Black Music Matters

Motown black music artists

Ray Norman reminisces at a recent club meeting

Listening to Mike Dunn’s excellent talk a few weeks ago about his adventures in 60’s West End I got to thinking ‘who have I met?’ The answer came back quite quickly – no one really in the 60’s

One thing did come to mind though much more recently. In 2010 my wife and I were in Las Vegas. We had a recommendation to see a band in one of the off-strip hotels. This band was made up mainly of musicians who played in the many Vegas shows. This was their night off to play what they wanted. They were top musicians and frequently attracted other musicians to come and see them. The band’s leader introduced guest in the audience – Steve Cropper. He stood up and acknowledged the audience. Wow I said: “Steve Cropper!”  “Who?” said my wife.

She’s younger than me and I had to tell her. Steve Cropper is a guitarist and songwriter and an integral part of one of the great musical success stories of the 60’s – Stax records. He played guitar on most of their output and helped write an awful lot as well.

Steve Cropper

My teenage years

The 60’s were my teen years. It coincided with that great explosion of music and all other things of that era. I grew up with the Beatles and the Stones. One of the first records I bought was House of the Rising Sun by the Animals.

By the time I reached 16 in 1967 all kinds of music were available. It was the year that Sgt Pepper, arguably the most influential album of the Century, was released. I enjoyed the Beatles along with most of the other British acts that ruled the world at that time (except the Hollies, never liked them and still don’t). My real passion at that time lay elsewhere.

On Saturday nights I was off to the White Tiles Disco. It was held in the Reuben George Hall at Cavendish Square. It was a good size, large enough to accommodate a fair crowd but never so packed you couldn’t move about. Yes, it had a disco ball which pierced the semi darkness.

The real attraction, apart from the girls of course, was the music. None of your Beatles here it was mainly American music spearheaded by the two great US labels of the time, Motown and Stax

To me, and I’m sure to all of us who inhabited the White Tiles, this was American music. I did not think of these musicians as Black, they were, American. Was there racism at this time in Britain? Of course, but not the kind of divisive segregation which existed in many parts of the US. I did not realise at the time that there were ‘black’ radio stations, playing ‘black music’ and their counterpart ‘white stations.

Introducing Stax

The story of Memphis based Stax, with its raw, soulful sound expounded by the great Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave et al, is an interesting one. Stax records was started by a white brother and sister, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton using the first two letters of their surnames. Interestingly, the enterprise was a mixture of white and black, although almost all the singers were black, the house band, the famous Booker T & The MGs consisted of equal numbers of white and black musicians. Booker T Jones, who was black, was only 16 when he started playing for them but was a musical prodigy who could play almost any instrument. Cropper himself was white.

Booker T Jones Singer
Booker T Jones

Between them this house band played on nearly all the great hits that came out of the label along with a great horn section. Because of this consistency the sound became synonymous with the label, a gutsy blues, R&B gospel influenced sound, instantly recognisable.

One of the best examples is the sound of Sam & Dave’s ‘Soul Man.’

The combination of blues, and gospel reflected the area. Hard, tough, gritty and often full of misery. Many of the singers, like the most famous, Otis Redding, had started in gospel choirs. The sound was uncompromising, despite its more ethnically diverse production it was black music. It relied on beat and rhythm much more than melody. Most of the performers were solo rather than groups.

Sam and Dave Soul Man

What made them different

One of the innovative things about the Stax studio, and Motown, was the way songs were recorded. The traditional way was for the record company to have a song and a performer. They would then get an arranger. After that they would hire musicians and it would be recorded, Recording engineers and musicians rarely mixed. At Stax the house band were an integral part of the process. They would play a bit, discuss with the performer, go to the recording desk and have a listen, make suggestions and tweak things as they went along, they were not just a disembodied group of session musicians they were part of the creative process. Thus, the sound that emerged was consistent and excellent

The Deep South, where Memphis lies had been during the cotton belt where slaves worked. Those who escaped, or later were able to move more freely followed the course of the great river Mississippi up toward Chicago and the great lakes. And there you will find Detroit. In the 60’s it was a rich and prosperous city mainly due to the Motor companies, especially Ford. Jobs were plenty and money was reasonably good. Even for black people here it was better than the south.

Enterprising opportunity

Berry Gordy Jr American Singer
Berry Gordy Jnr

Here lived one Berry Gordy Jn. He was born to a middle-class black family. An enterprising young man he sold newspapers as a youngster. One day he had the idea of selling them in white area. He was quite successful and so the next day he took his brother with him hoping to increase sales. It did not, in fact he sold very few. ‘I learned a valuable lesson’ he said, ‘One black kid selling newspapers is ok but two black boys means they’re ‘comin’ to get you!’

