
 
His barbers were masters of the ‘Fro, cutting styles straight out of Ebony and Jet, with such precision that my hair stood around my head in a centrifugal halo, the Afro Sheen sprayed on ‘til it glowed.
 
 
 
I had made my outfit myself, sewing furiously for days; a pair of extra-wide bell bottoms with a green halter that exposed waist, back and arms – might as well had on a swim top. In November? I now wonder how.
 
I was a Black Power mermaid, all pubescent curves and a ball of hair.
 
It never occurred to me that this first date was a passage of sorts not just for me, but for Momma too. It was she, after all, who had brought the Isaac Hayes record home, playing it on the record player in our oak-beamed den; stepping out of her characteristic reticence, cigarette in hand, popping her fingers and singing to herself. My brother and I loved Isaac Hayes, in part, because she did; he was someone the grown folks liked whom we could share. He was a bridge between Motown smooth and Southern, Stax Blues.
 
 
Or maybe we were just getting older, our teen ears now understood the meaning of songs about love lost and found. And I suppose that all kids have a time when they realize that all parents have an inner life obscured from their familial gaze
 
 
Mama’s strict church upbringing – though she’d been distant from church for years – made her shy away from really dancing, but she‘d shimmy around the den and raise her famously pretty hands when Isaac sang “By the time I get to Phoenix”.
 
 
It was the longest record we’d ever heard, it even had a Part 1 and 2! The AM radio stations couldn’t even play the whole thing, and we started listening to the new “FM” in order to hear all the new extra-long records and rock LPs.

 

It was a country song, a “cross-over” hit by Glen Campbell, and we knew it well already because in those days we listened to all kinds of music – most often on CKLW Radio, broadcasting from across the Detroit River in Windsor, Canada.

 

It was a stunning incongruity that Hayes – who called himself “Black Moses” – remade this country song as an urban ballad, with its Hammond B5 intro and plaintive soul wails. He, the Ultimate Black Man, all big nose and bared chest and draped in chains, revealing both heartsick vulnerability and the power of the Black male.

As Hayes moaned about making it to Albuquerque, having left his woman behind, I worried as to what invisible audience my mother sang, for she and my dad were often in the midst of drama, involving Johnny Walker Red, slammed doors and separate beds. But, being young and in love, I could care less that my mother was helping me to get dressed, so that I could go to see her favorite new singer sing her new favorite lovesick song.

My date arrived. In the email he’d sent to me last month, he said he’d gone out with “the prettiest girl in the world” – and at that moment, 40 years ago, I felt like it. He surely was the cutest guy, with an Afro even bigger than mine.

Mama stood on the porch, looking out on John R street, and waved us goodbye with my little sister and both brothers. We’d doubtless conspired to keep this date thing WAY under Daddy’s radar; he was known for meeting potential suitors at the door with his .38 caliber father figure.

My boyfriend and I walked to the Woodward bus. Yes, neither of us could drive, and in those days – unlike today’s couch potato kids – we were used to treking miles at a time. We walked and took the bus everywhere, all day long.

I held onto the rail of the bus really tight so that my hair and outfit wouldn’t get mussed. I was very aware of a guy across the aisle snickering at my date and I all dressed up, in a city where autos were a birthright. I snuggled closer to my date to pledge my allegiance to our pedestrian love.

We arrived at the grand, old Masonic Temple, and were surrounded by a crowd of late 60’s Black humanity. There was nothing like Detroit back in the day. Folks of every shade of cream, brown and black, everybody “sharp as a tack”, vibrant and young and full of Temptations cool and Sly Stone funk, hip talkin’’ jive walkin‘, “dressed and pressed“.

A group of local black militants, whom I had seen outside our high school, were there too, passing out leaflets on the struggles of the day. I nodded at them in smug, grown up recognition, and told my date – “let’s talk to those people when we get back to school” (we did – and kept talking to them for the next few decades)

I don’t remember much of the concert. I remember Isaac Hayes was smaller than I thought he would be. I had thought he’d be 8-feet tall from his double-faced album cover and stretched out form. But no, he was a regular-sized guy.

