No Harmony Here
FIGHTING IN THE STREET, BRAWLING ON BELLE ISLE
Trouble on the road was seldom a surprise to those aboard the Motortown Revue. “The big problem with touring the South,” wrote Mary Wilson in Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme, “was that even when you weren’t being shot at or called ‘nigger,’ you could never forget where you were.”
In his book, Otis Williams recalled the Temptations playing a venue in South Carolina during their first full run with the Revue in 1964. “From the stage, you could look out across the auditorium and see a rope running smack down the middle of the aisle: blacks on one side, whites on the other.” There were, he added, “far too many scenes like that to recount.”
Yet America’s southern states were far from being the only sites of discord. At least three incidents in 1964-65 occurred in the north – including one in Detroit – and these have hardly been noted, if at all, in the various Motown histories and autobiographies. They may not have been as racially motivated as the experiences which Wilson and Williams described, but they would have worried Motown management at the time, to say the least.
In her memoir, Martha Reeves recalled the Vandellas’ appearance in September ’64 at the Brooklyn Fox, New York, but made no mention of another show a few weeks later, in nearby Jamaica, Queens. That was when on November 2, the Motortown Revue was booked to play the Hillside Theatre, and, according to the next day’s New York Daily News, an “estimated 8,000 teen-agers staged a near riot.” The newspaper didn’t identify the acts on the bill, but that particular caravan included Martha & the Vandellas, the Temptations, the Marvelettes, the Contours, Kim Weston, the Spinners and Marvin Gaye, with Choker Campbell’s band and MC Bill Murry.
Thousands of ticket holders waiting outside for the 11:00 p.m. performance got rowdy when some of the first-show audience tried to hold their seats for the second, making matters difficult for the incoming crowd. Fighting broke out, bottles were thrown, and the Hillside’s doors and windows were smashed. Police were called, but the trouble spread around the Jamaica business district, and there was looting.
“At least 15 stores were broken into,” noted the Daily News, “fist fighting and group brawls erupted and knots of youths roamed about in a threatening, disorderly fashion.” The disrupters were “predominantly Negro,” added the newspaper, but its estimate of 8,000 teenagers at the “near riot” was challenged by another report, which put them at about 3,000 (there were relatively few arrests by police). It wasn’t clear whether the 11:00 p.m. show went ahead.
‘ANOTHER SHOW OF THIS TYPE’
Something similar had occurred three nights earlier, when the Revue played Pittsburgh. The crowd inside the city’s popular music venue, the Syria Mosque, was boisterous, bordering on the troublesome. From the stage, Motown’s Taylor Cox constantly tried to quieten things down, threatening to stop proceedings if there wasn’t calm. Some patrons evidently didn’t want to get involved: almost half of them left before bill-topper Marvin Gaye performed. The venue damage was minimal, but there was fighting, and local cops were called to the scene.
In the final analysis, the Revue that night generated an unimpressive $4,000 in ticket sales; under normal circumstances, the Syria Mosque could gross at least five times that figure with topline acts. Venue manager Dorothy Steel told Variety that she doubted if she would permit “another show of this type” to be presented in the building.
What may have affected the October 30 turnout in Pittsburgh was the non-appearance of the Supremes. They were advertised as part of the Revue, yet were also committed to be in Los Angeles for the making of the Teenage Awards Music International (T.A.M.I.) movie. The taping took place on October 28-29, as noted in Laurent Bendelé’s commendable Go For Your Dreams website, while there was a trade-press report that an unidentified Supreme was ill in California, and couldn’t make the Syria Mosque. As it turned out, Stevie Wonder substituted for the group.
Eight months later, Pittsburgh and New York were upstaged by Detroit. Motown presented an ambitious “Americans In Harmony” concert on the city’s Belle Isle, just before the start of the July 4 holiday weekend – and an estimated 12,000 people were caught up in something considerably lacking harmony.
The show on July 1, 1965 was designed to raise at least $15,000 (the equivalent of $120,000 today) for various civil rights organisations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Congress for Racial Equality. Lined up to perform at Detroit’s favourite recreational park were nine acts, including the Supremes, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Martha & the Vandellas, and Brenda Holloway. The Tops, in particular, were a major draw: “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” was at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 that very week.
