When Martin Luther King, standing on a platform, addressing an off-stage white society, says, “You don’t have to love me to quit lynching me,” he is disinfecting his doctrine of agape from sentimentality–from the notion of easy solutions by easy love.
–Robert Penn Warren,
“Who Speaks for the Negro?” (1965)
As Trent Lott struggled to “repudiate” segregation fifty years after it was outlawed, about the only point he left out of his incoherent counterattack is that he was a soul-music fan. Now, I don’t know that he was, but as a Southern frat boy, he would have been ironically typical of the initial audiences for Stax Records, the Memphis-based label whose music, along with Motown’s, helped transport cultural integration to a broader plain. Good ol’ boys who wouldn’t eat with “the colored” steadfastly booked fledgling Southern soul acts year after year, providing steady income and a tour circuit before singers like Carla Thomas and Otis Redding burst into America’s mainstream.
For burst they did, in that era of hope and recovery, of reopening possibilities after the McCarthyite witch hunts and hysteria had narrowed options in the American mainstream. By 1965, the year after the first landmark Civil Rights Act, when optimism seemed to permeate the economy, the culture, the scent of the air–when the false dawns and cataclysms forming on the distant horizon, presaging the long twilight of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, were still fist-sized bad dreams–Motown, a black-owned independent record label rocketing from outsider to insider status, was already a top-of-the-pops (read, white crossover) hit-making factory. In the mid-1960s, it suddenly seemed that black Americans owned the top of the pop charts, breaking out of their racial enclave of rhythm and blues. In August 1964 “Where Did Our Love Go,” cooing, lightweight pop by the Supremes, elbowed Dean Martin out of Billboard‘s No. 1 American slot. Just as suddenly, it seemed, black entertainers zoomed from occasional to continual sightings on TV, especially teen-oriented music programs like Hullabaloo and Shindig, and those hosted by Dick Clark and Les Cole.
Over the next couple of years, in a trend started by the British Invasion bands, black singers’ hits, from “What’d I Say” and “Do You Love Me” to “Respect” and “In the Midnight Hour,” became a core part of the shared language of largely white garage bands across the land. For a few years there, it seemed like Dr. King’s dreams were being enacted in the arena of popular culture. As historian Peter Guralnick writes in Sweet Soul Music, “It was as if the rhythm and blues singer, like the jazz musician and professional athlete before him, were being sent out as an advance scout into hostile territory.” It looked like the civil rights movement–which had always deployed the church music that gave birth to soul for its uplifting anthems and rallying cries; whose leaders, from King to Malcolm X, moved masses with the same churchy cadences that soul singers finessed–might infuse a new generation via the genetic structure of American popular culture, white and black, right down to the grassroots levels of homemade entertainment.
This had never happened before in quite the same way. In early jazz, the best white players, like Bix Beiderbecke and guitarist Eddie Lang, worked with black innovators; Beiderbecke jammed with Louis Armstrong, and in 1928-29 Lang (born Salvatore Massaro) recorded duets with Lonnie Johnson, his great black counterpart; to avoid appearing interracial, Lang was credited as “Blind Willie Dunn.” Before the war, the Swing Era produced countless young white wannabes who lifted black jazz innovations and styles and then proceeded to stardom. In the postwar era, doo-wop found blacks and Italians synthesizing similar elements in abutting neighborhoods on the street-corner hangouts of the lower classes. Rock and roll was essentially rhythm and blues (as the white executives running Billboard‘s charts redubbed “race music”) with a rockabilly twist. Soul music, however, was different: It had next to no white stars. And yet the spectrum of sounds soul offered in its heyday captured young white American ears on a scale that foreshadowed (and would only be rivaled by) the hip-hop of later generations.
