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Forum nameThe Lesson Archives
Topic subjectMy Roots-THE D.
Topic URLhttp://board.okayplayer.com/okp.php?az=show_topic&forum=17&topic_id=19625&mesg_id=19638
19638, My Roots-THE D.
Posted by supablak, Sat Aug-17-02 11:44 AM
In the year of 89 i stole back my black mind...

I went to see Nelson Mandela at Tiger Stadium the summer of 1990, this is the "Black Medallion Era"...high top fades,P.E.,BDP,DE LA...FIGHT THE POWER. The city of Detroit could relate to his long stint in prison...Detroit was still feeling the smack of the 67 riots and racial tensions was at an all time high summer of 90. Murders we UP! And it was HOT!
I sat behind Michael Moore <roger and me,tv nation,etc>,it's really cool for me because we share the same surname.
I came home from this event feeling good, here's an article that dives proves that "The D." is the Mississippi Delta of the last
50 years...


'Like getting a high five from God'

September 15, 1991

Free Press staff writer

Nelson Mandela had been locked up for 27 years, confined to a prison in South Africa. Now, it's June 28, 1990, and Mandela is here in Detroit, in rickety old Tiger Stadium. More than 50,000 people have jammed the place.

The mood is electric. Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder sing. There are chants and cheers and stomping feet and swaying hips.

Suddenly, Mandela is at the microphone.

"Mother, mother, there's too many of you crying." Mandela says the words slowly. Fifty thousand people hold their breath.

Then he continues: "Brother, brother, brother, there's far too many of you dying," and now everything is lost in a breathtaking, bone-rattling roar, the crowd erupting in a burst of recognition and approval. They know where Mandela is coming from -- they know these words.

Marvin Gaye and "What's Going On."

Still remembered, still powerful. After all these years.

Released 20 years ago this summer, Marvin Gaye's album "What's Going On" stands as one of the most important moments in American music. The album spoke honestly and painfully of the woes of big-city life from a black perspective, in a way that few records had done before. Yet it also appealed to millions of young people, both black and white, who were disillusioned with the Vietnam War, racism, poverty and cynical politicians. It was the best album Motown ever made.

Rolling Stone magazine still ranks it, along with the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper" and Bob Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde," as one of the best albums ever. "Years ahead of its time," wrote astonished rock critic Dave Marsh after first hearing it.

It sold more than 8 million copies in the United States alone. Rare is the person who is, say, older than 20 and younger than 50 who has not heard at least part of the album. Many people particularly recall the title song's soaring opening saxophone solo, which was played by Detroiter Eli Fountaine. More about him later.

But the significance of Gaye's album went beyond commercial success. Back in 1971, when American society seemed to be unraveling, the album's title song became a kind of anthem for a generation of young people who felt disenfranchised from mainstream America. It posed simple, painful questions -- "What's going on? What are we doing to ourselves?"

Questions that are still relevant today.

"Sometimes I'll play the entire album straight through and people cry every time," says WMXD-FM (92.3 "The Mix") disc jockey Charles (The Electrifying Mojo) Johnson, an institution in Detroit radio. "They call, really shaken up. They'll talk for 10 minutes."


Because in 35 minutes and 30 seconds, Gaye's album articulates more about Detroit, and life in black urban America, than any pile of books and any stack of surveys could ever do.

It takes Detroit's black Southern gospel roots, mixes it with the city's bebop jazz influences and throws in a little Motown-style pop. Then it all comes spinning out in a searing view of racism, religion, broken families, industrial pollution, police brutality, drug abuse -- all the problems that Detroit faced then and continues to face today.

Gaye's album was also the end of Motown in Detroit. It was the last significant album recorded here before the label moved to Los Angeles.

Motown's leaving was a heavy blow to the city's image. And it is no small irony that Motown's departure thereby helped exacerbate the kinds of urban problems that Gaye lamented in "What's Going On."

The story goes that Motown boss Berry Gordy hated the album, didn't want to release it at all.

When Gaye successfully defied him, it opened the creative floodgates for other Motown artists. They were no longer chained to Motown's three-minute-30-second-upbeat-rhythm-and- blues format. Motown artists like Stevie Wonder used that newfound freedom to help shape the direction of black music for the next decade.

