Detroit Rock and Roll

I grew up in northern Ontario and northern Michigan and Detroit rock and roll saved my soul.

In July 1967 when Purple Sunshine begins, Detroit was the fifth largest U.S. city but it arguably had a greater influence on the nation’s culture than that rank suggests. Part of it was the automobile industry because cars were a bigger part of our culture in the 1960s than they are now. But Detroit rock and roll was another reason.

Berry Gordy, an auto plant worker, founded Tamla Records and then Motown – another name for Detroit – in 1960. Its energetic pop soul sound was soon captivating both black and white audiences.  While Michigan factories churned out the cars, Motown was soon churning out the hits.  Motown hitmakers included Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Four Tops, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Edwin Starr, the Contours, the Spinners and Little Willie John.

However, Little Willie John actually began his career with Fortune Records, which was another successful Detroit music enterprise predating Motown.  One of my favorite Fortune hits was Andre Williams’ “Bacon Fat” in 1956.

Aretha Franklin honed her chops at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit and Del Shannon had one of the top selling records of 1961 with “Runaway.” The Capitols hit the charts in 1966 with “Cool Jerk” and Detroit’s Hank Ballard and the Midnighters did the original version of the “Twist.” Question Mark and the Mysterians, a band from Flint, had a hit, “96 Tears” that seemed to hang around forever. It was Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels that really grabbed me with a string of hits in 1965 and 1966.  A few years later, it was Bob Seger and the Last Heard who knocked me out.  One Christmas vacation, a friend and I persuaded the Woolies, a Detroit blues-rock band with a regional hit, Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” to travel about 400 miles from Detroit to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to play a dance for the local college students home for the holidays.

In the mid 1960s, Detroit teen clubs featured bands like the Underdogs, the Fugitives, Unrelated Segments, the Rationals, Terry Knight and the Pack (which evolved into Grand Funk Railroad), the Lords (with Ted Nugent) and the Pleasure Seekers (with Suzi Quatro).

A couple of great AM radio stations fed the rock and roll fever.  WKNR – Keener 13 – was the number one radio station in Detroit for a long time.  You can still find lists of the station’s top songs for the mid 1960s on its website.  The number one song for the week ending July 24, 1967 when Purple Sunshine begins was “I Wanna Testify” by the Parliaments, which featured Detroit’s George Clinton who would go on to major funk fame.  “Some Kind of Wonderful,” the song to which Gloria and Jimmy were listening in the story was number six.  Some of the other songs in the top 10 that week were “All You Need is Love” by the Beatles, “Light My Fire” by the Doors, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” by the Monkees, “More Love” by the Miracles and “Society’s Child” by Janis Ian.

Sometime that summer of 1967, CKLW, a big 50,000 watt clear channel station across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario, overtook WKNR as the top station. That station had a music director, Rosalie Trombley, with a golden ear for picking out future hits. You could pick up CKLW’s signal over most of southern Michigan, and in Toledo and Cleveland in Ohio. In Detroit, if you liked rock and roll, you just kept punching the buttons on your radio to go back and forth between these two great stations.

Detroit rock and roll in the 1960s was truly something special.

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