A 'tail of Mondays
‘EVERYBODY IN THE WORLD WANTED TO GET IN’
Last week, on July 22, rock star Kid Rock put his luxurious home up for sale. You could call it a Motown Monday.
The six-bedroom, 6,000-square-foot mansion on the Detroit River – a steal at $2.2 million – used to be the property of impresario (and party host) Tom Schoenith and his wife, Diane. Among their other assets: the Motor City’s most famous nightclub, the Roostertail.
“The 20 Grand was the street,” said former Detroit radio kingpin Scott Regan. “The Roostertail was like the Copacabana.”
True enough. And the glass-fronted, riverside rendezvous that was the Roostertail – actually, it still is – can claim a place in Motown folklore like few others. Year after year, Berry Gordy’s stars stepped onto that stage, strutting their stuff and singing their hearts out, propelling their hits into history. An image of the Roostertail is even emblazoned onto the front cover of Four Tops Live! – one of the group’s biggest-selling albums worldwide. Regan wrote the liner notes.
For their part, the Supremes ushered in 1966 with a remarkable, two-week Roostertail run, beginning on January 17. The opening night was described in the Detroit Free Press as “a sentimental homecoming” as the trio trailed “immeasurable amounts of international fame.” The newspaper also noted that they were the highest-paid act ever to play the club, “surpassing in fee the amount paid [to] Mickey Rooney.”
Radio was present, too: disc jockeys Lee Alan and Danny Taylor broadcast their regular WXYZ show from the Roostertail that Monday, while other station jocks helped to interview the Supremes and members of the first-night audience.
The show drew a slew of positive reviews, followed by an unusual press conference at the club. Fourteen high-school students got to question Diana, Florence and Mary about their career and success. Of their Roostertail debut, Flo admitted, “You knew all your friends were out there. I was scared to death.”
“We sort of broke lots of barriers,” said Tom Schoenith of the venue’s contribution to Detroit life, “because we were young and didn’t care. We didn’t care if there were African-Americans, we didn’t care if there were kids under 21 in a nightclub, so that families could come. We mixed everything up.” In the 1960s, he ran the joint, while also gaining a reputation for throwing lavish, exciting parties.
WINDOWS ON THE WORLD
The Roostertail took its name from the curtain of water – sometimes 75 feet high – created by the propellers of racing boats zipping up and down the Detroit River. The Schoeniths were among the city’s most prominent families: patriarch Joe made a fortune in the ’40s with his electrical contracting firm, W.D. Gale, then spent some of that wealth on power-boat racing and, in 1958, on building the “Roostertail Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge” at 100 Marquette Drive, opposite the northeast point of Belle Isle. The river could be seen from any corner of the dining room. “It had the largest windows ever put in the state of Michigan at that time,” Tom told me.
Club bookings were firmly old-school at the start, with such acts as the Kirby Stone Four, the Playmates and former Tommy Dorsey singer Jo Ann Miller. Even the year before the Supremes’ debut, the schedule included Wayne Newton, Les Paul, Vic Damone, Nelson Eddy and the afore-mentioned vaudevillian, Mickey Rooney. One of the musicians who played at the Roostertail in 1959 was trumpeter Johnny Trudell, who later became an ace Motown session man. “We started in a little tiny space upstairs,” he recalled, “an extension on the roof, in a little nightclub. That’s where the quartet played jazz.”
By the spring of 1965, the Roostertail had expanded that space, opening a fully-fledged “Upper Deck” to appeal to young adults, and booking more contemporary acts. There was room for 400 souls inside, and another 135 on the open-air terrace. “A man by the name of Irving was the builder,” said Trudell. “He built that whole thing upstairs – and by that time, Motown was getting real hot. That’s when the Motown Mondays started.”
On August 22, 1966, the Four Tops played the first of those Mondays. They were de rigeur for local fans of “The Sound of Young America,” but also became familiar to other pilgrims, even from a distance. “It was a great thing for Motown,” said Regan. “It took them to a new level, sort of like when the Supremes played the Copa.”
Of the Tops’ opener, Free Press reporter Chuck Thurston noted, “The listening is done with the entire human structure. The pit of the stomach, the inside of the head, the tapping, throbbing floor and the vibrating chair all contribute to the enjoyment, if that’s the proper word.” He added, “This is not the place for anyone determined not to like Motown-style music. To be exposed to it is to succumb to it.”
SATURDAY NIGHTS ON KEENER 13
There were seven “Motown Mondays” in succession, with shows at 8:30pm and 11:00pm. After the Tops came Jr. Walker & the All Stars, Marvin Gaye, Martha & the Vandellas, the Miracles, the Supremes and, closing the run on October 3, the Temptations. (Initial publicity indicated that the Marvelettes were to appear on September 26; in the event, the Supremes played on that date.) All the performances were taped live and rebroadcast on Saturday nights by Scott Regan on the station where he was a star, WKNR (“Keener 13”).
“You had to dress up to go to the Upper Deck,” said Schoenith. “Coat and tie, and the girls had to wear skirts – they couldn’t be short or very tight. Everybody in the world wanted to get in, so we could tell people exactly what we wanted. For us to have the Fords and the Fishers and the Chryslers and all the society people on a Motown Monday was really chic. They all came, all the Grosse Pointers came, and loved it.”