Eventually Berry ended up working in Ford, on the assembly line. He really wanted to get into music and had ideas of becoming perhaps a singer, or a songwriter. It was on the assembly line he had his big idea. What if making records could be like an assembly line?

Before long he was able to put his ideas into action. He was able to purchase a house which he turned into a recording studio. It became known as Hitsville USA. He wrote some of the early stuff himself but then fate sent him a perfect gift. The gift’s name was a man called William Robinson, known by his nickname of Smokey Robinson. Smokey turned out to be a great songwriter and a great performer with his group, the Miracles. Berry had enough savvy to step back from writing and let other do it.

There were other writers literally churning out hits. In this property everything happened. Music was composed, arranged performed and marketed, just like Berry Gordy had intended. They too had a house band, The Funk Brothers, which produced that consistent, instantly recognisable Motown sound. Within a few years the adjoining properties, all seven, became part of the Motown corporation.

In contrast to Stax their set up was black. However also in contrast their music was much more tuneful and melodic.

The Supremes on the Motown label

The label, Motown, in homage to Detroit, also had a very distinctive sound. In those days you could instantly recognise either a Stax record or a Motown release just by hearing it. While Stax kept to its southern black roots Motown took a different tack. Many groups featured and there were far more girls singing such as The Supremes, Gladys Knight and the Pips and Martha and the Vandellas

The Supremes Motown
The Supremes

Their music was essentially pop, generally much lighter and more like the white music which predominated in the early 60’s.

Two examples which show the differing approaches to lost love and hurt. The first is typical Otis Redding, a voice full of angst and misery, perhaps reflecting the prevailing conditions for black people in the deep south. The lyrics are spare and uncompromising.

I’ve Been Lovin You Too Long

Smokey Robinson on a similar theme, but with a completely different feel. Beautiful words matched by a far more complex production.

The Tracks of My Tears

A platform for Black Music

Of these two hit factories it is true to say that Motown was the more successful. They were the launching pad for a number of artists whose careers outstripped the Motown label such as Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and of course Michael Jackson.

What both labels did however was to give black music a real platform in both the us and the UK. In the states white people began listening to black music. Remember this was the 60s in America and there was huge white resistance to blacks. These were the days of Rosa Parks and MLK.

In Memphis today you can visit the Civil Rights Museum. Its based around the Lorraine Motel, where MLK was shot. It’s a sobering place especially the footage of black and white film from the 60’s recording the hate on the faces of white men as they protest against advances in black freedom. Yet, at the same time, in the midst of it all the Stax studio was sending out its own messages to the world. Far away in the north Motown were competing with the white pop machine and succeeding.

Smokey Robinson said of Motown’s cultural impact:

Into the 1960s, I was still not of a frame of mind that we were not only making music, but we were also making history. But I did recognize the impact because acts were going all over the world at that time. I recognized the bridges that we crossed, the racial problems and the barriers that we broke down with music. I recognized that because I lived it. I would come to the South in the early days of Motown and the audiences would be segregated. Then they started to get the Motown music and we would go back, and the audiences were integrated and the kids were dancing together and holding hands.

As a measure of the success here’s the Stax label’s most successful record which I’m sure most of you have heard. Otis Redding’s ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay. Interestingly, the label didn’t want him to release it as it was so unlike the rest of their stuff.

And by contrast one of my own Motown favourites which I think typifies Motown music. It’s got the archetypal Motown production and is a great song. Jimmy Ruffin’s’ ‘Farewell is a Lonely Sound’.

Its been fun

All the way from Memphis and Detroit to the White Tiles disco in Swindon. These were great days. I never thought about the sociological implications. Never questioned whether it was white or black music. To me it was great music and I was having a great time.

In 2017 the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall featured Stax music in a Prom entitled ‘Stax Records – 50 years of Soul’ and featured a number of the original artists including Booker T and Steve Cropper’

As for Berry Gordy, he’s still around and in his 90’s often spends time with his 80-year-old friend Smokey Robinson.

Meanwhile back to Las Vegas And Steve Cropper! Well, he got up and played a few songs with the band, including his own rendition of dock of ‘The Bay’. Afterwards I went and spoke to him, told him that he was responsible for the music of my youth. He was kind enough to listen and thank me, he also greeted my embarrassed wife, which impressed her no end. At least she now knows who he is.

Steve Cropper in Vegas with Ray!

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