The Motown Sound
To me, the Supremes sounded like black cotton candy–exactly what Berry Gordy Jr., Motown’s founder and maximum leader, wanted. (In New York, even “white” AM radio stations spun slices of black music, and at the far right of the dial were “black” stations like WWRL and WLIB, and after midnight came the erratic clear-channel stations from around the country, crackling over the transistor radio hidden beneath the covers pressed to your ear.) But I was drawn ineluctably to the springy, powerful bass lines and drums driving the songs. The tensile rhythm sections produced a chug-a-lug of interlocking parts often buried beneath layers of vocal schmaltz and period-piece echo and overblown orchestration. (It was rumored there were 2-by-4s stomping through “Baby Love” to make sure white Americans could learn to feel the backbeat.)
Hits–mainstream hits made for white teeny-boppers–were Motown’s raison d’être, and its stuff sounded transparently like what it was: assembly-line product. The history of American pop is stuffed with songs written to imitate hits; that sums up the role of Tin Pan Alley. But Gordy made Motown self-generating, self-sufficient. He hired songwriters and producers, and at the weekly production meetings he held votes to decide which songs sounded most like potential hits; they’d make it to the release schedule. In that context, it shouldn’t be surprising how repetitive the Motown Sound could get. There were exceptions: Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, whose material and arrangements were usually hipper; Martha and the Vandellas, who unlike the Supremes slashed and burned on “Dancing in the Streets” and “Heat Wave”; the Four Tops, who essentially kept recording the same old song (an egregious example of Motown’s prefab product), made irresistible by Levi Stubbs’s charismatic gospel shouting and some of the funkiest bass and drum parts on the label. Ironically, the sameness of the material crafted for each artist conveyed the lesson that soul, molded from blues, gospel and jazz, could teach a lesson as applicable to bebop as to hip-hop: What mattered more than stylistic range was emotional power and technical finesse in its variations.
Years before the Supremes’ triumph, the press had been snuggling up to Motown and Gordy. The son of a Southern migrant-entrepreneur with a large, close-knit family, Gordy started Motown, after failing at other ventures, with money borrowed from the family credit fund (all the Gordys used this for their business startups). Motown grew rapidly from its 1959 launch, and Gordy spread the company across buildings on West Grand Boulevard. He encouraged a family-style feeling (with many of his actual relatives at top jobs) in the informal day-to-day operations; it yielded big benefits. Set in Detroit, the city’s only significant record label, Motown attracted a formidable but overlooked pool of local black talent of all musical stripes. There were jazz musicians and modified doo-woppers, songwriter and producer wannabes, kids who wanted to be stars–they all hung out in the connected stretch of little buildings that housed Motown’s operations. There was the recording studio, a converted garage that usually ran 24/7 as producers lined up to record their demos for the Friday production meetings. There was the array of offices for ever-expanding departments: the charm school, which taught poise, right down to how to sit; the booking agency, which handled all of Motown’s acts; spaces for tutorials in dance steps and fashion and image-making; quality control, which judged the hit potential of each week’s production output and culled likely winners for the big Friday meetings. While they swept floors and answered phones and typed and oohed and ahhed huddling in the hallways, young Motown wannabes absorbed the surroundings like Hollywood contract players hoping to be stars: Here they could learn, be remade, reborn into the record biz–which, after all, had supplemented boxing and other sports as possible paths into mainstream American life, culture and economy, something the movies had yet to do for them. And if Gordy paid most of his salaried employees comparative peanuts, and some of them not at all, well, he also, like a benevolent paternalist, oversaw an open, competitive shop where anyone could in theory (and often enough in fact, just like the larger American mythology, to make the myth credible) rise to the highest levels. His employees believed. In book after book, interview after interview, the constant refrain from everyone involved, however disaffected, repeats how the family feeling shaped the corporate structure, reiterates the intimacies and give-and-take of the constant creative flow. Motown was the black corporate equivalent of garage-band heaven, a garage label, the cousin of hundreds of backyard operations that sprang up in the postwar era to chase that latest new American dream, the hit single.
In service to that dream, Gordy replicated the Hollywood studio system, itself an adaptation of the auto industry’s assembly line, annexing functions to his label in ways no one else had, to attain total control, a total product. Is it any wonder so much of it seemed interchangeable?
