Motown mastermind behind ‘Dancing in the Street’ recalls the 1967 Detroit riots – when black folks took to the streets
Writer William ‘Mickey’ Stevenson remembers the pain, the glory, the commitment to creativity — and to changing the world
It was time for a change.
Motown was becoming bigger than music. The label was challenging the segregated whiteness of American pop with songs such as 1961’s “Shop Around” from Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, which was the label’s first million-seller. And “Please Mr. Postman,” from the Marvelettes, was Motown’s first No. 1 pop hit in that same year. Yet, by the time the middle of the decade arrived, Motown — with recordings such as Martha and the Vandellas’ hit 1964 anthem “Dancing in the Street” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s politically direct 1967 “Why I Oppose The Vietnam War” (recorded on Motown’s Black Forum label) — was dipping its collective toe into the creation of socially conscious works.
This label, based in Detroit’s midtown area, was of course the brainchild of young Berry Gordy, a former featherweight boxer with a dozen wins on record. In 1959 he launched Tamla Records, which was incorporated a year later as Motown Record Corp. He did this with an $800 loan he’d collected from family. Motown’s records were addictive, a pop culture phenomenon: gospel-inflected vocals draped over infectious, energetic beats, and most often telling stories of good folks having good times, good love gone bad, or pining away for some unrequited love. It was the kind of music that soundtracked rent parties and backyard barbecues — and eventually, after much behind-the-scenes prodding, stridently white spaces such as The Ed Sullivan Show. But the sound shifted. It had to. Too much was going on — right in the label’s neighborhood.
Unrest broke out in Detroit on Sunday morning July 23, 1967, and lasted through July 27. Although “the insurrection was the culmination of decades of institutional racism and entrenched segregation,” the sparking incident was when a police squad raided a “blind pig” (an unlicensed bar) near the intersection of 12th Street and Clairmount Avenue on Detroit’s West Side, about a half-mile from Motown’s Hitsville U.S.A. offices and studios. Confrontations between the Detroit Police Department and the city’s black citizens resulted in one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in the history of the United States.
A new Kathryn Bigelow film, Detroit, starring Anthony Mackie, John Boyega and John Krasinski, is set to premiere Aug. 4. It brings to the screen the bone-chilling Algiers Motel incident: during the Detroit Riots, at the motel, three black men were killed and nine others were beaten by law enforcement. Overall, the civil unrest known as the 1967 Detroit Riot (and alternatively as the Detroit Rebellion of 1967, and the 12th Street Riot), left 43 dead. The Michigan State Police, the Michigan National Guard and the U.S. Army were called in. One thousand, one hundred and eighty-nine people were injured. There were more than 7,200 arrests. More than 2,000 buildings were destroyed.
A city, forever changed.
Motown, which formally moved to Los Angeles in June 1972, was still in Detroit in 1967. It was a wildly successful company; at the time, it was the country’s most successful black-owned business. By the end of 1966, Motown was home to more than 450 employees. The label owes much of its early success to songwriter and producer William “Mickey” Stevenson, the company’s first director of artists & repertoire.
Stevenson was in the background but stood next to Gordy and Robinson and played a huge part in recruiting and nurturing the talents of icons such as Martha Reeves, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops and Marvin Gaye. He assembled “the best-kept secret in pop music,” Motown’s legendary in-studio band, the Funk Brothers. Stevenson also wrote approximately 500 songs during the course of his Motown career.
Some of his bigger hits include the Marvelettes’ “Beechwood 4-5789” and Gaye’s “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” both from 1962, and Gaye and Kim Weston’s classic 1966 “It Takes Two.” He co-wrote Martha and the Vandellas’ fun 1964 “Dancing in the Street,” his most successful track for the label and one that functioned as a “radical anthem” during the civil rights movement. There’ll be laughing, singing, and music swinging / Dancing in the street / Philadelphia, P.A. / Baltimore and D.C. now. / Can’t forget the Motor City.
Yes, the Motor City’s discontent was a tipping point for the music of Motown. As the label sailed into the 1970s, the music became compellingly and deliberately politicized: There was Gaye’s 1971 pitch-perfect “What’s Going On,” “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” The Temptations’ 1971 “Ball of Confusion” and Stevie Wonder’s 1973 “Living For The City,” among many others.
“We represented a social environment that was changing,” The Supremes’ Mary Wilson said in 2009. “The experience we had known being black was not being bona fide citizens, not being able to drink out of the same water fountains, playing to segregated audiences. When that started to fall away, and you saw that music was one of the components that was helping it fall away, that’s when it really felt like we were doing something significant.”
Stevenson, now 80, reflects on how that era, as painful as it was, shifted the Motown sound and was an authentic soundtrack to a changing America.
What was it like being black in 1967 Detroit? Before the end of that July?
For me and my brothers — and I mean Smokey, and the Temptations, and the Four Tops — it was a proud thing. We were proud. ‘I’m black and I’m proud!’ We meant that. And we knew it was just a matter of time. We were doing wonderful things, and we were doing it around the clock. Listen — the work we were doing was not a job. It was a joy. We could do it ’round the clock, and that is pride. It was love.
Do you remember where you were, physically, when you first heard about Detroit heating up?
Yes. I was in Detroit, and I was at home. I had friends with me — Jewish friends. We were there at my place, and when it was taking off, my first thought was to make sure [they didn’t] leave my house. My house was in the city, right in the middle of the riots. My house was on Courtland and, like, Dexter. That’s where it all kind of happened, right in that area.
And you didn’t want your friends to leave?
I didn’t want [them] to get killed. [They] would have been in danger trying to get to the airport. It wouldn’t have happened.
