(General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, and Motown were at the center of the culture)
*Can you remember when you could identify just by hearing the starter, or hearing how the transmission shifted and know what brand of car it was? I can.
I can remember sitting on our front porch at Meldrum and Benson on Detroit’s eastside and listening to the different cars turning off from Mt. Elliott or Mack avenues to the side streets. I knew as a child of five years old when my Dad’s Hudson Hornet was in earshot. He (Milton) could have been blocks away, but I knew the sound. I knew the sound of my Uncle Walter’s Buick Roadmaster.
I knew the sound of Uncle Alvin’s Chevrolet Bel-Air (with Hollywood tailpipes). Uncle Alvin was also an accomplished pianist whose music flowed from the upper flat at 3115 Meldrum Street to the surrounding neighborhood (the old Briggs Manufacturing building, destroyed by fire in 1963 was just across the street); a Catholic church on one corner with church bells ringing on the hour, and a bar on the other with the secular music).
There was also the sound of the trains on the next block between Beaufait and Bellevue which gave me a constant sense of mobility. I heard church bells, trains, cars, and music constantly – at any given time – awakening and going to sleep.
Then there were other relatives and family friends who had various Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors cars – manufactured by the companies that became known as the “Big Three.” I got good at knowing who was coming and going! Meldrum and Benson became the melting pot of cars and music for me; they went hand in hand.
The Big Three had distinguished themselves and were ahead of the pack of the likes of Hudson, American Motors, Packard (and others); all of which were great car companies; but were either shut down or absorbed by the majors. At the time, the top of the luxury product lines at each of the Big Three in luxury-ranking order were: General Motors – the Cadillac; Ford – the Lincoln Continental; and Chrysler – the Imperial. I won’t go into the entire ever-changing line-up of the sales-ranking totem poles; but they included, for the common man, hot-selling brands like the Impala (GM), the Galaxy (Ford), and the New Yorker (Chrysler). Those were exciting times! We could not wait for the fall season to reveal the models for the coming year! Think about other models like the Riviera; the Mustang; the Barracuda…Detroit was HOT!!
To complement the stylish strides made in the auto industry, the Detroit music scene was in step. I was introduced to a lot of music through my family on both sides. The unique thing about Meldrum Street was that my Mother’s family house was on the one side, and my Father’s family house was on the other side of a factory parking lot (it was a boy-next-door; girl-next-door thing). During the day it belonged to the factory workers, but after they closed in the evenings, the parking lot became our family playground! So, on one side the sound of Mahalia Jackson might be ringing; and the other, Muddy Waters, and vice-versa; because both family sides loved music (and cars mind you)! One song that brings tears to my eyes when I hear it even to this day is Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk” I think that particular song was the predecessor of Motown great Junior Walker’s “What Does It Take!”
Then there were songs like “Runaway” by Del Shannon (also of Michigan) that made the car ride even more exciting and adventurous. I can’t begin to tell you what the region of the Great Lakes yielded!! People to this day continue to say: “It’s something about the water” when they continue to see the phenomenal talent coming from that region like Anita Baker, Madonna, Bob Seger, M&M, etc…). There is so much more to tell, but that would take a book, not an article.
I read about how Motown Records founder Berry Gordy – while he was working at Ford Motor Company – got the idea to run a record company in an assembly line fashion similar to the automotive production line. I think we all know the Motown story, and if I could draw this parallel: I could identify Motown’s “Big Three” brands with the automotive industry’s Big Three. Motown’s “Big Three” labels were Motown – the Supremes; Tamla – the Miracles; and Gordy – the Temptations. Again, I won’t go into the entire line-up of each major brand, but there was also the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Martha & the Vandellas. There was a time when Detroit’s auto and music brands were unequaled the world over, and through all the difficulties the city is now facing, its citizens should still be proud! By the way: I still have my 1992 Chrysler Imperial that looks just as sharp as when I bought it brand new off the lot. It still has all the original parts after 218,000 miles! I also still have an expansive collection of all my old Motown favorites!
Again, as I said before, this is an article (originally written June 24, 2013), not a book. I have so much more I could write about in between the lines. I am not discounting all the many great jazz and blues artists of the era I am alluding to in this article; I am merely trying to highlight a phenomenon that took place in the great city of Detroit with the auto industry and Motown Records.
Maybe some of you readers could contribute to this experience!
Larry Buford is a native Detroiter now residing in Los Angeles. Author of the Book/CD “Things Are Gettin’ Outta Hand” and “Book To The Future” (Amazon); and publisher of a CD titled “One More Time” also on Amazon. Email: LBuford8101@hotmail.com