Gordy’s unbending will, his dream to take the white pop market, powered Motown. Other black-owned labels, from Duke-Peacock in Houston to Vee Jay in Chicago, had produced great music but rarely broke beyond black audiences. Even though Vee Jay was one of Gordy’s early distributors, signed the Italian-American doo-wop group the Four Seasons and had released the first Beatles album in the United States, one of its owners ended up working for Gordy. As Nelson George, author of several books on Motown, explains in his provocative and clear-eyed The Death of Rhythm and Blues, “Motown promoted Gordy as an affirmative, unthreatening symbol of black capitalism, one as acceptable in the New York Times as on the cover of Ebony.” He had the perfect double image for showbiz: He was both street (he’d hustled at pool halls and seethed with attitude) and middle-class (his family was a hive of upward mobility). And he was himself talented, not just a suit. He’d co-written hits like “Reet Petite” and “Higher and Higher” for Jackie Wilson, the brilliant singer often straitjacketed into soppy material and gooey arrangements by white handlers.
The first song Gordy cut at his Hitsville Studios in 1960, the breeding place for what he dubbed “The Sound of Young America,” was titled “Money (That’s What I Want).” Thanks to his shrewd grasp of the music business and the culture, along with his paternalistic sense of company finances, over the subsequent decades he’d get plenty.
The national marketplace he sized up was still generally balkanized, serviced by small mom-and-pop retailers and regional distributors. Only a couple of the major labels and larger indies like Atlantic had national distribution pipelines; the rest was a patchwork quilt. The country was only slowly losing its longtime, sharply defined regional identities to the emerging mass media; it teemed with hundreds, if not thousands, of local subcultures, each with its own musical spins. Thanks to technological advances like the relative cheapness and portability of tape-recording equipment, a kind of speculative bubble inflated the number of independent labels. Would-be producers wrote songs, put together sessions, recorded them and peddled the results to a label or distributor. In a society touting Organization Men, this was a leap of faith into a crapshooting world, where fame and glory and money could roll in and roll out with the same blitheness, where sex and drugs and creativity weren’t stuffed into gray flannel suits, where the factory whistle put out a backbeat that, if you were lucky, would be yours. Con men and hipsters and geniuses rubbed mohair-suited shoulders in a demimonde that rejected the square world that rejected them.
A fledgling indie-label operator needed a few traits. First was the “ears,” that combo of instincts, training and luck to spot a potential hit. Then there was grit: You had to be willing to bet your financial life over and over on recording a hit, getting it pressed, finding listeners and buyers. Maybe most important of all was access to deeper pockets. Collecting from regional distributors, who could coax airplay out of deejays that would up demand and sales, even on a hit single, was a difficult if not impossible task, and busted many or most independents. As you might expect, a black independent label head needed more of all these qualities than his white counterparts. Gordy had them. He understood early, for instance, that his newborn operation would be choked by the failure of Chess and other regional distributors to pay, so he negotiated a national distribution deal with a major label instead. Moves like that certified Gordy as the Great Black Hope, and he cast his company as a vehicle for others; talent, which basically meant hit-making ability, was the only currency that mattered at Motown.
That currency Motown produced in abundance. Between 1960 and 1979 it racked up more than 100 top ten hits on the pop charts, the white listening gauges of where the real money flowed in the music industry. But Gordy’s ambitions soon outstripped even that enviable stream of chart-toppers. How many black acts before the Supremes had raked in big bucks playing the mob-owned Copacabana in New York, or the mob-related hotels in Vegas? Virtually none. But taking that direction meant the already lightweight trio learned old standards with typical, old-fogy charts. To my friends, Gordy’s Sound of Young America became the sound of our parents, slightly modified.
Gordy had tapped into big money, somewhat ironically following the path to mainstream stardom staked out for the rock-and-roll era by Elvis Presley and Col. Tom Parker, Presley’s voracious manager. And Gordy made sure his people made no public missteps. Chuck Berry could be busted under the Mann Act at the height of his popularity. Jack Johnson and Joe Louis and Berry could all be bedeviled by the IRS. None of that broke Motown, despite the inevitable proliferation of sex and drugs in the West Grand Boulevard buildings when the money started rolling in and the IRS investigations followed.
