Detroit — the hometown of Madonna, Diana Ross, and Aretha Franklin, has a proud musical legacy to offer. Throughout the 20s to the 80s, many pioneers and trailblazers including, singers, musicians, and performers who lived here, influenced and shaped multiple music genres as we know them today.
The history of Detroit’s music tells the story of how this set of genres evolved and where it’s going. From R&B to Gospel and from Jazz to Punk, Pop, and Techno; Detroit has heritage and representation of all of them. It is the birthplace of the futuristic genre Techno and home to the iconic “Motown Sound” — a music label that produced one hit after another first started operating out of downtown Detroit.
Where it all began
The Greater Detroit Area was home to a diverse population with each ethnicity bringing their own rich and vibrant musical traditions. Residents of African-American descent greatly influenced almost every genre and its legacy in Detroit. By the ‘40s, east Detroit had become a prominent entertainment district — Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, where a number of legendary jazz artists, bands, and singers performed. But in the late ‘50s, the district gradually disappeared into a neighborhood and a freeway.
After Black Bottom was demolished, the music scene on West Grand Boulevard was slowly replaced by the Motown label in the 1960s. The mark of this legendary label grew beyond the music industry, becoming a radical social and cultural movement.
Artists like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, Michael Jackson, Martha Reeves and others attempted to bring together a racially segregated society and in turn greatly influencing popular music and culture of their time. The label itself is a story of the success of these talented and dedicated individuals.
The label gets its name from Detroit itself — Motor City became Motor Town, later contracted to Motown. Motown would later go on to be recognized as ‘Sound of Young America’ and turn into a pop music institution. To the date, it has produced north of 180 No. 1 worldwide hits and its legacy lives on as the Motown Museum.
Detroit was once the musical epicenter of the Jazz age, especially during its genesis, and it continued into the 1950s. Some prominent names include Elvin Jones, Thad Jones, Tommy Flanagan, and Paul Chambers among others. Additionally, Benny Carter, Grant Green, and Joe Henderson relocated to Detroit and spent the better part of their respective careers in the Motor City.
Aside from the artists, Detroit-based bands played a key role in shaping and developing jazz. Interestingly enough, a similar phenomenon happened back in the late ‘20s as well. Among them, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers — widely regarded as the pioneer of big band jazz — and Jean Goldkette Victor Recording Orchestra played critical roles back when big band jazz was in its nascent stages.
Early on, these big band jazz performances were limited to big ballrooms but the ‘30s saw a shift to small cabaret bands. And thanks to this gradual shift, the aforementioned Paradise Valley emerged and became the primary entertainment spot in Detroit.
The Great Migration from the Deep South to Detroit gave birth to Blues movement in Detroit. As touched on above, quite a few pianists used to perform at the Black Bottom Clubs in the early 1920s. During the same decade, many famous classic blues singers performed at the premier venue for Detroit’s black musical community — Koppin Theatre, Paradise Valley.
In the ‘50s, Alberta Adams, Sylvester Cotton, and Calvin Frazier were some notable singers on the blues scene. This scene further flourished as multiple local record labels sprung up, some of which enjoyed great success. A Detroit label that was an important name was started by John Kaplan and Bernard Besman, named Sensation Records. The demise of this label was paralleled by the demise of the Blues scene altogether back in the early 1960s. Motown gained traction and rock and roll rose in popularity and performers who were based in Detroit sought careers elsewhere.
Techno was born when three highschoolers from Detroit experimented with disco, dance, and house and blended these three genres into what we today call, Techno. The three founders named, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May were known as the ‘Holy Trinity’ and their fusion music made waves in the Detroit club scenes. And eventually, Techno made its way to Europe, where DJs mixed it with digital effects and machine-generated beats which brought it global recognition.
Rock and Roll
This particular genre was ushered in Detroit by Hank Ballad & the Midnighters. Hank Ballad was the one the first Rock ‘n’ Roll artist to appear back in the ‘50s who gained nation-wide recognition with “Work With Me, Annie”. The era was furthered by Bill Haley — a Detroit native, with his hit release “Rock Around The Clock”.
By the early ‘60s, young garage rock bands like The Underdogs and The Fugitives flourished around Metro Detroit. And by the end of the decade, MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges — two popular Detroit-based bands appeared who pioneered the Hardrock and Punk movements. In 1969, the terms ‘Punk Rock’ and ‘Heavy Metal’ were coined by a publication out of Detroit by the name of CREEM.
During the decade that followed, the Metro Detroit-based musicians earned international fame, including Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper, and The Eagles to name a few. But during the 90s and the 80s, the influence of these metro Detroit bands somewhat waned but a handful of them managed to garner critical claim nonetheless.
The musical reputation of Detroit is still evolving and with the dawn of the 21st-century Detroit has become a part of today’s Hip-Hop. None other than Eminem, claims that Detroit was a ‘rough’ place to grow up in and was a ‘breeding ground’ for up-and-coming lyricists — a sentiment portrayed by the critically acclaimed film 8 Mile.