The meaning of Motown for a white kid

Do you remember them? Smoky Robinson and the Miracles, The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Drifters, Aretha Franklin, The Supremes, The Chiffons, The Shirelles, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye. Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and near the end of the era, The Jackson Five. So many more. They provided a large part of the soundtrack during my high school years. This was 1964-1968 in the Calumet Region, a collection of small and medium sized cities in Northwest Indiana that today we would describe as a rustbelt, boarded up failure—a place that might find its way into a Bruce Springsteen song. But in the 60’s it was still crowded with blue-collar workers rotating through shifts in the steel mills and oil refineries that lined the shore of Lake Michigan.

Marvin GayeThe men in the factories worked shoulder to shoulder, but the neighborhoods, the schools, and, of course, the churches were pretty tightly segregated. Not by law, but by neighborhood redlining and taken-for-granted cultural practice. White families, mostly of Eastern European descent, lived in towns like Hessville, Highland, Munster, and Griffith. Black families resided mostly in East Chicago, Whiting, and Gary. Except for high school sporting events, our two communities rarely saw one another. But then there was the music.

Gary in the 1960s was not the nostalgic white Pleasantville conjured by Professor Harold Hill in “The Music Man” (Gary, Indiana, Gary, Indiana, My home sweet home”). That Gary was founded in 1906 as a start up, corporate-funded community, consisting mostly of houses built quickly and cheaply, for the thousands of workers needed for the new U.S Steel plant. Gary was named after Elbert Henry Gary, the Founding Chairman of U.S. Steel. At the beginning, those workers were recent white immigrants from Europe, but the Great Depression, World Wars I and II, and the Great Migration together unsettled the demographics, and by the late 1950’s Gary was a bustling majority African American city with a half-dozen AM radio stations featuring R&B artists like The Platters, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, and the breakout, cross-over artist, Ray Charles. Just before I entered high school, Berry Gordy kick-started Motown Records, and my friends and I listened in every night.

In a musical environment crowded with young white men like Bobby Rydel, Bobby Vinton, Pat Boone, Paul Anka, Ricky Nelson, and Fabian, Motown was a revelation. At every basement party I went to my freshman year, someone played “My Girl” by The Temptations at least three times. At sock hops in the high school gym, we danced to Smokey Robison belting out “Shop Around“ and Aretha’s in-your-face hit “Respect.” By my sophomore year, Motown stars like The Four Tops, The Supremes, and Stevie Wonder were playing all across the Chicagoland AM network, but my friends and I still tuned into the Gary stations when we could because it was there that we found newer sounds–less smooth, edgier, blusier, something that would soon be discovered and appropriated by more visible artists.

Motown became a part of my identity kit. It was the music that I remembered by, and that my brain played when I was happy. It came along for me at the right time and at the right place. I was 14, still open to something new that I could love, and very close to Gary where the music was everywhere and I could listen for free. It somehow made me proud when I learned that the Jackson Five–Michael included–had grown up in Gary.

Jim wedding danceWhen I went to college in Washington, D.C, one of the few records I had room for was “Taking Care of Business” which was a recording of a TV show that featured the Temptations and the Supremes. I listened to it in my dorm room whenever I got homesick. Before we all went digital, I carried around a box of Motown albums every time I moved until they became so scratched and worn that I had to tape a penny above the needle that so that it would stay in the groove.

When my kids were young, we would dance in the living room to The Temptations Greatest Hits. When I was putting the girls to sleep at night, after reading a book, I would often quietly sing “My Girl” to my girls. When our oldest daughter was married, she chose “My Girl” as the song that we would dance to when it was time for a father-of-the-bride moment. And our youngest chose “The Way You Do the Things You Do.” We danced, and the memories made us glad.

 

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