Motor City Music: More than You'd Think


By Dave Austin – “The Music Professor”

At a mention of the city of Detroit, it’s likely that “The Motor City” and “Motown” will instantly come to mind. However, by way of a close friend and Detroit native with whom I worked, I learned that this city has a varied and rich musical heritage. With its diverse population, the city has long been a melting pot for numerous forms of music from the renowned Detroit Symphony to hip-hop and heavy metal.

During the 1930s and ‘40s, the city’s “Black Bottom” area, was famous for blues singers, big bands and jazz artist. During this period, the blues was centered along Hastings Street and record labels JVB and Sensation were recording legendary artists such as John Lee Hooker, Eddie “Guitar” Burns, Baby Boy Warren and Washboard Willie.

Some of the most famous gospel singers have roots in Detroit. During the 1940s, the Detroiters became the most popular gospel group of their era and in the 1950s, Laura Lee and a young Della Reese began their careers as members of the Meditation Singers, the premier Detroit female gospel group. Notably, this was the first gospel group to pair instrumental backing with traditionally a cappella vocals. In the ‘60s, Rev. C.L. Franklin recorded sermons on Chess Records’ gospel label and an album of spirituals included the debut of his young daughter, Aretha. In the 1980s, the Winans family dynasty produced Grammy winners Cece and BeBe.

1950’s rockabilly guitarist Jack Scott had a string of Top 40 hits and was one of the first musicians to wed country music’s melodic songs to the raw power of rock & roll.

As a thriving jazz center, rivaling New Orleans, Chicago and St. Louis, some of Detroit’s musicians who achieved international success include Elvin Jones, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Yusef Lateef, Milt Jackson, Kenny Burrell, Sonny Stitt, Benny Carter and a lengthy list of jazz greats. A number of these musicians, especially in the rhythm sections, drove the classic groups of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and the bands of Charles Mingus and Horace Silver and The Jazz Messengers.

Not to be ignored, Detroit’s pop music icons include Margaret Whiting, Sonny Bono and one of the most famous pop stars of all time, Madonna, who was born in Bay City and grew up in Rochester, just outside the city. Several of Madonna’s early hits were written by her ex-boyfriend and Detroit native, Stephen Bray.

Detroit’s pop rockers Was (Was Not) breakthrough album “What Up, Dog?” produced two Top 20 songs “Spy in the House of Love” and “Walk the Dinosaurs.” Aaliyah (1979-2001) was a Detroiter, the niece of soul singer Gladys Knight, had several hit songs including 2000’s #1 hit, “Try Again.” Also coming out of the city is Teairra Mari who has built an impressive career which includes the 2005 hit single “Make Her Feel Good.”

Long before Motown, Detroit was a hotbed for R&B music. In 1955, Little Willie John made his debut, and in 1956, the Detroit-based label Fortune scored big by recording the hottest vocal group in the city, Nolan Strong and the Diablos and charting such hits as “The Wind,” “Mind Over Matter” and “The Way You Dog Me Around.” In his biography, Smokey Robinson credited Nolan’s high tenor as his biggest vocal influence.

In 1956, blues and R&B singer Zeffrey “Andre” Williams recorded a string of singles for Fortune with his distinctive “talk-sing” style. In 1961, Nathaniel Mayer & Fabulous Twilights charted with “Village of Love,” which was one of Fortune’s top-selling singles.

In 1959, the Falcons (featuring Wilson Pickett and Eddie Floyd) released “You’re So Fine” which is now considered the very first soul record. That same year, Jackie Wilson had his first hit, “Reet Petite,” co-written by a young Berry Gordy, Jr. We also heard hits from the Volumes (“I Love You”) and Barbara Lewis’ (”Hello Stranger”).

Several other “non-Motown” artists became nationally known – Aretha Franklin, the Capitols (“Cool Jerk”), and Darrel Banks with “Baby Walk Right In.” In 1967, the doo wop group, The Parliaments, featuring George Clinton, began to score hits, marking the origin of funk in mainstream R&B. During a legal battle with his record label, Clinton renamed Parliament to Funkadelic and scored a hit with “A New Day Begins.”

When Motown relocated to the West Coast in 1972, Detroit remained a center for R&B with such acts as Freda Payne, The Floaters, Ray Parker, Jr., Anita Baker and BeBe and CeCe Winanas.

In pop music, Detroit stands high on the list of hit-makers. In the 1950s, Hank Ballard & the Midnighters crossed over from the R&B charts to the pop charts with “Work With Me Annie,” a song which almost broke into the Top 20 despite being barred from airplay on many radio stations due to its suggestive lyrics. In 1955, Detroit native Bill Haley is credited with ushering in rock & roll with “Rock Around the Clock.”

In 1959, Ballad and his group recorded a b-side tune called “The Twist,” but a year later, a cover by Chubby Checker became a smash hit and set off a national dance craze. The following year Del Shannon had his #1 hit, “Runaway,” and followed with “Hats Off to Larry” and “Little Town Flirt.”

During the ‘70s, many of the city’s acts became international rock icons – Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper and others, and the city was immortalized with songs such as “Detroit Rock” by Kiss, “Detroit Breakdown” by J. Geils Band and “Panic in Detroit” by David Bowie.

As the 1980s and ‘90s came around, Detroit turned out major rock bands such as the White Stripes, Kid Rock and, if space permitted, we could also cite notables from the fields of techno, hardcore punk and hip-hop.

At recent count, more than 14 groups or solo artists, four non-performers, and two sidemen from the city have been inducted into the R&R Hall of Fame. Suffice it to say, one could easily fill a book (or two) with the city’s musical history, both past and present. In the meantime, until those books are finally written, sit back and enjoy the wide range of great music which comes to us courtesy of the “Motor City.”



  • Dave Austin began his career at age 13 at a small, hometown radio station. He went on to graduate from the University of Southern Mississippi with a Bachelor’s degree in broadcasting. Since that time, Dave has been a mobile and radio DJ, radio station Program Director, and a TV news reporter and anchorman. He has also done voiceover work for documentaries and commercials. In 1986 Dave’s longtime passion for music prompted him to start “Southern Celebrations DJs,” a multi-system mobile entertainment company serving clients in Tennessee, Northern Georgia and Northern Alabama. You can email him c/o

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