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Authors: Nelson George

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BOOK: City Kid
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Pumped up on antihistamines and determined to overcome jet lag, I shared a taxi to Hollywood with my Queens roommate Rocky Ford, and went to a press party at Yamashiro's, a Japanese restaurant with a commanding view of LA. It was my first vision of the city at night, with its thousands of twinkling stars spread out as far as the eye could see. I downed free sushi and chatted with radio DJs, record executives, and wannabe stars. I ran into a friend from New York, Randy Muller, who produced hits for Brass Construction and Skky. Along with Rocky and Randy, I walked down the hill from Yamashiro's to Hollywood Boulevard. It was my first time on this legendary street, and it didn't disappoint.
Cars jammed the street, cruising slowly in a California ritual, many with their tops down. And car after passing car was blasting Rick James's “Give It to Me Baby.” Where in New York disco and hip-hop flowed from ghetto blasters, in Cali souped-up sound systems filled the night air with punk funk. Girls in halter tops tossed their phone numbers to guys in passing sports cars. It felt like a scene from an urban version of
American Graffiti
, where black and Chicano kids had replaced their white counterparts, and lowriders were the car to have.
It felt right that my first taste of LA nightlife had a Motown soundtrack. Ten years after its move from Detroit to the West Coast, the black pop culture of Tinseltown was still very defined by its presence. The Jacksons, the Gordys, other offspring of the Motown universe, and their friends constituted a kind of black showbiz royalty. If you went to a club or a concert out there, it was the Motowners who got the best seats and had the most juice.
By moving to LA, Motown had shifted the nexus of mainstream black entertainment out there, and inspired many local initiators (Dick Griffey's SOLAR Records, Lonnie Simmons's Total Experience). The Motown model of success was the template. At Sunset off Vine was the Motown Building, perhaps the only large structure in the city that carried the name of a black-owned business. One long block away on Gower was Roscoe's House of Chicken 'n Waffles, a black institution, where anybody and everybody in black pop culture came through for the house specialty of four chicken wings and two waffles.
Though I couldn't drive, and hated paying LA's inflated taxi fees, I'd drag my ass over to Roscoe's on every trip I made to Cali during my days as a music journalist. I'd set up back-to-back meetings there, interview folks, and then linger around to see who'd run through. A long afternoon at Roscoe's would fill up my
Billboard
column for at least two weeks.
While the cream of the city's black middle class lived in Baldwin Hills, View Park, and Ladera Heights, the growing black Hollywood community favored predictable white enclaves like Beverly Hills, Westwood, and Brentwood, and San Fernando Valley towns like Encino, where the Jackson clan was based.
The amount of money that black Hollywood had (or was it the flashy way they spent it?) always knocked me out. I became friendly with a smart, young black A&R dude out there named John. He was plugged into the young Motown crowd, but had landed a job at a rival label, where he'd go on to develop a major young black female pop star. He had crazy sports cars, a pad in Westwood that looked like the set from
American Gigolo
, and a taste for superexpensive clothes. I rolled with him one afternoon to a Beverly Hills boutique, where he dropped about ten grand on clothes. When he offered to treat me to a fifteen-hundred-dollar sweater, I passed, but it shocked me how cavalier he was about his cash.
Coming from the hard streets of BK, the LA lifestyle was a serious culture shock for me. I knew there were gangs in LA, and hardworking folks scrambling to make it. But my initial eighties experiences out there had a lot more to do with Fred Siegel's boutique on Melrose than with Bloods and Crips. This was the era of Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, a time when black pop was about being as mainstream as could be.
I was kind of a curiosity to the folks I met out there. They read me, first at
Record World
and then at
Billboard
, on a weekly basis. They always thought I was older than I looked. I think they were amused by my fascination/disdain with how they handled their money and their smooth vibe of entitlement. I recall spending a long afternoon with Quincy Jones at his Bel Air home. Q was, and remains, the most charming man I've ever met. You spend five minutes with him, and you realize why he's been able to work successfully with so many artists. You immediately want to please him, because he really put you at ease.