Gordy was incisive: He understood the crossover potential of black music but buttressed it with artistic development, keeping acts on contract, often for years, until they landed a hit. But he was simultaneously a throwback to bad old practices that black (and many white) artists had faced with white label owners since the industry’s inception. Motown stars had apparently unlimited expense accounts, but in fact they were charged by the label for everything from recording and tour costs to wardrobes. Their royalty rates were extremely low to nonexistent; Motown didn’t bother to issue statements. And Gordy controlled the finances of many of his stars right down to their bank accounts, which needed his co-signature on checks. Then there were his strict divisions of labor: Few Motown artists, aside from Smokey Robinson, were allowed to be songwriters or producers, and vice versa. There were the low salaries. There was the way he schmoozed the black deejays in the early days, when he needed them to put his product across, then slid to the white side of the aisle. (No Black Power spokesman, Gordy did start a short-lived label–one of the thirty-nine he would own–to release speeches by the likes of Dr. King.) Overall, Gordy’s tactics were no better and were often worse than those of white-label owners like the Chess Brothers–who recorded the revolutionary electric blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and Berry’s own rockabilly-flavored r&b, which grabbed young white America–or Syd Nathan, whose King Records became the ambivalent home of James Brown’s soul revolution.
This stuff started to come out in the late 1960s, when the lawsuits began. Following the Detroit riots of 1967, Motown’s music went in several directions. The Supremes, especially Diana Ross, now Gordy’s lover and primo star, kept heading further into traditional showbiz. Meanwhile, Norman Whitfield, a new young producer who had risen through the Motown ranks, was influenced by the riots as well as the sounds of Jimi Hendrix and Sly & the Family Stone; he edged the Temptations into socially relevant, psychedelic funk like “Cloud Nine” and “Ball of Confusion,” with improbable success. Then the shouting started. Holland-Dozier-Holland, Motown’s key early hitmakers, by then promoted to central positions, sued Gordy and the label. Increasingly angered by the ever-increasing time, money and perks Gordy lavished on Diana Ross at their expense, other artists sued, left the label or both. Gordy’s shoddy contractual practices, which let Motown cream not only off the top but the middle and even bottom of everything that happened at the label, began to surface.
The Jackson 5 saved Motown from this first wave of deterioration, riding back-to-back hits that made them huge stars. But in negotiating contracts with iron-willed Joe Jackson, the clan’s monstrous patriarch, Gordy pulled the same sorts of lowball stunts he’d built into his label’s practices. By the mid-1970s, Joe wanted his boys out of Motown, and signed them to Epic, a wing of CBS Records, for comparatively huge advances and guarantees. Gordy was left to haggle about Motown’s ownership of the Jackson Five name; the group became the Jacksons. And Motown the recording company was a hollowed-out shell.
In fall 1968, Gordy moved to Hollywood, and with his move Motown in Detroit lapsed into vestigial operation, though Hitsville was officially open until 1975. The shift inevitably changed Motown’s nature; whatever was left of the camaraderie and improvising informality died with Hitsville. But now Gordy wanted to conquer Hollywood, to make movies and TV, where the real money was. Ross, his manipulative paramour, the would-be diva who graduated from Supreme to soloist, was his focus: He wanted to transform America’s black sweetheart into a movie star, transfer his Svengali touch to the silver screen. It didn’t work in Lady Sings the Blues, which miscast Ross as Billie Holiday, or in Mahogany, a muddled, turgid mess directed de facto by Gordy himself, or in The Wiz, for which Ross insisted on playing a ludicrous Dorothy. (She had broken up with Gordy after having his child.) Still, the royalties from all those hits kept rolling into Gordy’s Jobete publishing company, to the tune of millions per year, as he licensed scads of songs in the pop marketing explosion of the 1980s, when Michael Jackson bought the Beatles catalogue and licensed “Revolution” to Nike for its ads. Gordy, after all, was Michael’s mentor. Remember the California raisins singing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”?