The irony, Schoenith added, was that the members-only clubs patronised or owned by these wealthy Michigan families would not admit African-Americans. “I remember that the Ford family owned the Detroit Lions, and they brought some of the Lions to their country club – and they were [chastised] by the board of directors for doing that. Meanwhile, we were having the biggest stars in the world coming to our place, we didn’t care if you were white or African-American, or young or old. That was something brand new, no one had ever seen that.”
The enlightenment was evident behind the scenes, too. On Motown Mondays, Earl Van Dyke led the band. “The conditions for the musicians were just perfect,” recalled former Motown arranger Wade Marcus. “They had this huge stage, they kept their pianos in tune, and had everything set up for the players. They had a lot of respect for the musicians.”
Johnny Trudell said, “When we had those shows, we usually used four saxes, two trombones and three trumpets. That was pretty much what we used in the studio. Soundwise, we had some problems because of the glass. It was like playing in a fishbowl, so they put in electronic drapes that would drop when the shows came on. That helped quite a bit.”
Yet some facilities failed to impress Trudell. “They never really had good dressing rooms. That’s one feature that was not there at the Roostertail. They used bathrooms, broom closets, it was makeshift. But eventually they got it together.”
MIRACLES SHAKE THE ROOM
As noted, Motown Mondays were recorded. For example, tape logs for the Miracles’ performance on September 19, 1966 reveal that it was Van Dyke’s combo who opened with “Wade In The Water,” followed by a short Tammi Terrell set, and then the Miracles stormed onto the stage with “Whole Lot Of Shakin’ In My Heart.” The group entertained with hits (“The Tracks Of My Tears,” “Mickey’s Monkey,” “Ooo Baby Baby”), flipsides (“Choosey Beggar,” “A Fork In The Road”) and the songs of others (“The Best Is Yet To Come,” “Wives And Lovers,” “Yesterday”).
Yet the Roostertail meant more to Motown than Monday nights. The arranger of Marvin Gaye’s revered What’s Going On album joined Hitsville U.S.A. as a result of his connections to the club. “I was working in the Roostertail house band,” remembered David Van DePitte, “and one of my fellow band members, John Trudell, heard through the grapevine that Motown was looking for somebody else to write [arrangements].” Trudell took Van DePitte to meet producer Hank Cosby, and he was hired.
For Motown vice president Barney Ales, the Roostertail was the perfect place to entertain many of the firm’s all-important record distributors, visiting Detroit in August 1967 for its first-ever national sales conference. The event allowed networking on a grand scale, featured a keynote speech by Berry Gordy, and engaging performances by the Spinners, Chris Clark, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross & the Supremes.
Two years later, Ales attended one of the blue-chip parties hosted by Roostertail founder Joe Schoenith. “Their house in Grosse Pointe is where I met Rare Earth,” Ales recalled. “I went there because Tom invited me, but the band was very close with [Gordy flame] Margaret Norton. She was always saying, ‘You gotta see this group, you gotta see this group – and they’re going to be at Tom Schoenith’s father’s house.’ I did see them and they were pretty good.” After signing Rare Earth to Motown’s new rock label – and naming it after them – Ales naturally chose the Roostertail for the launch party.
Yet such nightclubs were becoming unfashionable in America by then. Gordy’s stars were maturing, too. In December 1969, Stevie Wonder was among the last Motown acts to appear at the Roostertail. Soon enough, his preferred venues were those he played as opening act for the Rolling Stones in 1972.
In later years, the Schoeniths’ riverfront palace switched to the business of private events – there were two birthday shindigs held there for Elton John – weddings and prom parties. It continues to operate thus to this day, even as Kid Rock sells another piece of once-Schoenith property.
Those who stepped into the Roostertail – or performed there – on any Motown Monday will have their own inextinguishable memories. And there’s still magic inside. Several years ago, while in Detroit, I made a daytime visit to 100 Marquette at the water’s edge. There was hardly anyone on-site, but one employee was gracious enough to let me in, to allow me to walk up the stairs to the Upper Deck and gaze through that glass, scanning the horizon and listening for the ghosts of music.
Sure enough, there they were: Levi, Larry and Obie; Eddie, David, Paul and Melvin; Tammi and Marvin. Singing in the wind, as once they did on that magic stage, before a hometown crowd. Perhaps the only absentees that afternoon were the speedboats, raising roostertails on the river. And yes, it was a Monday.
West Grand Blog is taking a summer break. See you on the Boulevard after that.
Music notes: Four Tops Live! and Temptations Live! – both recorded at the Roostertail – are available on digital music services. Moreover, Tom Schoenith suggested that other such Motown albums may have similar roots. “I went to the Copa show where the Supremes were recorded,” he told me, “and when you get the album, it sounds more like it was live at the Roostertail. My theory is that they used some of that stuff from the Roostertail.” Wishful thinking or not, the group’s September ‘66 show there did finally make it into the world, as per George Solomon’s reminder below. Thanks, George.