Detroit 2017: a new British invasion
The visitors never forget, despite what Carolyn Crawford once sang
Right now, there are probably more Britons in Detroit than at any time since troops loyal to the Crown seized it from the French in 1760.
The latest invasion comes in the form of Detroit A-Go-Go, five nights of live music and DJ sets (plus some chat) which got under way yesterday (18). Event organiser Phil Dick is catering for British fans of soul and Motown, with tickets and accommodation packages at the city’s Hotel St. Regis on – where else? – West Grand Boulevard. He has been visiting Detroit for years, initially as a record collector and, more recently, as a club DJ. This Yorkshireman was even married in front of the Motown Museum, and he and wife Kim have a daughter who, like Smokey Robinson’s second-born child, bears the name Tamla.
Among the British DJs spinning records during Detroit A-Go-Go is Neil Rushton, an acquaintance of mine since the 1970s, while another supporter of the occasion is Ann Delisi of WDET-FM, whom I met while in the city for the launch of Motown: The Sound of Young America last September.
“Motown, in particular, really resonated with the English crowd in the ’60s,” Phil explained to the Detroit Free Press earlier this year, “and DJs began looking for more and more records with that sound, looking further afield for more obscure labels. It was that [music] that really resonated predominantly with the white, working class in England: the sound, the beat, but mostly the lyrics.” He added, “Most [Northern Soul] fans have never been to the city that bred this wonderful music. I felt that rather than just bringing one or two artists to England, let’s take fans to the U.S. and have lots of them perform for us.”
Those artists who are doing exactly that include a brigade of former Motowners – Kim Weston, Carolyn Crawford, the Velvelettes, Ronnie McNeir, the Elgins and the Contours, all playing on Saturday night (21) – and a battalion of other singers and musicians adored by Britain’s Northern Soul community, including the Capitols, Tobi Lark, Pat Lewis, Lorraine Chandler and J.J. Barnes.
There’ll be post-event coverage and commentary in the usual media (and social media) outlets, but here I want to highlight a few participants, including guitarist Dennis Coffey, who is set to take part in one of the Q&A sessions. Coffey is crisp and unsparing in his 2004 biography, Guitars, Bars and Motown Superstars, so doubtless he’ll be the same when interrogated by fans. “Recording tape has no friends and never lies,” he declares in the Detroit A-Go-Go souvenir programme. “When you’re listening to the tape playback with the recording engineer and producer, you’d better have played the right part at the right time, or you won’t be called back.”
Another author who’s due to go-go at the St. Regis is Susan Whitall, best known for Fever, an illuminating biography of Little Willie John, and for Women of Motown, an oral history of more than a dozen singers who helped shape the company’s sound and style. A second edition of Women of Motown is newly available in print and e-book form; it has material not in the first edition, including recollections from songwriter Janie Bradford.
The 50-year-old St. Regis has music connections of its own, as well as a transatlantic link: it was once managed by Britain’s Rank Organisation. In 1974, the hotel was the site of a “homecoming” reception for Stevie Wonder when Detroit mayor Coleman Young proclaimed a day in his honour. In 1987, when the original Motown HQ on West Grand was designated as a historical site by the state of Michigan, the post-ceremony party was held at the St. Regis. And Motown musicians have played at the hotel, too, including Thomas (Beans) Bowles.
Two of the acts appearing at Detroit A-Go-Go, Kim Weston and the Velvelettes, are featured in Women of Motown. Carolyn Crawford is not, but she spoke to Neil Rushton for the programme. “It was the 14th July, 1963, my 14th birthday,” she is quoted as saying, “and Motown sent me a limo at midnight. I went to the studio, made the record and was home by 3am.”
Fifty-four years later, Carolyn can be forgiven if her memory banks and the Motown session logs don’t match. Information in The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 3: 1963 reveals that she cut her first recording at Hitsville on July 19 that year – although the time of day (or night) is unknown. The song was “Forget About Me,” but more significant than the date was that Carolyn had written it herself. Few Motown artists got to record their own material at their first session.
Crawford was contracted to the company after winning the Tip Top Talent Contest staged by WCHB Detroit at the Fox Theater on Saturday, July 6, 1963. To enter, the singer herself told me, contestants needed talent – and to buy “as many Tip Top bread wrappers as you could.” At each stage leading up to the final, she had to perform a different song. Crawford's first choice was "Operator," as recorded by Mary Wells. “So [the station] played it so many times a day,” she said, “and the people voted.“ Reaching the final, the teenager then opted for “Laughing Boy,” another Wells tune. “But I [also] played the piano and wrote an extra verse.”
The judges, including Berry Gordy and Detroit jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby, were clearly impressed: Crawford was declared joint winner. ”I told [Gordy] I was a writer, he told me to bring the things I had to Motown. He liked my very first tune, ’Forget About Me.’ ” The version subsequently recorded was faithful to her original, she added. ”They didn't try to change the words, they absolutely did nothing to it. I was very pleased with that.“
One year later came her finest piece of Motown work, “My Smile Is Just A Frown Turned Upside Down,” co-authored and produced by Smokey Robinson. It was he who called Edith Crawford to ask for her daughter to be at Studio A on July 10, 1964 – after school, of course. “Smokey got the tape out, played the tune, gave me the words, and he and I went over it two times,” recalled Carolyn. “He told me to get myself something to eat or a soda, and meet him back at the studio in about an hour. We maybe stayed a couple of hours, and that was it.”
Yet when sent to market, the result reached a merely modest No. 39 on the Billboard R&B listings. This was followed by “When Someone's Good To You,“ written and produced by Gordy himself. It did not chart. There was some further recording, and Crawford also sang background for others; one such date was for Martha & the Vandellas’ “You've Been In Love Too Long.“
The curtain fell in 1967, when she was sent a release from her Motown contract, “without an explanation.“ When she and I spoke some years ago, Carolyn was voluble about that, but did not seem bitter, and confessed to equally poor treatment later at Philadelphia International Records and when she recorded with Hamilton Bohannon. With him, at least, there was a Top 10 R&B hit, as she fronted “Let’s Start The Dance.”
The Detroit A-Go-Go programme cites Carolyn’s various career moves, just as it profiles all the other performers. For instance, Kim Weston’s badge of honour as the first Motown artist to tour Britain is noted, as is her friendship with a soul prophet there. “I met David Godin and he was wonderful to me, and he introduced me to members of the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society, who kept asking me questions about Motown.” Godin was founder of that fan club, and later an influential figure in the Northern Soul community through his regular column in Blues & Soul magazine; last Sunday (15) was the anniversary of Godin’s death in 2004.
If Kim Weston and other Detroit A-Go-Go artists are taking part in chat sessions this weekend, they can expect more questions about Motown, the Motor City, Berry Gordy and much else besides. Call it another British invasion, if you want, but it’ll certainly be more pleasurable than the takeover of 1760.