I remember the “wah-wah” guitars, a new thing back then, and Donny Hathaway in his apple cap and maple syrup voice. And Roberta, who sang such a different type of music we weren’t sure what to make of her; not saucy like the Supremes, not soulful like Aretha, but something new.

We felt all smooth and grown up listening to her sing; a new hip mix of Nina Simone, Bessie Smith and maybe Edith Piaf, too.

_____________

These things came back to me when my friend wrote to me about the death of Isaac Hayes and our first date, back in the day. I had just heard too, that the comedian Bernie Mack had died, and I thought about that old superstition, “death comes in threes”.

I began writing this story, and my friend’s wife called. Her husband, my friend, the guy of my first date, who had become like an elder brother to me after all these years, had had a heart attack. He lay in a coma, a thousand miles away.

Immediately, my memories began to rearrange themselves around this new shock. I had never even thought of him – more “fit”, I thought, than any of us in our circle – leaving this earth before me. In fact I counted on him saying droll and clever things about me at my own “home-going”, whenever that might be.

He was trying to leave this world and I had the feeling that he would be taking sizable chunks of me with him, in the form of a million memories,  critiques of me, down through the years. He was on life support. My mind flashed to my mother, dying on a respirator this year, her frail body still working but her lungs unable to breathe.

I talked to his wife each day about his progress, trying to reassure her that it wasn’t his time to leave, when I wasn’t so sure about that myself. fter many days, he began to recover; thank God he is better now, and eventually came back to Detroit.

So I write this so he will know that I remember, too; that years ago when we were young in Detroit, with Afro’s like dark cotton candy, we went to see Roberta and Donny and Isaac Hayes, on a crisp, 60’s night, under a Detroit moon.

And I am glad that he has not joined Donny and Isaac and Bernie Mack, all gone too soon.

Marsha Music

[first posted on the BelleLettes forum of ThePuristS.com, Oct, 08]


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Waiting for Steveland

At the annual, Holiday, Motown Review, it was pandemonium when we heard the trumpet’s blare, the horn’s fanfare, the introduction to “Fingertips” – the signature song of Little Stevie Wonder.
For he might be blind and he might be a genius – different and exotic in our eyes – but like all of us young ones who’d stood in line in the snow with our parents or older cousins during the Christmas vacation- he was a KID.

***

Stevie Wonder is not his real name of course, but Steveland Morris. In fact his name at birth was not even Morris, but Hardaway, he was given his stepfather’s name in childhood. He was not born in Detroit, but moved here as a child from Saginaw, an hour away. He was not born blind, but lost his sight due to oxygen depravation as an incubated, premature infant.

He was not my age, but just a few years older and his ever-present wrap-around shades disallowed even a peek at his hidden, sightless eyes. He moved in a rhythmic bob and weave on some still, invisible axis, pulling sound like a satellite from the dark around him; an unfathomable existence that we imitated but never mocked.

He was led onto the stage and for the only time in our well-mannered young lives we could openly stare at a blind human being. He was called a genius and we never questioned this title as we watched him tread his unseen path to every instrument on stage and play like an adult virtuoso.

His dancing lacked the precision turns and moves of the other acts, but was instead a rhythmic clap and wobble, awkward and ecstatic. We held our breath terrified he’d fall into the orchestra pit when he hurled himself from the piano to the edge of the stage.

Always, before he stepped one last dire inch, he’d be snatched back from certain catastrophe, though perhaps this too was a choreographed performance, each hop to the abyss carefully counted out in Stevie’s genius head.

His blindness was a profound thing, a multiplier of his already extraordinary gifts, though it was clear that he played and lived much as a sighted child. I was fascinated with the blind and deaf Helen Keller and was endlessly curious about the signing and speech of my own deaf cousin.

My early interest in the deaf and blind coincided with the emergence of Little Stevie Wonder, perhaps a reason he left such an imprint on my heart. Regardless of how the blind and deaf joke at themselves, few things bother me more than jest at their expense.

