restricted access Half a Mile from Heaven: The Love Songs of Motown
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160 D etroit in the 1960s was an unlikely stage for a production that featured some of the most inspirational love songs ever written. It may seem equally unlikely that most of those songs were written by young black men. Default notions of romance are an awkward overlay to the reality of this city of steel and sweat, Joe Louis, and Jimmy Hoffa. Rough?Tanks that rolled off Detroit’s assembly lines and onto Europe’s beaches as liberators returned home twenty years later to quell urban rebellion. But there was no simple way to quiet the musical movement that was surging in the basements and on the street corners of Detroit’s black neighborhoods. The city vibrated. Every block had a band, it seemed, and on summer nights young men harmonized under the streetlights. Mixed in with homegrown versions of hits by Ben E. King and the Moonglows were original songs penned by the neighborhood tunesmith. Sunday morning you had to arrive early to get a seat at church. Overcome with the spirit, preachers resorted to singing their sermons. At New Bethel Baptist Church, you didn’t mind standing for two hours if you could hear the Franklin sisters—Aretha, Carolyn, and Erma—sing “How I Got Over.” But there was a new sound. As word spread through the neighborhood, teenagers scrambled, with high-top shoes and bicycles, to the parking lot of the Bi-Lo Supermarket where on a makeshift stage twelve-year-old Stevie Wonder performed “Fingertips.” Before long, record store clerks were inundated with customers describing, and sometimes attempting to sing, a few bars of the sound they heard on their transistor radios. These were the 1960s, and poverty, segregation, Vietnam, and nuclear gamesmanship convened in a funnel cloud that threatened to rip through the fabric of America. But with the innocence of a first kiss, the poets of Motown conjured up a black Camelot and took America “up the ladder to the roof” for a view of heaven. From rooftops to bluelit basements they danced, black and white, fast and slow, as young men testified that they would “find that girl if [they] had to hitchhike ’round the world,” and women replied, “ain’t no mountain high enough to keep me from getting to you.”Boys in the hood—long typecast as the least productive, most destructive element of society—wrote knowingly and elegantly of life and love. The young women dazzled with a mix of soul and social graces, grace they maintained even when on southern highways gunshots were directed at the Motown tour bus. The thought of white teenagers falling under the spell of black music mobilized the guardians of white culture. Everyone knew the invisible perimeter that insulated white America would soon be irreparably breached. The usual operatives took measures to thwart it. Music was on the front lines of the battle. In retrospect, the last-gasp efforts at interdiction seem comical. A now infamous poster Half a Mile from Heaven The Love Songs of Motown Herb Jordan 161 Herb Jordan that circulated throughout the South warned white parents not to allow their children to listen to Negro music, lest they end up with one, on the dance floor or otherwise. As great as Motown’s records were, the company ’s executives knew the power of live performance. The Motown Revue featured almost the entire roster of artists and a live stage band. The artists were confronted for the first time with overt segregation when the caravan rolled into southern towns. Neighborhoods in Detroit were neatly divided along racial lines, but in the South the lines were often drawn with firearms. What was taken for granted in northern cities could be a perilous undertaking in the South. Bobby Rogers of the Miracles recalls that a gas station owner confronted him with a gun after he used a white restroom. White and black teenagers were typically assigned to opposite sides of auditoriums in southern venues. But on many occasions the police were powerless to enforce the separation as the teenagers, in their own version of a freedom march, just stepped to the beat. In the mid-’50s, television sponsors squirmed at the thought of having their products associated with Nat King Cole’s variety show; in the absence of commercial support, the show quickly vanished from the air. But by the early 1960s, families gathered on Sunday evenings to watch Ed Sullivan introduce the latest Motown sensation.Disc jockeys thought nothing of sandwiching...


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