The album at the root of all this is basically a suite of nine songs, each flowing into the next. All the songs are woven together by a deeply religious (with constant references to God and the power of faith) but sorrowful outlook on Detroit's urban life -- and by layer upon layer of intricate orchestration.

Hearing it is an experience many people describe as akin to riding a runaway roller coaster.

One minute you're snapping fingers with the title track, a rhythmic plea for peace. The next minute, you're plunged into "Save the Children," a spoken ballad that asks, "Who really cares/to save the babies?" Then there seems to be hope in the lightly swinging "God Is Love." But wait! Now it's a catalog of lamentations in "Mercy Mercy Me":

Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and east
Ahh, mercy, mercy me, mercy
Ahh, things ain't what they used to be
Oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas, fish full of mercury...
Radiation underground and in the sky
Animals and birds who live nearby are dying...

Later Gaye soars into "Right On" and "Wholy Holy," stirring spirituals calling for racial unity. So now you're thinking, "Whew! Everything's gonna be all right." But then, shockingly, a nerve-twitching bass guitar and bongo drums kick off the next cut, "Inner City Blues," a bitter cry against trigger happy police and indifferent politicians.

Listening to the entire album, says disc jockey Johnson, "is exhilarating, like getting a high five from God."

How this remarkable album came to be is quite a tale.

It starts in Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, crystalizes on Detroit's Palmer Park golf course one hot summer day in 1970 and had its elegy just a few weeks ago in a small room on the fifth floor of the Milner Hotel in downtown Detroit.

I'm just gettin' back, but ya kew I would
War is hell -- when will it end?
When will people start getting together again?

(From "What's Happening Brother," by James Nyx and Marvin Gaye)

When Frankie Gaye shipped out to Vietnam in 1965, his older brother Marvin was making hit records they way some guys made pancakes -- one atop another. Sugar-sweet love songs like "I'll Be Doggone" and "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)." He was good at it, really good, mixing his gospel-trained voice with raspy rhythm-and-blues shouts. Girls went wild.

Marvin, Frankie told his war buddies, had it made. He'd married the boss' daughter, Anna Gordy. Smokey Robinson was writing songs for him, and Stevie Wonder was one of his friends.

Frankie came home from Nam in 1966, and it's hard to say which of the two brothers had changed more. Frankie felt that American society had ignored his sacrifice; he certainly didn't feel like a returning hero.

But Marvin was in awe of Frankie. Compared to what Frankie had experienced in Vietnam, his own career suddenly seemed irrelevant. Tell me about the war, he'd say, and so Frankie told him.

"I couldn't shut up about it, the terror and the fear and the blood," Frankie says now from his home in California. "I must have talked about Vietnam for a year after I got back."

Frankie had a hard time finding work when he returned. Finally, he landed a job as a hotel doorman. "Marvin kept saying this wasn't right, he was going to write about it someday, somehow," Frankie says.

And eventually he did. A few years later, Marvin Gaye teamed up with Motown songwriter James Nyx and wrote "What's Happening Brother," a song on the "What's Going On" album. The song replicates one of Frankie's postwar conversations:

Can't find no work, can't find no job, my friend
Money is tighter than it's ever been
Say man, I just don't understand
What's going on across this land What's happening, brother?

But that song and the album itself were still several years hence. It was the mid-'60s, and Gaye's career was skyrocketing. In 1967 he recorded "Heard It Through the Grapevine," an all- time favorite song of many rock critics. But beneath the successful veneer, Gaye was a very troubled man.

Frankie's stories about the war haunted him. So did memories of childhood experiences with his abusive father -- a cross-dressing religious zealot. And his young marriage to Anna Gordy was disintegrating.

Meanwhile, the 1967 Detroit riot raged just up the street from Motown's studio on West Grand. The next year, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death.

Living on Outer Drive at Livernois at the time, Gaye began to be appalled at Motown's irrelevant love ditties in the midst of such upheaval. Dylan was singing "The Times They Are A-Changin'." The Stones bashed out the revolutionary "Street Fighting Man."

Gaye had "Hey Diddle Diddle."

"I really wanted to be out there kicking ass with the brothers," he told biographer David Ritz, referring to the urban riots. "But I wasn't and...somewhere...I began to lose my self-respect."

It got worse.

In 1970, his beloved singing partner Tammi Terrell collapsed in his arms onstage. The pair had burned up the pop charts with songs like "You're All I Need to Get By," and "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing." But now she had a brain tumor that would slowly kill her.