No matter what acts performed at the Motown review, in my mind he was always The Star. Each year during the holiday season, in line in the freezing cold, I was always glad to wait once more for Stevie.

***

My father’s record shop was just blocks away from the Motown studios. I always called him when I got home from school; one day someone who was clearly not Daddy answered the phone.

“Joe’s Record Shop” said the strangely familiar voice.

“Who is this?”

“This is Steveland”.

“Stevie Wonder?????”

“Yeahhhh”.

To my astonishment, he said a few more cool-boy-in-high-school kind of things in that Signed, Seal. Delivered voice. I dropped the phone in my excitement; it bobbed on its cord and I hung up, stunned! I was shocked to be on the receiving end of this bona-fide heart-throb conversation.

I called right back but by then it was Daddy’s voice; his young guest had apparently been playing on the phone long enough.

“Daddy, who was that???”

“Well it was Stevie Wonder, didn’t he tell you?”

I begged my Mama to get in the car and take me to meet him but at that moment, probably knee deep in dinner cooking, she had no such time, and it was probably in the days when we only had one car.  I had been exposed to more than a few artists by that time, but I’ll always remember that phone call with Stevie.

***

Over the years of afro’s, braids and locks – on he and I – my love for Stevie has never waned, regardless of his hits or popularity. He pioneered innovations for the blind from his work with computerized sound and was recently willing to try radical surgery to restore his sight, though it was determined that it would not be successful. His birthday song became the anthem of a national holiday; Signed, Sealed, Delivered was  the clarion call for Barack Obama.

Still, I was not alone in ridiculing his rather loopy metaphysical ramblings that were increasing in songs he wrote after a near fatal car crash in the early 70‘s. But one anguished, sleepless night his latest record played in my headphones through haze of drink and psychic pain, and in a songwriting conceit that few achieve without controversy, he sang as the Voice of God into my fevered mind:

“You will know, troubled hearts will know, problems have solutions, so I made it so”.

I listened to this mystical musing and in an epiphany became willing to consider – finally – that some Higher Help might fix my troubled life; it was the beginning of the end of my hopelessness.

I keep a magazine photo of Stevie in a special place, a reminder of that night when some Other Voice used his to speak to me through headphones in a song. Finally, the Gospel According to Stevie made some sense to me, after years of waiting for that too.

A old, worn copy of a surreal magazine photo of Stevie, that I've had for years.

In the summer of 2001, Stevie Wonder, who had been living in Ghana, West Africa, came back to headline Detroit’s Tricentennial Celebration. No event equaled the excitement of the chance for Detroiters to see him again.

Almost a million people packed the Riverfront for his concert; but of course that many people means that in order to see, you had to have a seat many hours before the concert began.

I didn’t of course, so I pushed my way as close to the stage as possible, which in fact wasn’t close at all. The sight of almost a million was terrifying, til I realized that the multitudes were oddly peaceful, a synthesis of urban souls so remarkable we looked at each other stunned that we could get along in such close Detroit quarters – old folks, suburbanites, crack-heads, kids. We pushed and shoved, laughed and danced – and waited for Stevie.

I tried to find a place where I too could view the stage, but folks were packed so tight that I could barely see; I burst into tears like a child. Finally, surrendering to the immensity of the crowd, I watched with others on giant screens from a block away, and the hundreds of thousands partied as if we could see him in the flesh, satisfied just to be a part of the multitudes on such a glorious night.

I realized the real “wonder” was not just Stevie, but Detroit’s polarized humanity dancing in peace “without incident”, singing his songs still, after 40 years.

I had waited to see Stevie on that hotter than July night with almost a million others, just as I waited in the cold during holiday week as a child. And as long as we’re in both in the land of the living, I’ll still not mind waiting for Steveland.

Marsha Music

[originally written for thepurists.com, BellesLettres forum in 2003]
 
 

 

 


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Musin’ on the Motown Review

 I remember the holidays of my childhood. During the Christmas countdown my Momma And Her Sisters shopped in a frenzy of  yule-time acquisition; the intensity of their excursions should have obliterated all of our belief in the North Pole. 

