According to journalist Larry Gabriel, decades ago some Motor City jazz virtuosos coined the phrase "The Detroit Way" to describe a local tradition of passing musical knowledge down to future generations. Now, Gabriel and an ambitious group of fellow Detroit writers are applying that same sharing spirit to a commendable task: documenting the musical history of their beloved city.
Founded by media scholar and author Carleton Gholz, the Detroit Sound Conservancy Oral History Project will provide an online archive dedicated to Motor City musicians that is expected to launch by the end of November. Through its recent Kickstarter campaign, the conservancy raised more than $8,500 — a hefty surplus from the initial $5,000 goal. The funds are being used to transcribe, digitize and conserve oral history interviews that already exist in the private hands of Detroit journalists such as Gabriel.
With more than 100 hours of tapes in its possession, including interviews with the Stooges' Ron Asheton, techno pioneer Ken Collier, blues musician Bobo Jenkins, and the late producer J Dilla, the conservancy hopes to become the gold standard of digital archiving.
"We want to be a resource for best practices when it comes to historical preservation," says Gholz. "Any group will be able to go to our website and learn such things as preserving their tapes, conducting oral histories with people they think are important, or backing stuff up through us."
Some might question the need for an oral history project dedicated to the music of Detroit. After all, the story of Berry Gordy, Motown Records and its universe of stars is legendary. But according to Gholz, many people are still unaware of Detroit's full musical heritage beyond Motown acts such as the Jackson 5, the Supremes, the Temptations, and Stevie Wonder.
Detroit's musical legacy outside of Motown is staggering, encompassing hitmakers and trendsetters such as Alice Cooper, John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, Madonna, Parliament-Funkadelic, Ted Nugent, Bob Seger, and Patti Smith. Punk music took its cues from Detroit artists such as the MC5 (which aptly stands for the Motor City 5) and Iggy Pop And The Stooges, while Motor City rapper Eminem, hip-hop group Insane Clown Posse and Dilla have proven tremendously successful and influential. Detroit is also cited as the birthplace of techno music, spawning artists such as Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson. In recent years, contemporary rockers such as Kid Rock and Jack White have proudly represented the city.
Over the last decade, some of Detroit's more obscure musical stories have curiously revealed themselves. The 2002 documentary Standing In The Shadows Of Motown recounted the untold saga of the Funk Brothers, the backing band who performed on many classic Motown recordings. In 2012 another acclaimed documentary titled A Band Called Death related the tale of a lesser-known African-American trio of brothers from Detroit whose 1974 demo recordings presaged punk. Also in 2012, Searching For Sugar Man told the compelling tale of Detroit native Sixto Rodriguez, whose records made him a surprise hit in South Africa while he lived in obscurity in the states.
Now, with the help of the Detroit Sound Conservancy Oral History Project, many other lesser-known Motor City music stories could be discovered and told.
"Detroit is sort of a victim of its own success," Gholz says. "Because we've been so successful globally, people think things are taken care of historically, which is not true. Most people know the Berry Gordy Motown story or the Eminem 8 Mile story, but they alone don't encompass the diversity, the bizarreness, or the wonderfulness of Detroit music. The Oral History Project is a way of starting the reset button, instead of just assuming that we already know what the story is."
Indeed, history cannot be assumed — a point that is not lost on The Recording Academy. Similar to Gholz's Oral History Project, for nearly a decade the GRAMMY Foundation has been on its own mission to chronicle and document the careers of global music professionals through its own GRAMMY Living Histories program. According to GRAMMY Foundation Senior Vice President Kristen Madsen, to date the Living Histories archive has collected more than 200 stories, spanning generations and musical movements, as told by the individuals who had a hands-on role in shaping our musical history.
Understanding the vital importance of archiving oral music history for future generations, the GRAMMY Foundation commends the Detroit Sound Conservancy and its kindred preservation mission.
"The Detroit Sound Conservancy Oral History Project is poised to capitalize on music's unique power to define our culture, in this particular case as influenced by the unique characteristics of one of our most iconic cities," says Madsen. "It has the potential to reflect the cultural milestones, political markers, social evolutions, and technological innovations as they were manifest during the period by the musicians of Detroit."
For participating DSC journalist Gabriel, one of the most exciting things about the project is its potential to inform non-Detroiters about the city's countless unsung musicians. In 1989 Gabriel videotaped a series of interviews with Detroit jazz legends such as Thomas "Beans" Bowles, Kenn Cox, Wendell Harrison, and Alma Smith, among others. Though tremendously influential on the Detroit scene (Harrison co-founded acclaimed jazz indie label Tribe Records while Bowles was a Motown A&R scout), these musicians are largely unknown beyond the Motor City limits. Though most of them are now deceased, the Oral History Project promises to preserve their accomplishments for posterity.
"People who are great musicians aren't necessarily always famous musicians," Gabriel adds. "Sometimes you've got to go back and rediscover these people, and that's why we have to save this stuff."
To illustrate his point, Gabriel relates the story of Ellariz Lucas, a saxophone player who belonged to the all-female swing group the International Sweethearts Of Rhythm.
"The Sweethearts were sort of a concept trick — like, 'OK, we don't have any guys in the band because they're all off at war, let's form this all-female band,'" he says. "So here we've got [black and white women] in an all-female band during World War II. People have got to know that story. They can't be forgotten. It's wrong to forget them."
To help insure that Lucas and other obscure Motown musicians won't be forgotten, Gholz is making the Detroit Sound Conservancy an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit charitable organization. He's using donations to provide for website design and hosting, tape conservation and possibly even a brick-and-mortar museum sometime in the future.
"Cities aren't doing projects like this because arts funding is down and state budgets have been slashed," Gholz says. "On the local level, there's too much to do and [organizations are] understaffed, so we're stepping in to fill that void."
(Bruce Britt is an award-winning journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle, Billboard, and other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.)