As a black Detroiter, I imagine that you were empathetic to some of the issues …
Yeah. Well, it was working itself up for a while. We’d come out of one riot much earlier, when I was a kid. I could see this coming back again. It was an uncomfortable situation … you had to watch yourself. Motown was out on West Grand Boulevard, which was a pretty good street. And even there, at a certain point, like 12th Street, moving in that direction — Dexter, Linwood, like going deeper, where I would say the ghetto was, you had problems. It was building itself up. I didn’t know it would break into a riot, but it was building itself up where we had to watch it. All of us.
What was happening at the label in July of 1967?
I was A&R director of Motown. We just had to stay busy, doing the best we could. We didn’t take time to deal with the problem of the city. We had enough problems dealing with the manufacturing and producing of product, to go out. We were always in a fight somewhere, in some place. Moving black product on white radio, that was not a walk in the park. You understand what I’m saying? We were in position — we had to stay in position at all times.
My understanding is that Martha Reeves was on stage at the Fox Theater, in the midst of a Motown Revue, when they got word the riots were still happening near the Tiger Stadium?
If she was there, I was there. Because she was one of my favorite, talented artists — and of course my biggest song, ‘Dancing in the Street.’ I’m sure the idea was for her to keep everybody calm, because that’s the way we operated, period. It was not like, ‘Should we do it?’ That’s an automatic thought. We had this kind of thing come up in New York, and Philadelphia, and Washington. And so, it was always when things got out of hand, we would have to say to the audience, ‘Look, let’s stay under control.’ Nothing unusual for us to make that happen.
Your acts often performed in places where black and white concertgoers couldn’t lawfully integrate. What was Motown’s biggest role within the civil rights movement?
[Singing] our songs to both black and white audiences. We made it a point to insist that everybody had a chance to hear our songs. We didn’t look at it as black music. We looked at it as music. When Motown artists came on, we made everybody get involved, because if you didn’t, you were adding to segregation. You’ve got to look at it like this: Our whole staff was mixed at Motown. Our sales department was mixed. Our marketing department was mixed. We forced an issue. If you’re with us, you’re with us, or you’re not with us. Let’s build as one unit. We were very proud to push that button. Sometimes we got challenged.
Some of our trips. I remember getting stopped in the car and the police made me get out and sing. You either put up a fight and get your head blown off, or you sing. Which one you want to do? If I sing now, I’ll be able to sing later. If I stand and fight, there’s no telling where I’ll be. You got it? I can name that with a few artists. I know Smokey had problems with that. It’s not like it was an easy time. We had to deal with it, but we had made up in our minds, we gonna make this thing work. I tell everybody — I don’t want to overtalk this thing — but I tell everybody, ‘This is God’s work.’ We were just instruments at that time. We took on great stands because we had no other way to think.
How did you and Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson talk about the creative direction of Motown, after the riots?
When the riot was on, nobody could get to the studio. Remember, we were on a main street, so we’d have had a huge problem. When it calmed down … we went to the studio. And when we went in — fortunately we didn’t have broken windows and none of that kind of craziness — we went in going to work. We went in trying to figure out, what’s the next best songs we need to get out? What sessions can we pull together now? I know that sounds odd, but we were a machine. We worked like a machine, not like individuals. ‘What happened to you? Anything happen to you? Are you all right?’ No. We didn’t get into that. If you’re standing there, you’re all right. Go to work.
Were you inspired by the uprisings to think about the socially conscious music that Motown started making, going into the 1970s?
Not so much the riots. We were inspired by the workings and the help of Dr. King and people like that. Our job was, in our heads, to let it be known that we’ve got to back this up, be behind it, care about one another. Take a stand. When we put out the album, [featuring] King, on our label [Black Forum] … we were into that kind of thinking. We thought that if we didn’t work together to fight this thing, it was not going to go away. So we did it with music, with artists — and backed financially as much as we could.
When did you notice that a tide was changing socially and culturally? When did you notice that perhaps the music you all were creating was helping black folks be seen in a way that we weren’t seen before, and kind of being able to exist in a way we weren’t able to before?
Certain spaces and certain places we couldn’t get in or get on, or be on that show, or whatever — all of a sudden, we started getting calls, ‘Come do this show.’ It took people like Dick Clark and others who broke that barrier. ‘If I put this Motown act on, I could have the hottest show on TV.’ He was absolutely right. They had all white artists. No blacks. Clark was a huge gambler, and he really believed in the music. I got to give it to him. He made it a point and took a risk. He stood his ground and became the hottest thing on television. Then there were people like Ed Sullivan who refused to let us come on and sing a whole song. If he brought you on, it was only for him to say a few words right at the end of his show. You know what I mean? And we changed that theory. We made him put on The Supremes, and do two songs, and talk to them.
Motown music is the music that changed the world. It also helped to heal a nation while it was suffering through yet another one of its horrific racial ruptures. Why do you think this particular music helped?
I believe in my heart, and quite a few of us do — Smokey, we talk about this all the time – Motown was God’s game plan, and we all bought into it. That whole sound happened at a time when our country was at its worst. And the love of the music … reached everybody. This music’s got so much love, and so much caring in it. Those moments … while you’re listening … all that hatred, all that dislike for one another, was no longer there. That changed the world. Not only here in America, in London, all over the place. That had to come from a source bigger than you and I. I’ve heard men say to me that the time when Motown was going on, and the riots and stuff was going on — ‘Man, I used to get in the van, pull the cover over my head, and listen to Motown music. When I heard those words, that was incredible for my heart. It took me to a wonderful place.’ That’s exactly what the music was for. It lasted for 60 years. It’s still lasting.