Dancing in the Streets
by Josh Costello
Known variously as a riot, an uprising, or a rebellion, the chaos that engulfed Detroit in 1967 began at 3:15am on July 23, when police broke up an after-hours party on the corner of 12th Street and Clairmount. A crowd gathered as arrests were under way, and by morning bricks were thrown and clashes with police had begun. The National Guard and ultimately federal troops were called in to bring an end to the violence, but not before 43 people were dead (many shot by police and National Guardsmen) and over 2000 buildings were destroyed.
According to the Detroit Historical Society, this was “the culmination of decades of institutional racism and entrenched segregation.” Citing the massive loss of jobs following World War II and and ongoing tensions over integration, the Society tells us:
“The new epicenter of black retail in Detroit became 12th Street (now called Rosa Parks Boulevard), a strip which also supported a lively illicit nightlife. Adding to tensions was the black community’s fractious relationship with the mostly white Detroit Police Department. Like many forces across the country, the department was known for heavy-handed tactics and antagonistic arrest practices, particularly toward black citizens.”
As these tensions were building, Motown was making its mark on Detroit and across the country. Founded in 1959 by Berry Gordy, Motown Records created and popularized a distinctively Detroit sound, with such artists as Smokey Robinson, Martha and the Vandellas, The Four Tops, and The Temptations. In 1971, Rolling Stone Magazine praised Motown’s output as “a series of records and a body of music so commanding, so sophisticated, and so fine, as to make Motown a contender for the supreme pop achievement of the last ten years.” Rolling Stone continues:
“What was the Motown sound? In its heyday, in the middle Sixties, it consisted of: 1) simply structured songs with sophisticated melodies and chord changes, 2) a relentless four-beat drum pattern, 3) a gospel use of background voices, vaguely derived from the style of the Impressions, 4) a regular and sophisticated use of both horns and strings, 5) lead singers who were half way between pop and gospel music, 6) a group of accompanying musicians who were among the most dextrous, knowledgeable, and brilliant in all of popular music (Motown bassists have long been the envy of white rock bassists) and 7) a trebly style of mixing that relied heavily on electronic limiting and equalizing (boosting the high range frequencies) to give the overall product a distinctive sound, particularly effective for broadcast over AM radio.
With Detroit ‘67, playwright Dominique Morisseau tells the story of an important moment in our collective history, taking a hard look at a dangerous situation while finding grace in music and human connection. “Wherever my creativity lies,” she told Broadway World, “it is always rooted in the soul of the elders from which my stories are born. This is a love song to my family and to Detroit.”