It wasn’t sweet music that brought Martha Reeves to the microphone at the Fox Theatre that day in July 1967; it was brutal reality.
Detroit was burning.
Headlining a string of shows for a hometown crowd, the singer of “Heatwave,” “Dancing in the Street” and other hits announced that rioting had spread through the city. Leave calmly, she said, and return safely to your homes.
Fifty years later, the leader of Martha and the Vandellas still can’t quite believe it happened. “Imagine going out there lighthearted and ready to work,” she said. “My heart was beating so fast after returning to the dressing room.”
Now, that time is chronicled in Kathryn Bigelow’s film “Detroit,” opening Friday in Tarrant County after opening in Dallas last week.
Motown’s “Sound of Young America” – on the stage and in the studio – was silenced by the sights and sounds of sirens, gunshots, fires and military tanks along Detroit’s streets. For about a week, as the city was convulsed in violence that began when police arrested black patrons at an after-hours bar, the studio went dark.
Motown was near the epicenter but largely spared during unrest that enveloped 25 city blocks and claimed 43 lives.
What happened in the streets was a wake-up call for many at the label that churned out hits by the Vandellas, as well as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Temptations, Four Tops and others. The rioting, the deadliest of dozens that raged that summer in U.S. cities, raised consciousness and even recalibrated the music alongside the Vietnam War and assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
At the time of the riots, Motown truly was “Hitsville USA.” According to author and Motown expert Adam White, the labels that comprised the company had eight singles in the Billboard Hot 100 that week, including two songs in the top 20 and a couple more that were covered by others.
As chaos descended, loyal Motown staffers thought it would be business as usual.
“All day Sunday … TV was totally involved in covering as much as they could – in spite of that there were some of us who got up Monday morning and made our way to work,” said Pat Cosby, who worked in the studio’s tape library. “We did hear gunfire as we’re on the Lodge (freeway) and even then we’re thinking, ‘I got to get to work.’ We did not realize the overall destruction that was going on.”
Otis Williams, the lone surviving original member of the Temptations, recalls hearing “a .50-caliber machine gun being fired” on the street where he lived.
A few days later, he remembers taking a drive through “the city that was under fire and on fire,” and he wanted to see for himself “if they didn’t burn down Motown.”
“Amazingly enough … it was untouched,” Williams said. “I could not believe that Motown didn’t suffer. It was almost like somebody said, ‘No, you can do whatever else to Detroit, but leave Motown alone.’ ”
Motown wouldn’t be as lyrically direct as “Motor City Is Burning” (recorded by legendary bluesman and Detroiter John Lee Hooker a couple months after the riots and covered a year later by Michigan-based punk pioneers MC5) or Gordon Lightfoot’s “Black Day in July,” which the Canadian folk singer released in 1968. But spurred by some artists, founder Berry Gordy sought to tune the tension between being reliable hitmakers and reflecting what was happening – literally and figuratively – outside his door.
“The songs were beginning to reflect the turbulence in America,” said White, who wrote 2016’s “Motown: The Sound of America” with Barney Ales, former company executive vice president and general manager. “Motown was willing to address those difficult topics more in ‘68 – producers, songwriters, artists. That was a consequence of the political and cultural upheavals happening in America.”