Ticket to ride
Reflections on a crosstown bus journey: 'You didn't linger'
“For everyone who’s going to see where the riots happened, the bus leaves from the front of the hotel in ten minutes.”
No, that’s not a Detroit tourist attraction today, nor a scene from Kathryn Bigelow’s latest movie. But once upon a time, guests attending Motown Records’ first national sales convention in August 1967 were given the opportunity to view how riots and rebellion had scarred the city one month before. What’s more, the bus belonged to a Motown musician for whom the ravaged 12th Street area was less than a mile from where he and his fellow Funk Brothers went to work, making music which crossed a racial divide.
The convention was planned, before the carnage of July, for the last weekend of August. The event was the responsibility of sales supremo Barney Ales, whose bonds with a cross-country network of record distributors were vital to Motown’s success. The company shipped them the “product” – singles and albums – to sell to local retailers. It was also up to each distributor to obtain local radio airplay, under the keen-eyed direction of Ales and his promotion team. This was the other Motown machine: once the music was made, Ales toiled, like the auto factory worker he once was, to get the records played and the company paid.
Motown was arguably at its creative and commercial peak in 1967, so the decision to stage a sales conference (dubbed “Showcase ’68”) in Detroit for its business partners was logical: to strengthen working relationships, to reward effort, to entertain – and to sell the hell out of a new-album release schedule. Ground zero was the Pontchartrain Hotel, a luxury, 25-storey shaft of accordion-pleated glass – downtown, far from the riots’ flashpoint – which had opened just two years earlier. It was close to the Detroit River and to Cobo Hall, where in 1963 Rev. Martin Luther King had delivered the first iteration of his “I have a dream” speech. At the “Pontch,” Motown installed nearly 200 guests from August 25-28.
“We had never done anything like this before,” Barney Ales told me, “and some of the distributors’ wives were a little nervous about coming.” The husbands? Hardly. Most were pugnacious traders who had served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II, and were unlikely to be deterred by civilian arsonists. “Besides,” said Ales, “we had everything set up for them ahead of time.” This included chauffeured limousines, red-blazered hosts, hospitality suites, a themed opening dinner (“A Night in Paris”), a racetrack visit and a riverboat cruise.
An excursion to the riot zone was not pre-planned, but a number of distributors wanted to see it for themselves, according to onetime Motown promotion manager Gordon Prince. Transportation had already been arranged for various destinations, so adding another was easy enough. “We had a big show at the Roostertail,” explained Prince. “That’s why we had to charter buses. Jack Brokensha had some sort of antique bus that the company had rented, so we had the bus drive people down and show them where all the fireworks were. It was OK, everything was over and done with, but you didn’t linger.” A number of the distributors ultimately proved to be uncomfortable with the drive-by, said Prince, “because they had their wives and family with them, too.”
Helping out-of-towners to see a fire-extinguished ghetto is not how Brokensha is usually remembered. The late Australian musician was one of Motown’s valued session men – who played, for example, vibes and percussion on What’s Going On – and a highly-regarded jazzman operating his own Detroit nightclub during the 1960s. Before that, he was a member of the Australian Jazz Quintet, which toured the U.S.
After the quintet dissolved Down Under, Brokensha settled in the Motor City. “People say to me, ‘Why did you come to Detroit? There’s nothing doing here.’ These people must be walking around with blinders on,” he told the Detroit Free Press soon after opening his club, Brokensha’s, near the Fisher Theatre in 1966. At Hitsville, he was known as “White Jack,” to distinguish him from fellow percussionist “Black Jack” Ashford.
Back at the Motown sales convention, no nickname was necessary to distinguish Ernie Leaner from his fellow distributors: he was the only (and first) black man to own a major record distribution firm in America. “He was there for us from the beginning,” said Barney Ales, recalling that the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” was one of the early Tamla hits which Chicago’s United Record Distributors helped to break. “Great guy. He used to come to Detroit all the time, because Chicago was close by.”