We were taken to visit Santa, nevertheless, at a Winter Wonderland created each year at the Ford Rotunda, a legendary automotive building –  for this was Detroit after all.

When the Rotunda burned down in the early 60’s (in my child’s mind, the end of the world, I thought there would never be Christmas again) our visits to Santa switched to the biggest, best downtown department store.

At the J.L. Hudson’s Christmas extravaganza I was on best behavior, standing proudly next to the elegant Colored women who worked the elevators, some of the most beautiful ladies in Detroit, regal and serious performing their floor-to-floor labors. That they weren’t allowed to work the sales floors I didn’t know ‘til I was older, and many such things had changed for us all. 

I remember Christmas Eve vigils, nearly sick with excitement, hot chocolate and cookies at the ready, even after I, the eldest, made them disappear to insure my younger sibling’s continued belief in Santa – a noble sacrifice indeed.

Unable to wait for parental rising, there was the 5 a.m. race downstairs. We swam in the wrapping paper of Hot Cars and GI Joes, Barbies and Easy Bake Ovens, and for me – books, always books. We visited cousins in our new Christmas clothes, opened more presents and ate under Grand Mamma’s firm church gaze, that warned that we best not forget “the real meaning of the day”.

With the exception of a squabble over a sibling’s gift, or later years of toppled Christmas trees from too much paternal drink – traumatic then, now fading into that hazy place where, if one is lucky, unpleasant memories go and are softened into funny family anecdotes – our Christmases were idyllic indeed.

But few of my holiday memories are better than the Motown Revue.

***

In an annual Christmas week ritual of the 60’s, for a few years Motown’s “Cavalcade of Stars” staged shows for throngs of Detroiters, black and white, who lined up around the Fox Theatre. It was better than the movies, the circus and Ice Capades wrapped up in one.

Standing in line we shook with cold and anticipation as we waited in our new coats and dresses, crinolines starched tutu stiff and quivering like antennae. Excited boys pulled loose from grown-ups, finger-poppin’ and Temptation Walkin’, imitating their favorite singers on the icy sidewalk.

Finally the doors burst open and the show began. Some of the artists were famous, some new; grueling bus tours, concerts and the Motown machine were molding them all into professionals.

The Contours, one of the earliest Motown groups, clowned and sang in the old soul way, a doo-wop vaudeville that was smoothed out of Motown’s newer acts though we loved them just the same.

The Marvelettes were fine with hair piled high, fringes shimmering in the lights. They sang “Mr. Postman” with the counterpoint claps and we thought they were as good as the Supremes – though of course there was no use arguing, the Supremes were the Supremes.

There was light eyed, light skinned, light voiced Smokey, he and his Miracles made the girls swoon and scream, though I assimiliated my Momma’s judgment, that he could neither really dance nor sing so well, but was still a genius.

“Just like Pagliacci did, I try to keep my sadness hid”, a cultured if ungrammatical lyric, one line out of thousands that Smokey inscribed. We danced to his intellect, sang to his rhymes; each new record proof he was a gifted urban bard.

Then there was the moment when the incredible 4-Headed Microphone appeared onstage, heralding the coming of the Temptations. The medley of their songs began and they took the stage: the sleek, dark archangels of cool, archetypal urban Black men, symbols of the Motor City.

Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells, Velvelettes and Vandellas, took and shook the stage. We applauded the “stars”, though they performed at local clubs and high schools and roller rinks, and could be seen outside the headquarters of Motown, or driving around town in pastel Cadillacs.

We knew each word and nuance of all the Motown songs, and endlessly choreographed our “routines” as if we would one day, in some fantastic emergency, be asked to perform. Still, the Temps, Four Tops, Supremes and all were almost a generation older than us; we were way too young for affairs and heartache, or the sweet seductions and lost loves of their songs.

No matter, we loved them, and their popularity had exploded across the land. Before us was the Sound of Young America, the hopeful, young America of John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, and we cheered them on in our hometown Detroit.