The concert was free of charge, but collections were made on site and those who donated received an “Americans In Harmony” souvenir programme. That day, the mid-seventies temperatures were perfect, encouraging an overall Belle Isle turnout of between 20,000 and 40,000, according to local media. Some 12,000 souls gathered to hear the Motown acts at the “band shell,” which had park-bench seating for 5,000. The show began at 7:00 p.m., but after about an hour, everything on stage was halted as the crowd became unruly, and spectators at the back – unable to hear the music because of an inadequate sound system – began pushing towards the front.
A SELF-DESTRUCTING SHOW?
Four of the acts had played, but everything came to a halt. Noisy spectators made it “impossible to do the show,” the record company’s Frank Seymour subsequently told the Detroit Free Press. “There was $40,000 worth of talent on stage and they simply weren’t able to perform their acts. The crowd quieted down some, but not enough. The irony is that the show was so successful it killed itself.” He admitted that people at the back of the band shell couldn’t hear the music.
As the disharmony grew, Seymour contacted the Detroit police to support private patrolmen already on site. Other officers called for reinforcements when bottles and rocks took to the air. What may have aggravated – or helped – the situation was the presence of the police department’s Tactical Mobile Unit, a “crowd control” group whose mobility came through a fleet of vehicles emblazoned in blue and white, and roof-topped with blue lights.
The “Americans In Harmony” fracas was the first reactive assignment for the TMU, which had officially begun operations the day before. All of its ten cars bolted to Belle Isle, equipped as they were with revolvers, riot shotguns, a machine gun and two boxes of tear gas. Weaponry aside, the officers were “indoctrinated in human relations, racial relations and racial tensions,” according to another Michigan newspaper, the Holland Evening Sentinel.
(Whatever the TMU’s effectiveness that July night, their tactics later became controversial, their officers said to lack even-handedness. In 1967, one of Motown’s out-of-town rock bands, the Messengers, experienced this at first-hand, while recording at Hitsville. Greg Jeresek, leader of these self-confessed “long-haired hippies,” told me, “Often times we would be walking back and forth [to the studio] or walking to eat, and we would cringe as soon as we saw one of these cars with the tactical logo on the side. Because there was a fifty percent chance we would be stopped and questioned.”)
Eventually, the Belle Isle melee was brought under control, although the concert did not continue. There were no reported injuries, and no arrests. “The Detroit police did a good job,” said Frank Seymour in the following day’s press. “Once they moved in, they handled it with dispatch. They did it with a minimum of trouble.” Motown’s reputation wasn’t seriously harmed locally or beyond, although the incident was reported in Billboard (“Concert Is Canceled By ‘Riot Room Only’”). When I asked former company executives Mickey Stevenson and Barney Ales about it recently, neither could recall what had happened.
It seemed to have been too much for Seymour, however. After seven years as general manager of Bell Broadcasting, which owned and operated highly-rated Detroit radio station WCHB, he had joined Motown in the spring of ’65 as executive assistant to Berry Gordy. By August, Seymour was gone. “The relationship was friendly, but I soon learned that show business was not my cup of tea,” he explained several years later.
And the takeaway from all this? That Motown’s extraordinary success and lasting impact is attributable as much to the toughness of its people as to their talent, and to their determination not to be derailed by racial prejudice, or by brutal competition in “show business.” Even when “The Sound of Young America” was accompanied by the sound of breaking glass or the looting of storefronts, Motown held together.
This solidarity has been romanticised in recent years, as difficult, often unpleasant circumstances and confrontations have been forgotten, or pressed into service with banality – Motown The Musical is guilty of that – and superficiality. Salesman Miller London’s brush with bigotry in New Orleans, for example, figures briefly in the musical in a vain effort to add gravitas. The truth of that appalling moment swiftly yields on stage to another jolly Jobete song.
There is honour in what the people of Motown Records overcame, whether in Pittsburgh, New York, Detroit or any other points of the compass. The details deserve to be remembered, not trivialised, to help ensure they never happen again to others.
Harmony notes: the Belle Isle incident is mentioned in passing in Brian Ward’s Just My Soul Responding, and it’s the only such reference I could find in Motown-related books. (If you know of others, do tell.) He reported that the “Americans In Harmony” souvenir programme raised $4,000 for the cause. One of the performers that turbulent Thursday was Tommy Good, who later donated his Motown memorabilia to the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library. It includes a copy of the “Americans In Harmony” publication, so if you’re in the neighbourhood…