Impossible. Quixotic. A complete and utter waste of time.
These were the immediate dismissals offered up by some of our peers when we announced our project: a chronological visual representation of the past century of Detroit’s popular music. Maybe they were right. After all, there are extensive volumes dedicated to almost every subgenre of the city’s music and untold volumes yet to be written. So, really, how can a rock ’n’ roller from Arizona, a beer-addled farm boy from Farwell, Mich., and a bookish biochemist squeeze our hamlet’s tuneful heritage into roughly 600 square inches of newsprint? Well, the skeptics were right; we can’t.
But take a spin around this city. Drive past the abandoned lots that were once home to Fortune Records, the homes of the West Side where young Stevie Wonder took piano lessons. Cruise down the freeway that’s paved over Hastings Street, drive through a fast-food joint that stands in what was once Black Bottom. Visit the third-floor conference room of the Metro Times where this project was executed. Then go beneath the papers and pizza boxes, the reference books and Diet Dr. Pepper can-ashtrays, through the floor, still down, through Flood’s (the neo-soul bar on the first floor of our building), through the soil below. Somewhere, way down there, you might find a piece of broken glass or decaying tin from a can, the only real remnants of the blind pig where Big Maceo or the Detroit Count (known to family as Bob White) would stomp through boogie blues until all hours of the morning. Forget, for one second, the neon names of Ted Nugent, Motown, the MC5 and Jack White. Think about the shoulders of giants that those names — and all of us — stand on each day.
Like Sippie Wallace. She grew up in Texas and had established herself on the vaudeville circuit and had released a number of recordings before settling in Detroit in 1929. When blues fell out of fashion, she became a vocalist and organist in a Detroit church for four decades. Then, in ’66 she returned to the blues with a vengeance; Bonnie Raitt, among others, was a huge fan, and Wallace was eventually nominated for a Grammy in 1983. She died here in the mid-’80s. Think about a guy like Scott Morgan, who formed Ann Arbor’s underrated garage band the Rationals (which predated the MC5 and the Stooges), and later went on to another under-the-radar outfit, Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, and the current Powertrane. These are the iceberg tips that led to an unimaginable world beneath the surface.
So practically each name was researched and then added based on the criteria of the artist’s local influence or popularity. Granted, that’s a broad qualifier, but it helped us to weed out the thousands of stars on the sidelines.
It also negated institutions like the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which, though a woefully unsung treasure, exists somewhat as an island. (But what about the symphony session players who manned the strings on the Motown hits? Sorry. Madonna? Don’t even go there.)
In the weeks of 16-hour days that went into growing this tree, we had to draw lines, no matter how regrettable or painful or blurry they turned out to be. Those lines did not encompass pseudonymical side projects of our many electronic musicians or of makeshift swing combos that populated every bandstand in town in the 1940s.
Also, forgive the absence of Detroit venues that housed so much of the actual music: lordly locales like the Greystone in the 1920s with its fab deco, the West Side’s ’50s bebop hotspot the Blue Bird Inn, the rock ’n’ roll ground zeroes at the Hideout, Grande Ballroom and Bookies. You’ll also find no record labels (though there were more than 400 in town during the early ’60s), even though they obviously shaped the way local music was ingested by Detroiters. Nor will you find the old-school DJs, from the eras before the radio industry’s corporate consolidation, those key personalities (think ’50s star-makers like Jack the Bellboy, Robin Seymour and Mickey Shorr, and, later, the Electrifyin’ Mojo) who brought wicked sounds to baby ears.
We just focused on the artists. And, at times (usually marked by someone slapping their forehead and exclaiming something to the effect of “Oh, fuck, what about Insane Clown Posse?!?”) even that was overwhelming. Additionally, the rough-cut generalizations that group these musicians could also be frustrating — too tightly intertwined, loosely connected or simply clouded by the undocumented history — and hence, the tree has more of an impressionistic than scientific quality.
Please take note of some other fine print. We’ve combined suburb-based artists and Ann Arbor-area musicians as well, even as far off as Lansing, as all things in the area touch in some way. But, as reasonably as we could, we kept things relatively local. In many ways the lineage of Detroit music is beautifully provincial — generations of families are born and die here. Musicians leave Chicago bound for New York but end up here — and many of them stay forever.
The impression starts in 1904. As Detroit’s black population grew in the post-Civil War years, and into the 1920s, the folks who migrated here looking for work brought with them a rich harmonic heritage. The Black Bottom area was simply loaded with skilled musicians and storytellers, and their aesthetic can be traced all the way up through, say, barrier-breakers like the White Stripes and neo-soul singer Amp Fiddler and so on. In short, we can safely say that most of this tree stems from that period in Motor City history. The black jazz and blues.
Our genealogical pursuits also uncovered some dazzling tidbits and factoids. Who knew the inimitable Boss was the first female gangsta rapper in the country? Or that Sam George from ’60s soul trio the Capitols was murdered? That Danny Zella and His Hot Rocks narrowly escaped stardom when their charting song “Wicked Ruby” stalled after a rights dispute with a popular rock show TV host. Some people make sweeping, cryptic claims to the origins of the swing movement having its seed on our city’s streets. The list goes on and on and on, and some of our discoveries will be explored in these pages throughout the summer in our weekly series (A Century of Sound; The Lost History) inspired by the tree. That series will feature an in-depth look at some musician or group that played a role in shaping this town’s music, some piece of lost Detroit musical history — the shoulda-beens, the fallen, the infamous, the tragic, and those who have never received their proper due.
People like Todd Rhodes. Rhodes had membership in Finney’s Orchestra, a band that started playing syncopated arrangements in the late 1800s and hugely influenced the jazz-related brass bands to follow. Rhodes, who later played in the seminal swing outfit McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and had a twilight career as an R&B artist. Rhodes, who himself makes a line that can be delicately traced up through P-Funk, Juan Atkins and in the thump of your favorite Pontiac happy hour.
People like Rhodes took some of the sting out of our impossible, quixotic waste of time. We soon learned that in three or four degrees of separation it was possible (easy even!) to connect Godhead talents like trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, saxophonist Yusef Lateef, John Lee Hooker, George Clinton and Bootsy Collins (both housed here under P-Funk, without whom both techno and hip hop would be a lesser beast), the Stooges, Juan Atkins, Esham, the Gories and Prince Vince. These connections, scrawled by hand on reams and reams of notes, are too entangled to be properly flushed out, but, with careful examination, you’re sure to start discovering your own. After all, when you listen closely enough, it’s obvious that the sounds of our past can still be heard rising from these streets.
See The Poster Here (PDF File, Acrobat Reader required): A Century of SoundBrian Smith is the music editor of Metro Times. Nate Cavalieri is a frequent Metro Times contributor. Send comments to [email protected]