Most of these stories and many of the themes appear in the latest book about Motown by Gerald Posner, who has also written about the Kennedy and King assassinations. Posner’s writing flows well; drawing extensively on earlier sources, he does a well-crafted job of re-creating the Rashomon-like world of Motown. His legal-investigative bent leads him to incorporate much material from the dozens of suits, from divorces to contractual cases, involving Motown. The result is a handy, relatively short, balanced compendium of the label’s business, political and sexual intrigue that juggles myriad characters and subplots skillfully. But most of it is familiar from the torrent of books and articles, information and gossip that Motown has generated over the past thirty years.
For me, the real lure of Motown is what interests Posner the least: the backing musicians, a long-faceless, shambling outfit who, unbeknownst to most outside Hitsville, called themselves the Funk Brothers. Aside from a couple of names gleaned from music and fan magazines, deejays and such, all we knew was that this floating crew of musicians was responsible for the propulsive sound that outshone the vocals on so many Motown releases. Bassist James Jamerson was a hero for musician-wannabes like me long before we knew his name; we could hear his afterimages in white bassists from Paul McCartney to the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh.
During 2002, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, a documentary offshoot of the book by Alan Slutsky about the Funk Brothers, briefly surfaced. (It will soon be available on video.) Combining old footage with “re-creations” and interviews with survivors, it also serves up musical segments featuring the band, which sounds terrific, backing a motley array of vocalists that includes Joan Osborne, Bootsy Collins, Ben Harper, Me’shell Ndegeocello and Chaka Khan.
The movie codifies and augments the information that only slowly leaked out about the people who controlled Motown’s pulse. Most of the couple of dozen musicians involved hailed from the South, had come north with families looking for work at the auto plants, as Southern blacks had done since the days of Henry Ford. So Detroit simmered sounds from raw country to urban sophistication, and jazz thrived, yielding a crop of top-tier musicians during the postwar era. The Funk Brothers were among them; their members had played with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, John Coltrane and a few hundred other jazz stars. Drummer Benny Benjamin backed Bird and Ray Charles, Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry. Pianist Joe Hunter worked to make his left hand like Rachmaninoff’s and Art Tatum’s.
Once you stripped the voices off Motown songs, you heard a tightly tuned rhythm machine, its camshaft rotating the pistons in a chug-a-lug pattern of syncopated parts that put out enormous horsepower. At the heart pulsed Jamerson, one of this documentary’s dead, unheralded stars. Born on Edisto Island in the Carolinas, Jamerson made his first diddley bow–the longstanding homemade string instrument rural Southern blacks trained on, which in this case was a string and a bowed stick the boy stuck down an anthole “and made the ants dance.” Using one picking finger (most bassists use two or three) Jamerson developed his innovative attack, complex lines that dance within their patterns, subdivide time, create anticipation, build tension and release into the rhythmic moving bottom of pop music, an unpredictable camshaft that somehow delivered more thrust. Harnessing to pop music the temporal creativity fostered by bebop and developed on bass by Oscar Pettiford and Charles Mingus, Jamerson seemed utterly free. Where he placed notes mattered intensely; they surrounded the beat, stuttered across it, loped with an exhilaration that was undeniable, uplifting…soul, the sheer joy of a self-assertive imagination cavorting across a musical canvas that somehow magically freed the listener as well.
In 1965, when the Motown tour went to Britain, the musicians, generally unknown, were to their astonishment greeted by a James Jamerson Fan Club.
