Once in a Great City
David Maraniss' book adds to the sum of Motown knowledge
Fine writing can be depressing for others who practice the craft, being a reminder of one’s own shortcomings. That said, it can also inspire.
David Maraniss’ Once in a Great City is a model of powerful, inspirational prose. Its narrative sweeps persuasively across the culture, politics, crime, industry and ambitions of Detroit, with a specific period – late 1962 to early 1964 – as the centre of gravity. The book is essential for all who want to understand the wider context in which Berry Gordy’s Motown operated, and before its music hyponotised the world.
Moreover, Maraniss adds to the sum of knowledge about the company and its people. This is no mean feat. He uses events and scenarios that are familiar to many Motown followers, but colours them with circumstance and detail that are not. This is where his diligent research and chosen timeline is particularly effective.
Berry Gordy shaped and polished his own narrative with the publication of To Be Loved in 1994, followed by Motown The Musical. If history is written by the victors, his account has certainly become the primary text. Maraniss has interviewed him for Once in a Great City, but others, too. Duke Fakir, Martha Reeves and Janie Bradford are rightly present, but it’s a delight to also gain the perspective of stalwart Katherine Anderson (Schaffner) of the Marvelettes and underrated musician/arranger Paul Riser.
The unexpected recollections are those of Esther Edwards’ stepson, Harry T. Edwards, a senior U.S. Court of Appeals circuit judge. He brings his stepmother’s personality alive. “She fooled people a lot because she wouldn’t say a lot,” Edwards says in a chapter which also paints a vivid portrait of the first Motortown Revue in 1962, for which Esther held significant responsibility. “She talked very slowly. And I knew after a while what she was doing. She was gathering information. So she was giving people the impression that she didn’t know anything, because she wasn’t shooting her mouth off.”
Esther is credited with contacting Rev. Martin Luther King during ’62 about the possibility of recording some of his “literary works, sermons and speeches.” The civil rights titan is one of the principal characters of Once in a Great City. That is only natural, given Detroit’s substantial contributions – spiritual and financial – to his fearless quest for racial equality. Fascinating is the behind-the-scenes matrix of King’s march down Woodward Avenue on June 23, 1963 to a triumphant climax at Cobo Hall, where he delivered the first rendering of what later became known as his “I Have A Dream” speech.
Maraniss clarifies how it was that, after Gordy cut a deal with King to release an LP showcasing the Detroit demonstration, the reverend sued the record company when it also planned to issue an album featuring his more fully-formed “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963. The two sides subsequently and amicably settled the dispute out-of-court, but trade press reports of the time were unclear, so it’s good to have the record straight. Once in a Great City also notes how Gordy had Little Stevie Wonder play at a civil rights fundraiser in New York days before the historic Washington gathering. “Stevie was only twelve then,” reports Maraniss, “but his readiness to assist the March on Washington started a bond with Martin Luther King that would culminate exactly twenty years later with his prominent role in making King’s birthday a national holiday.”
Fine detail can slow down many a good book, but here it’s endearing as well as satisfying. For instance, Maraniss names the woman, Lily Hart, who cooked the chili that Motown employees and artists craved for lunch on-site at Hitsville during the early days. Even Berry Gordy’s To Be Loved doesn’t identify Hart, who lived on the opposite side of West Grand Boulevard. Elsewhere, the writer finds a policeman, Anthony Fierimonte, whose beat stopped directly across from Motown, and who at first was suspicious about the building's all-hours activity. "I get to the corner and see all these cars...and make a note in my book. Blind Pig." In other words, he thought it was an illegal off-hours drinking joint. "What I should have done is quit my job and asked for a job at Motown," Fierimonte says.
As for other individuals, the space allocated to Paul Riser is perhaps the most pleasing. Here is his backstory: trained as a classical musician at Detroit’s Cass Tech, where he sat first chair trombone; spotted for his prodigious talent and encouraged by dedicated teachers; then recruited to the Motown studio band in 1962 as a teenager, no less. “How many major companies would accept someone seventeen or eighteen years old? Unheard of,” Riser declares. “The opportunity was there. The environment was right…the feeling was right. Berry never had a closed shop.” While fully recognising how all the Funk Brothers played a central role in Hitsville’s success, Maraniss shows the importance of individual contributions, such as the moment that Riser and fellow trombonist George Bohanon replicated an opening riff from “Canadian Sunset” for the magnetic intro of “My Guy” – and thus helped to give Mary Wells her greatest hit.
As noted, Once in a Great City paints a more expansive landscape than that of Motown Records. Its depiction of the auto industry’s reach and influence reveals much about Detroit, its mind-set, and its fate. Maraniss’ focus on the iniquities of racial prejudice and the battles waged – many of them in vain – is equally compelling. So is the chapter devoted to Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s father. And when the book tells how local politicians strategized and strived in 1963 to make the city a serious contender to host the ’68 Summer Olympics, the tempo is tight and gripping, even though we know the outcome.
Detroit-born Maraniss is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, so the calibre of this work is hardly a surprise. The majority of reviews have been laudatory; read those in the New York Times and the Detroit News. But the author’s impeccable credentials do not prevent him from having fun: his website includes a Spotify playlist of Motown milestones from 1963.
Some who are steeped in the “Sound of Young America” may have reservations. For me, Maraniss does not adequately explain why the music of Motown started to capture America’s imagination during the period in focus, whereas his explanation of how the Ford Motor Company successfully marketed the Mustang is thorough and convincing. We pilgrims of West Grand know that “Heat Wave” and “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” and “Can I Get A Witness” were – and still are – out-of-body experiences, but exactly how was it that this small, family business outstripped, outsold and out-imagined so much of the multi-million-dollar music industry of the day?
The accepted wisdom is that the 1960s’ pre-Beatles era of popular music was bland and dull, its artists lacking charisma and distinctiveness. In part, this was the result of a radio environment sapped of imagination and innovation by the payola scandals, and a record business whose profits came from the sale of albums featuring aging nightclub singers, Broadway casts and movie soundtracks. Meanwhile, young America – its appetites forever altered by the birth of rock & roll just a few years earlier – was casting around for excitement, illicit music and identity. Motown responded.
Once in a Great City is so insightful about Detroit – socially, politically, racially, commercially – that I found myself wanting the acuity and precision of Maraniss’ analysis to be extended deeper into the music and entertainment business, its tastemakers and talent-shapers, its fools and its visionaries. After all, he explains in a preface, he was first inspired to write the book by a TV commercial featuring Eminem and a gospel choir. And his epilogue offers a riff about the Motown Museum and what glorious sounds once surged from the basement of Hitsville – music that “was and is [my italics] a global language.”
In 2014, David Maraniss saw Martha Reeves & the Vandellas performing in Washington, D.C. Her voice had a familiar joyful kick, he remembers, while she could still outdance anyone in the room, or in the streets. “And,” he concludes, “here came the heat wave and the quicksand and we all had nowhere to run and nowhere to hide and we came and got those memories. What lasts? What did Detroit give America? You could hear the answer in every song.”