By 1970, Gaye hadn't performed publicly in two years. Everything seemed dark. He was 30 years old, exhausted, depressed, near suicidal.

Mel Farr, at that time a star halfback for the Lions, had met Gaye on the Palmer Park golf course years before. But now, his buddy could not be moved from his Outer Drive home. "Marvin spent entire days never coming out of the house, not doing anything," says Farr, now a successful car dealer.

Finally, Farr and Lions cornerback Lem Barney coaxed Gaye back onto the golf course. In their company, he lightened up as the summer of 1970 wore on. The trio had a great round at Palmer Park late one afternoon -- even Gaye, a high-80s golfer, had a solid round.

"We went back to Marvin's house and had a few beers," Farr remembers. "Everybody was laughing, and somebody said, 'Hey, now, what's goin' on?' Marvin laughed. He said that was a great name for a song. He sat down at the piano and started fiddling around."

About the same time, Four Tops member Obie Benson and songwriter Al Cleveland were finishing a song about American society coming apart. They took it to Gaye, and the title song, "What's Going On," began to take shape. Gaye's vision of an album "written to touch the souls of men" began to gel.

But Gaye had rarely been a solo songwriter, and he needed help with the songs on the album. Much of that help came from veteran songwriter Nyx, another product of the Brewster Projects, where Diana Ross grew up.

"Marvin had a good tune, sort of blues-like, but didn't have any words for it," recalls Nyx, now 77 and still living in Detroit. "We started putting some stuff in there about how rough things were around town. We laughed about putting lyrics in about high taxes, 'cause both of us owed a lot. And we talked about how the government would send guys to the moon, but not help folks in the ghetto.

"But we still didn't have a name, or really a good idea of the song. Then, I was home reading the paper one morning, and saw a headline that said something about the 'inner city' of Detroit. And I said, 'Damn, that's it. 'Inner City Blues.' "

It came out on the album this way:

Rockets -- moon shots
Spend it on the have nots
Money -- we make it
'Fore we see -- you take it
Oh, make me wanna holler
The way they do my life

Gaye was hitting his stride now, but trying to put the album together was still difficult. He began to picture a lush, complicated suite of songs. And that meant trouble. At Motown, albums were supposed to be just a few hit singles thrown together with a bunch of filler.

But Gaye wanted to create art. He wanted the album to be an honest portrait of Detroit. He wanted to create a jeremiad -- an Old Testament-style lamentation of woes. Like a painter using layer after layer of blues and greens to build a single, powerful image, Gaye wanted to add on layer after layer of orchestration and voices to create a single, dazzling impression.

Even for an orchestra conductor, producing that kind of album would be a challenge. But for Gaye, it was damn near impossible: He couldn't read or write a lick of music.

Yeah, that's right. Marvin Gaye, who had 40 hit songs and was one of the all-time great soul singers, was stone stupid about reading music. He played by ear.

"Put sheet music in front of Marvin and he was lost," says former Motown pianist Earl Van Dyke.

But for Gaye to build the melodies he was hearing in his head, he needed to be able to show other musicians what he was thinking. He needed notes set down on paper.

He needed David Van De Pitte.

A Motown producer, De Pitte had the monumental task of taking Gaye's sketchy outlines for songs -- lyrics or notes tapped out on a piano -- and then telling more than 40 musicians what to play. He coordinated the efforts of pianists, drummers, guitarists, bass players, dozens of violins, violas, chellos, even a harp.

He was so essential to the project that he was credited on front of the album cover, a very unusual step.

But Gaye and De Pitte made for a delicate mix. Gaye kept pestering De Pitte anout the arrangements, and one day De Pitte blew his cool. "David came in my office screaming he was quitting," remembers Harry Balk, then director of creative projects at Motown. "Marvin kept coming in and saying. 'Do this, do that.' David was a very talented man, but Marvin was treating him like a musical secretary. I paid $2,000 on the spot and asked him, just this once, to do whatever Marvin asked."

With De Pitte grudgingly back on board, the music started to be set down. The process took a bizarre turn when Farr and Barney stopped by Gaye's house one day after a Lions preseason practice.

"How would you guys like to sing backup on a hit song?" Gaye asked them.

