Pagliacci in the hood

Metro Times: We keep looking at Motown from different perspectives. There’s the "Berry Gordy’s production line" angle. The "ambitious stars" angle. The "background musicians" angle. Now your book is putting the focus on the lyrics.

Herb Jordan: When I spoke with Smokey Robinson as I was putting the book together, he said, "I just want to thank you because it’s the one thing that people don’t talk about." You can write about the fact that they were good songs, but we wanted to talk about the substance of the songs and how they were created and who they were created by.

I’m sure each individual song has a story, but we didn’t get into too much of that. We got into the environment that Berry created that made it possible for writers to write. There are really a million stories about how someone came up with an idea and whether a song is personal, comes out of the loss of a girlfriend and that sort of thing, or a funny incident that may have happened. But we focused more on how at Motown they created an environment for writers to feel they could express themselves, first of all. And second, that they knew if they wrote a great song it would have an audience that it be released on a record.

MT: One thing you touch on is the virtual absence of black songwriters in the popular mainstream before Motown. From the days of Andy Razaf and Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle before the Depression until Motown there’s a gap of sorts.

Jordan: In pop music that was true. It was the exclusive province of white songwriters, mostly Jewish songwriters coming out of a tradition, the Tin Pan Alley writers. There were great African-American writers. If you think about Thelonious Monk — what a great composer in jazz! In blues you have Willie Dixon who wrote amazing lyrics. But in the pop tradition there weren’t that many black writers.

MT: That was because of the absence of black voices on Broadway.

Jordan: It was a direct product. The Great White Way was really the Great White Way. When you think about it, when we hear a great Gershwin tune, we don’t associate it with the show. We think of this great song that has outlived the show. As you say, there were very few opportunities for blacks in theater and so that tradition to generate a body of work coming out of those shows just was not available. It’d be interesting to see what would have developed had there been a vibrant tradition of black theater. We can only imagine.

MT: You’re familiar with the story of how when Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake premiered Shuffle Along in New York, in 1921, Noble Sissle said he was afraid they’d be run out of town because they’d included a romantic ballad to be sung by an African-American.

Jordan: That tells a story. I talk in my essay about how there are two facets of the love song that were provocative when you think about it. Why would a love song be provocative? Why would someone be offended by a love song? But the one facet was that they were afraid that the white girls would get so worked up, and there was this whole interracial undercurrent — black music was going to somehow unleash passion in white teenagers. That was part of it. But the other part of it, that I find even more fascinating, was that a love song expressing love between black people was viewed as something that wasn’t acceptable. In film and in television, it was just subject matter that was taboo — which is spectacularly corrupt.

MT: Were the writers conscious of the void they were filling — or were they too busy just making music.

Jordan: The good thing about this music is that it was so natural. As I talked to some of the writers, in retrospect they’re conscious of it. But at the time they were young writers with something to say and they were allowed to say it. They weren’t afraid of being run out of town because they wrote a love song. And that’s to Berry’s credit. He made Motown a place where it’s OK to say what you have to say.

So much of what this introduction to the book is about is the power of opportunity. And it’s really about the unrealized potential in the neighborhood. Given the right environment, writers, scientists, anything that you can imagine will come out of those neighborhoods. It’s really a matter of opportunity. And in this little space on West Grand Boulevard, Berry just said, "Here, just function at a very high level, and part of his thing was let’s raise the bar. I’ll give you the opportunity, but bring back to me a great song, bring back to me a great performance." There was this implicit pact: We’ll give you the environment, but you have to deliver the goods. And I think that’s the real basic equation in life. People will deliver if they have the opportunity and they know that what they create will not be created in vain. For me that was the magic of Motown.

MT: There was something in that environment that helped the male lyricists — and they were mostly young, black men — express themselves without machismo. It can be hard for guys to be tender.

