From Dreamgirls to city schools

Jan 10, 2007 at 12:00 am

That eternally brand-new beat is again calling out all around the world.

The beat, of course, is Motown, and it's burning up screens with Dreamgirls, a musical razzle-dazzle of truths, half-truths, truisms, unsubstantiated rumors, myths and plain-ol' fictions loosely based on the house that Berry built. It's told with good (and sometimes great) music. Moreover, its visual style is as slick as the Temptations' footwork, to the point where it's hard to figure where the choreographer's work ends and the director's begins. Meanwhile, great acting (can we hand Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson Oscars now?) hurries you past the clunkiest of the plot points.

Motown is a beat so insistent — and a beat, in the journalistic sense, so big — that we keep going back to it. In 2002, we had the film Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which made backup musicians into front-stage stars. There was also author Gerald Posner's Motown: Music, Money, Sex, and Power, which sometimes seemed anxious to fit company officials for corrupt practices suits. And that followed a slew of books on the fables and foibles of the company and stars from Diana Ross to Marvin Gaye. Of course, the reissues of the music and tributes to it continue unabated.

But the most provocative of the recent attempts to put Motown under the microscope is Motown in Love: Lyrics from the Golden Era (Pantheon Books, $23, 224 pp.), which includes a too-short but still-trenchant introduction from its editor Herb Jordan. It's trenchant for the ways it asks us to think about the words — and where they came from. What he has to say on the latter point may be as surprising as any of the plot turns of Dreamgirls.

These are songs we fall in love with settle down so deeply in our consciousness that we can take them for granted. But here on the page we can move slowly through the turns of phrase and imagery that made the Motown era: the rhymes and alliterations, the crying clowns, the captured hunters, the shadows and lights of love.

It's significant, Jordan reminds us, that those were the words of African-Americans writing in the language of a sophisticated pop music from which they'd been marginalized for decades.

Jordan places Motown — and he might have made the case for harmonically sophisticated pop in general — as a successor to the great American songbook, the domain of the Gershwins, Porter, Kern and company. They, by and large, created their classics for Broadway musicals. When Broadway's interest in black-produced musicals like Shuffle Along waned after the 1920s, voices like Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle were hustled off-stage. There's no ignoring one-off songs like Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child" or Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" — or the rough-hewn beauty of blues lyrics. But Broadway, for decades, was the motherlode for mainstream American pop, and, as Jordan put it in a phone conversation the other day from his home in California, "the Great White Way really was the Great White Way ... it'd be interesting to see what would have developed had there been a vibrant tradition of black musicals — we can only imagine."

Berry Gordy imagined something, and starting with a proverbial $800 loan from his family and inauspicious headquarters on West Grand Boulevard, he made it a reality.

"These were the 1960s, and poverty, segregation, Vietnam and nuclear gamesmanship convened in a funnel cloud that threatened to rip through the American fabric," Jordan writes. "But with the innocence of a first kiss, the poets of Motown conjured up a Camelot and took America 'up the ladder to the roof' for a view of heaven."

Motown was part of a social revolution, Jordan reminds us. Not many years before, sponsors had balked at advertising on the Nat "King" Cole TV show. "By the early 1960s families gathered on Sunday evening to watch Ed Sullivan introduce the latest Motown sensation. Disc jockeys thought nothing of sandwiching a Rolling Stones track between Martha and the Vandellas and the Four Tops. ... While activists preached and lawyers agitated, Motown crept into white homes, Southern and suburban, through Radio Free America."

There's been plenty written about the white American fears of interracial sex that have oft-times walled off black music. As the sound of young America, Motown crossed a barrier and "white girls swooned over Marvin as had their mothers for Frank Sinatra." That was one small revolution in the revolution of Motown.

It's less often noted that Motown elevated black romance in a culture that characterized blacks "more by physical urges than the complex universe of emotion." Hollywood rarely put black romance on the big screen until the late 1980s. TV lagged even further behind. Berry Gordy created a canvas where writers, musicians and performers projected images of black romance in song.

"In this little space on West Grand Boulevard, Berry just said, 'Function at a very high level, and let's raise the bar. I'll give you the opportunity, but bring back a great song, bring back a great performance,'" Jordan said. "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 in vain. For me, that was the magic of Motown."

And the magic is surely in the words as it is in the music.

Gordy created a space for young talents to flourish. But where else was that talent nourished? Here's where Jordan delivers his biggest surprise, maybe his most important one. The Detroit Public Schools — like many urban schools of a certain time — gave large numbers of students, black and white, the prerequisites for expressing themselves and succeeding in the world. Music education in Detroit schools wasn't the shambles it has become. Language arts and the rest of the academic programs were strong. That's not to dismiss gospel music or other influences. It's just to draw attention to one that's rarely considered.

Jordan writes about Smokey Robinson as a case in point: An after-school Young Writers Club nurtured his interest in the written word.

"'Just like Pagliacci did/I try to keep my feelings hid,'" Jordan said the other day, quoting Robinson's classic "Tears of a Clown." "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."

Jordan himself came through Detroit public schools when they were in far better shape than today, graduating from Mumford in 1971. "We didn't get as complete an education as the kids in the suburbs," he said, "but the fundamentals were there." Those fundamentals put him on a path to college, law school and work as an appellate attorney before his shift into the world of music.

He knows the horror stories of Detroit schools today; he sees the sorry state of urban education firsthand in the Los Angeles schools where he volunteers to work with young writers himself. He hopes his book can be an aid in teaching kids what's possible in mastery of the full range of language, from Shakespeare to the streets.

Asked whether Motown in Love tells us something about what we can reap if we put urban education back on a solid footing, Jordan doesn't miss a beat.

"Absolutely," he says. "I don't know why people would even question that."


Pagliacci in the hood
Interview with Herb Jordan.

W. Kim Heron is the editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]