"That was all it took for us," says Barney, noe a spokesman for MichCon. "I was a natural ham anyhow. We got in the car and drove straight to the studio."

The football players were strictly amateur vocalists, but Gaye didn't mind. They walked into Motown's Studio B on Davison -- now a church meeting hall -- and Gaye set them up. "We had our own microphones, earphones, everything," Farr says, still a little star-struck. "Just like we were real singers."

They were in shorts, everybody had a beer. It was loose. An engineer started tape rolling. Gaye told them to act like they were at a party, "Hey, what's happenin' ...groovy party, man ...solid ...what's your name ..."

Barney and Farr really got into it. "We're going 14-0," Barney yelled at one point, and optimistic prediction for what turned out to be a 10-4 Lions season. An then, in a bit used at the very end of the song, he yells, "Get the football, man, get the football! C'mon!"

But Gaye wasn't finished with his football buddies.

He started playing a piano-only version of "What's Going On." As he sang the chorus -- "Picket lines/and picket signs/ don't punish me/with brutality" -- he pointed at them between phrases.

"Sis-ter," they chanted at his cue, snapping their fingers and stepping like they were the Pips.

"It was an absolute blast," Farr remembers. "We thought we were stars."

Gaye's creative juices were really flowing now, and people were catching his fever. The man had a message. It was so much different from standard Motown love ditties. It was, well, important.

"You were damn proud to be there," says percussionist Jack Ashford, now working in the music business in Memphis. "Everybody knew something was going on with this session."

So too, eventually, did anybody who owned a radio.

When "What's Going On" was released as a single in February 1971, people went nuts. The song hit No. 2 on the pop chart in March; it was a solid No. 1 on the soul chart.

Meanwhile, Gaye and engineer Larry Miles -- now a computer salesman in Los Angeles -- were dubbing and overdubbing tracks on the album. By using multiple vocal tracks, Gaye sang almost all the vocal parts -- harmonizing with himself, shouting, moaning. On "Mercy Mercy Me," he whispers, "Ahh, mercy, Father, please mercy," under his own lead vocal. Finally, after several months in production, all of the work on the album came to a head one lonely night at Motown's studio on Davison.

Gaye, alone in the studio long after midnight, called his old friend and mentor, Beans Bowles. He was in a panic. He told Bowles he had to catch a morning flight to LA to finish mixing the album -- but he didn't like the flute part on "Right On."

"So I got my flute and drove over to the studio," Bowles remembers. "He showed me the music, I played the bit and left. I was there less than an hour."

"What's Going On" was finished.

Aaah, mercy, mercy me
Things ain't what they used to be, no, no
Where did all the blue skies go?

(From "Mercy, Mercy Me," by Marvin Gaye)

Twenty years have passed. Marvin Gaye is dead, shot to death by his father in 1984. Motown is ancient history in this town, long since gone to LA. The musicians on the album -- some dead, some doing well, some scratching by in obscurity -- are scattered across the country.

And some are still around.

Like Eli Fountaine.

He's the guy who created the opening saxophone solo on "What's Going On." They were the first notes on the album. He came up with the riff one night in a deserted Motown studio, alone with Gaye. He did it so instinctively they had to play the tape back so he'd know what he'd just played.

Now he lives along an upstairs hallway in the Milner Hotel downtown, on a floor where the window on the fire escape is open, a breeze fluttering its dingy white curtains. Fountaine lives in a tiny one-room space, an elegant man who now walks only with a cane.

He is neither bum nor derelict. He is still respected within the city's jazz community as a hell of a sax player. But he's had extensive heart surgery and has been convalescing at the Milner for more than a year. It is doubtful he will ever play professionally again.

But, at 56, he is still proud, a man who loves his children and is anguished by much of what he sees on the streets near his room. When talking about his work on the album, he is often moved to tears."It's the most beautiful thing I ever did in my life," he says.

So now, he lovingly pulls that same old sax out of its black case. He murmurs to it as he assembles its pieces, as he loops the neck strap over his head. His eyes close as he brings the reed to his lips.

Softly, he begins to play. The notes are jumbled at first. Then they blend into a soaring single note, held for a heartbeat, then two, before it is clear that this is the note that began Gaye's album so long ago. In this empty room, the notes somehow carry the sound of pigeon wings flapping in narrow alleys, of car horns and dance halls in hot, crowded cities.

if you're in water, splash