The idea that jazz sophistication and blues fervor could meld into popular music was the legacy of Atlantic Records, that feisty indie that became a major label on the strength of r&b and soul, then eventually signed the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. In its pioneering days of the 1940s and ’50s, when it was one of the premiere labels putting out jazz and r&b, it developed a methodology for its recording sessions: Take an r&b vocal star like Big Joe Turner; hire jazz musicians for their range, creative spark and reading skills, drawing again and again from a familiar rotating cast to encourage interplay and improvisation; put together charts and rehearse; have the bluesy or gospelly singer weave through them. Voilà! Jerry Wexler (who, as a Billboard writer, had coined the term rhythm and blues) and Ahmet Ertegun, Atlantic’s chief honchos, essentially copied this recipe from Ray Charles, who had stirred it even in his early days as a devout and somewhat colorless Nat King Cole, and heated it to fever pitch with churchy sounds gone sinful in 1950s classics like “I Got a Woman” and “What’d I Say.” Compared with most jazz recording of the time, which was low-budget and haphazard and further attenuated by widespread use of drugs like heroin, the process was surprisingly precise, well tooled and organized, and yielded artistically fruitful as well as profitable results.
Gordy adapted the Atlantic model to his Motown style. He hired the core of his studio crew in 1959 and kept adding (and occasionally subtracting) as time went by. He put most of them under exclusive contract; they flouted him by playing at jazz dives and strip joints, the kind of places where everyone packed heat. (Strip joints were staples of 1950s jazz life, when other gigs dried up. It was in that milieu that Lenny Bruce met the jazz musicians who were his earliest fans, watching him evolve ersatz Borscht Belt shtick toward freewheeling improvised satires of American foibles on race, sex and religion.) A couple of the Funk Brothers point out in the movie how rhythms they cut in the studio came from gigging with Lottie the Body, an exotic dancer who’d worked with Count Basie–especially Afro-Cuban rhythms, like the sinuous lick structuring “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” There’s footage of Joe Hunter digging into bebop piano, and Joe Messina wailing bebop guitar on a 1955 Soupy Sales TV show; from their jazz gigs, the Funk Brothers transported voicings and melodies and lines into the Snake Pit, as they called the converted garage that was Hitsville’s studio. “When the producers would hear those jazz changes, they’d say, ‘That’s hip,'” recalls one. And Motown may well have been the only label outside Atlantic to feature vibes, a jazz instrument, on pop hits.
The Funk Brothers were overwhelmingly African-American, but there were longtime white participants, like guitarist Messina. “They used to call us the Oreo cookie guitar section,” he reminisces during the film; for years, Motown’s three session guitarists sat in black-white-black order. When the Detroit riots erupted in 1967, one in a series that flashed across the country during those years, the Funk Brothers hung together: Emerging from the studio, their workplace and prison, to a city in flames, the black musicians looked out for their white colleagues–their friends. Music, the intensity of prolonged side-by-side creative work under factory conditions, forged a bond that the movie periodically, to its credit, manages to capture without lapsing into sentimentality. It was the musicians’ meshing at several levels, after all, that showed in Motown music’s ease and power; their mutual respect was clear in the ways they wove around each other’s parts. They created those parts, mostly, revamping sketchy arrangements into head charts–arrangements improvised in the studio. Giggling among themselves as they worked out the next session’s ideas, they locked their pieces into staggered place, thickening the chords and enhancing the syncopations and slinky beats that Motown rode to hitdom.
In the late 1960s Marvin Gaye began agitating to do a more involved brand of music reflecting the decaying reality of Detroit and America; when Gordy agreed, in 1971 Gaye cut What’s Going On, giving the Funk Brothers their first unrestricted shot at foregrounding their musicianship within Motown. Their jazz chords came up front, foreshadowing a new kind of soul that thrived in the early 1970s via producer/songwriters like Philadelphia’s Gamble and Huff. For the first time, too, the musicians got credit on the album sleeve. At their peak, they would pull down between $25,000 and $60,000 a year, peanuts compared with what Ross or Gordy was raking in. So inevitably, they cut tracks for other Detroit studios–and risked getting canned to do it. Motown paid informers to shadow them, and fined or fired them when they got caught. The pressure on them was awesome: studio work rolled on 24/7, and they were typically expected to complete four songs per three-hour session. By the late 1960s, they hid out in a nearby funeral parlor to escape the endless sessions.
