A scene from 'Motown The Musical'
Miller’s tale of prejudice and pragmatism in New Orleans
Salesmen and singers spend more time on the road than most, away from the comforts – or at least the familiarity – of home, family, friends. They encounter life as it is lived by others, finding people as they really are. It is not always a happy experience.
In the newly published, second edition of Women of Motown, Susan Whitall’s essential collection of interviews with Hitsville heroines, Claudette Robinson recalls a typical tour with the Miracles, early in their career. Smokey’s spouse telephoned ahead to make hotel reservations at the group’s next destination. “And we’d get to the place and pull up, and somebody would get out, or we’d all get out, and we’d say, ‘We have reservations for tonight,’ and give our names. And they’d say, ‘Ohhh…we’re all booked up.’ ”
Thus, a voice on the telephone provokes a different reaction when the caller turns up in person at the hotel’s front desk. Claudette continues, “I would probably speak up and say, ‘Booked up? Well, that’s not so, because I just called’ – ten hours, or eight hours ago, sometimes not even that long. And they were all set for us to come there.” Occasionally, she adds, the unwelcome was more than being told that the hotel was fully booked, “because sometimes the people would come from the back with a rifle or something.”
When the Supremes were touring the U.S. with Dick Clark’s “Caravan of Stars” in 1964, their arrival at certain locations may not have provoked the appearance of firearms, but the message was often the same. “A lot of times, we would stop at various hotels,” the group’s Mary Wilson told me while I was researching Motown: The Sound of Young America, “and they wouldn’t accept us because there was black and white on the bus. Dick would always say, ‘If you don’t take us all, none of us are staying.’ Everybody would get back on the bus, and we would drive to wherever.”
When I interviewed Motown’s first black salesman, Miller London, he recalled a specific encounter in New Orleans which mirrored those experiences. By now, reading this, you may be thinking “So what?” That’s life – yesterday, today, tomorrow. Motown may have been a powerful force in integrating popular music in the 1960s, but in the wider world, prejudice remains constant, right? Yet Miller London’s story intrigued me for its detail, and because it’s embedded into Motown The Musical.
London had joined the record company’s sales team in October 1969, and was given responsibility for a number of distribution accounts, mostly below the Mason-Dixon line. One of them, in New Orleans, was among the South’s strongest music enterprises, founded in the late ’50s. He made his first trip there early in 1970, booked by the distributor into (as London remembers it) a Holiday Inn in the city’s French quarter. In pre-visit phone calls, the company head had promised to take him to Brennan’s, the renowned creole restaurant on Royal Street. To add to the prospective enjoyment, the salesman was coming to town during Mardi Gras, in February.
The first suggestion of trouble came at the hotel. London went to check in, only to be told by the receptionist that there was no booking in his name. “She didn’t even look,” he remarked, “she just said, ‘You don’t have a reservation.’ ” In those days, a booking by phone was confirmed in writing and mailed to the guest. But when London produced that, the woman at the counter tore up the paper in front of him. “You don’t have a reservation,” she repeated. London countered that the booking had been made by the local Motown distributor, and after disappearing into an office, the hotel employee returned. London was given his room – which, as originally booked, was a suite on an upper floor, overlooking the Mardi Gras parade route.
Next, the salesman made his way to the distributor’s premises on Lafayette Street to introduce himself. While waiting, he could see the boss seated at his desk, looking all over the lobby for his visitor. No one else was there, “and I’m sitting in plain view.” Eventually, London was taken to meet the man, who at first seemed reluctant to greet him. “I thought, ‘What the hell kind of handshake is that?’ ” Still, they went to lunch at Brennan’s, although on arrival, London’s host asked to be seated at the back, despite the concierge’s welcome (“We have your usual table ready.”). Nonetheless, lunch was cordial enough, and London went back to the distributorship afterwards, to check Motown inventory in the warehouse and finish his business there.
It was only years later that London learned of the distributor’s telephone call after lunch to Detroit, and of the question (“Why’d you send this little nigger down here?”) fired at Motown sales director Phil Jones. “Phil said to him, ‘You like Motown records?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘You make a lot of money selling Motown records?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Then you need to get used to seeing that little nigger.’ ”
London did not hold a grudge. Later, the distributor himself even recounted the New Orleans incident at a music industry convention in Dallas, “and whenever Phil and I got together and there was a crowd around us,” said the salesman, “we told the story, too.”
Miller London prospered and advanced at Motown Records, staying with the firm for more than 20 years. Later, following stints at RCA and A&M, he bought a music business magazine, Urban Network, which also staged an annual conference. This honoured Berry Gordy during Motown’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 2009, and at the Urban Network event, Gordy “kinda brought me to tears,” said London, by acknowledging his pathbreaking role in sales for the company. In 2013, when Motown The Musical made its Broadway debut, Miller’s tale from New Orleans formed part of the narrative, with a scene depicting what happened there.
That said, Motown The Musical does not identify the distributor who called to complain about “the little nigger.” London named him during our interview, of course, but the individual is long dead. My point in detailing what happened is not to single out racist individuals, but to illustrate – just as Claudette Robinson and Mary Wilson did – the challenges, contradictions and courage involved in working for Motown.
And Miller was quick to acknowledge the experience of his white colleagues, too. “They took as much grief as I took, but for a different reason. They were asked, ‘You’re a white man, why are you working for that nigger?’ That’s what the world was at that time. But Motown – the music – bridged a lot of those gaps.”
Motown – the money – did the same. In the final analysis, it seems that the prospect of losing distribution rights in the Crescent City spoke louder than the colour of the salesman’s skin.