Owned and operated by Ernie and brother George, United handled the Tamla label in the Windy City (another distributor had Motown and Gordy). George preferred the creative side of the business, even selling one of his productions to Motown in 1962, shortly before setting up his own One-derful label. Ernie then took sole command of United, which – in addition to Tamla – distributed the likes of Duke, Excello, Savoy and Scepter during the ’60s. He was outgoing, gregarious, highly visible in the industry – and a serious photographer. Ernie and his camera were much in evidence through the Motown convention. It seems unlikely that he would have wanted to tour the troubled, rubbled blocks of Detroit, but if he did, he would have taken some remarkable pictures.
After the weekend’s socialising, the reckoning. On Monday, August 28, Barney Ales and his crew introduced the company’s latest music to the distributors, with order pads at the ready. This was Motown’s largest-ever release schedule, featuring albums by Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye (solo and with Tammi Terrell), Jr. Walker & the All Stars, the Isley Brothers, Martha & the Vandellas, and many more.
Popular DJ Scott Regan of WKNR Detroit was recruited to write, produce and voice the audio-visual presentation. “Now,” boomed his radio-tuned tones into an air-conditioned conference room at the Pontch, “Motown Record Corporation delights in previewing our new product – today’s most exciting sound and music, ‘The Sound of Young America’ – Motown – Showcase ’68.” Scottie went on to tout each album, excerpting tracks and talking up the talent. “The word ‘phenomenal’ falls short in describing this LP,” the disc jockey pronounced about Wonder’s I Was Made To Love Her. Next up, the Miracles: “This group has proved their sales power many times and continues to do so in a very creative and inventive LP.” Then, the Spinners, “destined to be one of the country’s front-running music makers.” And so on…
“We sold about $3 million worth of albums that day,” said Barney Ales. “It was a great convention. People were really happy and they bought everything we wanted them to buy.” He chuckled. “I probably embellished it to $4 million.” (“Motown’s 1st National Sales Confab Bills $4 Million On 15 New Albums” shouted the next edition of trade magazine Cash Box.)
The single biggest seller was, unsurprisingly, Diana Ross & the Supremes’ Greatest Hits, a 20-track, 2LP set which also included reproduction oil-painting posters of Diana, Mary and Florence inside the “deluxe package.” The group performed at the “Showcase ’68” finale, sensationally closing a two-hour show which also featured Wonder, the Spinners, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Chris Clark and ventriloquist act Willie Tyler & Lester.
Among the Supremes’ song selections was “Reflections,” their current hit and first 45 to be billed as Diana Ross & the Supremes. Although she sang on the record, Florence Ballard did not appear on the Roostertail stage; she had been fired in July. That night was Cindy Birdsong’s Detroit debut with the group. “More than ever, the two Supremes remain in the background harmonizing while Diana gets most of the spotlight,” wrote Loraine Alterman in the Detroit Free Press about the performance. “Where once the girls were each introduced and had a chance to do solos, now they aren’t named and don’t sing on their own.” Alterman concluded, “It does seem probable that Diana is being groomed to be a single artist without the Supremes.”
Naturally, Berry Gordy spoke at the show’s start. All the Motown distributors were present, augmented by scores of Detroit guests, including area retailers, radio DJs and TV personalities. There were national news journalists, and even a board member from the Export-Import Bank in Washington. Gordy began with a joke (“We here at Motown are very proud to be one of the first companies to have incorporated the white element without compromising our standards of excellence”), rather curious in light of how Detroit had burned one month earlier. Soon, though, he spoke about the example his company was setting, where “people of all races not only can but do work together to achieve heights previously limited by lack of understanding.”
The Motown founder’s prescription for the future was improved education, within and between the races – although at that particular moment, the songwriters of “Reflections” might have more accurately captured the mood seven miles away, at 12th Street: “In you I put/All my faith and trust/Right before my eyes/My world has turned to dust.” And the passengers on Jack Brokensha’s bus would have seen that dust, too, right before their eyes.