When the Beatles and Stones first hit the United States, their repertoire was mostly American roots music and Motown. They enthusiastically translated the complex Motown charts into arrangements for four or five musicians of middling ability–extracting the sound, as it were, to a rock quartet. This was like handing out keys to a musical kingdom, and numbers among the most lasting cultural effects of the British Invasion. Suddenly anyone in a garage or basement could take a crack at that irresistible Motown groove–and, in fact, the growing spectrum of soul music. From Chicago, Curtis Mayfield warbled his sweet calls to social awareness, like “People Get Ready” and “Keep on Pushin'”; his guitar style, with its hammer-ons and pull-offs running three-note moving chords behind his vocals, created the template Hendrix would psychedelicize. Otis Redding spearheaded Stax’s penetration of white Northern audiences; the second wave, led by Isaac Hayes, reaffirmed the music’s blackness. On Atlantic, which pushed forward into soul with Solomon Burke and Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin (Ray Charles’s truest heir) brought gospel jazz directly and fervently into soul, rocking her piano with a largely white Southern rhythm section from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, reiterating and embodying the lessons Ray Charles had laid out for white and black postwar American youth.
Many of the soul era’s brightest stars found a new outlet in blaxploitation movies aimed almost entirely at black audiences. Curtis Mayfield’s brilliant, haunting soundtrack for Superfly and Isaac Hayes’s Oscar-winning music for Shaft illustrated the search for a new creative form for soul, paralleling the search in jazz that led perpetual explorers like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock to fuse their music more and more with funk. But the initial energy and social critique, however cartoony, of the early blaxploitation flicks inevitably paled with the Hollywood assembly-line process, yielding better music than movies.
The 1960s had been a time of optimism, but by the 1970s that optimism was dead or dying, and the reconsolidation of power taking place across society found its analogue in the record industry. Mergers among the majors, and the consequent absorption of indie labels, accelerated. FM radio was formatted in ways more like the vilified AM playlist style–a straitjacket tied even more securely today–than the looser, album-oriented FM of the late 1960s. Stations were increasingly chain-owned, presaging today’s near-monopoly situation in the “market.” Payola scandals and federal trials for the sorts of practices that also roiled late Motown–counterfeiting records, shipping new releases to industry accomplices as “cutouts” and collecting kickbacks off the books while the company lost money, like a classic mob scam out of GoodFellas–punctured the industry after the disco collapse of the late 1970s. Flexing their distribution capacity, major labels created an artificial sales bubble for a largely sterile form that was among Motown’s linear descendants. They overshipped records and posted them as huge paper profits; the scam blew up in their faces when returns of unsold goods from record stores swamped their fictionalized bottom lines with red ink.
Disco was the product of the new black-music departments at the major labels, first formed in the early 1970s in response to the challenge posed by indies like Gordy. One result: Black music, with rare exceptions, was again ghettoized within new-minted formats like “urban contemporary”; but unlike in the old days of “black” radio, the urban contemporary playlists were perforated with white “crossover” artists. This was not, however, a two-way street. Black musicians were once again, as they had been up through the 1950s, expected to play for “their” market. To take just one example, Chic, synonymous with disco hits, formed as a rock and soul band. When their demos circulated around record companies and landed them appointments, the jaws of the executives across the table inevitably slackened when guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards strode in. “You guys did this tape? But you’re black–you should be doing disco,” was one standard response. Years later, both musicians told me, “We finally gave up.”
In the 1980s musicians like Vernon Reid, guitarist from Living Colour, and vocalist Cassandra Wilson helped form the Black Rock Coalition to counter the new ghettoization publicly. But only with hip-hop’s cultural impact would the pendulum start to swing back. It was a nice historical irony that the Sugar Hill Gang’s first rap hit and harbinger of the future, 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight,” used Chic’s “Good Times” as its backing track. Within a couple of years the success of Sugar Hill Records, a black-owned indie, spawned small rap-oriented labels. The cycle was ready to repeat.