Jordan: It doesn’t get any more tender than Motown. But this wasn’t weakness. To me that’s the true masculinity — you can handle your business when you need to, but at the same time that doesn’t mean that you become a brute in general. That’s a very evolved concept of masculinity, and, again, people were allowed to be who they were. It was like this bubble where people who wrote songs and sang the music felt protected and they weren’t reacting to what people would think. In my opinion there’s a tradition among black men of strength and at the same time tenderness in spite of the conditions that forced people into a harsher approach to life. And if you sprinkle a little optimism, people can really revert to their natural selves.

If you remember those times, the early ’60s, everybody thought everything was going to change. And it was just for a brief moment. You remember there used to be a photograph in every black home of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I used to deliver The Michigan Chronicle and sell Ebony door to door. I got to see up and down the street, every home, and everybody was just waiting for that moment. As Sam Cooke said, "Change gonna come." And that’s amazing to see — this optimism in the songs. You’re not going to see the machismo; you’re gong to see people functioning in a very elevated manner. It’s about appealing to our highest aspirations really.

MT: Talk about schools in relation to this.

Jordan: I think it was probably true in a lot of urban schools that they taught music in a very formal way, music theory. I was involved in the music program in elementary school, and you learned to read music, and there wasn’t any expectation that everyone would go on to be a professional musician. But there was a very classic education and it shows. One of the most interesting discussions that I’ve had with people on this book is there is an assumption that the musicians got in the studio, and they were just feel-good musicians, and they could get in the studio and just play and come up with these brilliant things and it was just a natural gift. And that’s true — but almost all of them could read music. Clay McMurray — the guy who wrote "If I Was Your Woman" — told me the story about the Motown bassist James Jamerson. Some young arrangers came in and asked a question with James there. He brought in his fresh arrangements and he asked, "Do you read music?" So James takes the music, turns it upside down and plays it. What I think a lot of people missed is that these were masters of the craft and it came out of a tradition of discipline in the schools. And whatever people may say about Berry, Berry was a disciplinarian in the same way those music teachers were, and he required that people master their craft. If you were going to write a hook, the hook had to pack a punch. There was just no margin for sloppiness, a song had to move you or he would send people back to the drawing board.

MT: What were your discussions with Smokey like?

Jordan: Smokey is in many ways a scholar. He can talk about a lot of things. He has a vast understanding. If you start talking about Cole Porter, he’ll give you insights into Cole Porter. We all love Cole Porter, but Smokey is brilliant.

MT: I interviewed Smokey years ago. And my editor was mystified about how Smokey, this black kid from the inner city, wound up singing about the classic sad clown, Pagliacci, in the middle of a Motown song. And the answer was his teachers at school.

Jordan: "Just like Pagliacci did / I try to keep my feelings hid." Smokey knows how to conjugate. The brilliance of that one line is to take the reference to Italian opera and take it into the hood and misconjugate. This is something more than the feel-good music of the ’60s. These were craftsmen.

MT: Did you find what you considered an ultimate, perfect Motown lyric?

Jordan: Man, there are so many of them. I love "The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage." That’s a great lyric. "The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game." I mean, there are too many to name. "Ain’t That Peculiar." And they all have their own charm. "You Can’t Hurry Love." "I Wish It Would Rain." I mean how do you choose? Ashley Kahn, who did the NPR piece about the book, asked Smokey which songs did he wish he had written. And I think Smokey said "Just My Imagination." When you listen to the lyric of "Just My Imagination," it’s just an incredibly beautiful piece because it forces you to think about a man doing something we don’t think of a man doing — sitting there looking out his window and imagining his life with a woman and feeling very vulnerable. And I love that song for that reason.

MT: You mentioned the possibility of using Motown in Love as a teaching tool for young people.

Jordan: People are really looking for ways of getting kids into language and writing, and there is a discussion that maybe through the book and the tutoring organization I’m with some teachers can use it. It’s not so heavy-handed as some of the traditional methods, maybe it’s a way to open up some doors and let some students see how, through writing, these kids — the Motown writers — will be remembered for generations. In the most beautiful English it shows you how to use the vernacular, which is a legitimate part of writing.

MT: How to pair the vernacular with Pagliacci.

Jordan: And what an amazing lesson there is in that. W. Kim Heron is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

About The Author

Scroll to read more Local Music articles
Join the Metro Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.