We had lunch, and I asked for some apple juice. Well, his cook brought out a glass of freshly squeezed apple juice. I was stunned. I mean, damn, they actually ground up the apple in the kitchen. It says a lot about how limited my experience with healthy eating was at that time that, now, decades later, I can still clearly see that glass of pulpy juice being placed in front of me. Quincy, who I am sure was amused by my reaction, just smiled, probably having introduced scores of young black folks to “the good life” over the years.
At one point I asked Q what separated the great stars from the near greats he'd worked with. “Ass power” was his reply. To illustrate his point, Q compared Michael Jackson to another well-known vocalist he'd produced. The other singer, an artist with an immense voice and an insatiable appetite for cocaine, would come to the studio, maybe lay down a scratch vocal, and then wander off for hours. Jackson, in contrast, would come to the studio, record a strong lead vocal, work on the stacked vocal harmonies that distinguished his work, and practice where to place those ad-libs that were his trademark.
“His ass power,” Q said, “would keep him in the studio until he felt he'd accomplished something that day. That ability to focus, to stay in that chair in the studio, listening to playback and then going back in to record some more—that's what separates the good from the great.”
From then on, “ass power” became an integral part of my vocabulary. I invoked it whenever I had a deadline to meet or was encouraging friends in their efforts. If “ass power” was what Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson used to record masterful music, I needed a bit myself.
At the end of a long, beautiful interview about everyone from Frank Sinatra to Dinah Washington, I was sitting with Q in his living room when a tall, willowy, Swedish blonde appeared. She was a young actress/model/singer who looked a lot like one of Q's ex-wives. Felt like this was a cue to call a taxi. Instead he told me to stay. We sat on a sofa, and the young woman sat on the floor before us, holding up her portfolio of photos for us to peruse. At the time, I'd never really contemplated dating a white woman, and certainly never kissed one, so it was crazy watching her down at my feet. Q, of course, took it all in stride.
If that wasn't enough, Q told the blonde that she needed to have dinner with me that night. And she agreed. Q winked at me, and I got the hell out of there. That night I sat with the young lady at a Sunset Boulevard hot spot, Carlos 'n Charlie's, a restaurant with a popular upstairs disco. I was way out of my league with this lady. Aside from being “friends” with Q, she was already friends with the actor/musician Dudley Moore and a few other high-profile gents.
Nothing went down between the blonde and me, but the day with Q did crystallize the black eighties Hollywood experience for me. If you could push and claw yourself into the LA celebrity machine, you could live a lifestyle unmatched by any previous generation of blacks. The money was there. The women were available. There were more opportunities emerging throughout the decade.
Yet I was unsure if all this was for me. I was a bookish guy, more scholar than player, more observer than hustler. My obsessions had more to do with knowledge than power. Still, LA tugged at me, like the Hyde side of Dr. Jekyll, and I've always wondered what would happen if I gave in to its pull.
FROM MOTOROLA TO MOTOWN
As I noted earlier, my mother's Motorola played a huge role in my life. Moreover, like so many who'd been reared on the sixties' music, I was fascinated with the Motown sound. Like all black folks, I'd read studiously about Berry Gordy, Diana Ross, and all the label's other stars in
Ebony
and
Jet
. As I grew older, graduating to more serious music mags, like
Rolling Stone
and
Circus
, my interest in how this black institution had conquered the music world intensified. I had tons of questions about how and why it worked, and very few satisfying answers. There were useful articles here and there. Most of the best had been published in UK publications like
Black Music
.
But there was no single book that told the whole story and sated my curiosity. So when I was seventeen or eighteen I decided I'd write the book I wanted to read, and I kept that goal in mind all through my struggling freelance days, and into my years at
Billboard
. I'd always been a pack rat (a habit I picked up from my mother), clipping items from newspapers, making little notes in black and white composition books.
I'd interview Smokey Robinson for a story on “Being with You,” or Diana Ross for a piece on her RCA hit “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” or Lionel Richie about his success with ballads, and I'd always make sure I slipped in questions about the label's 1960s peak and seventies transformation, looking for a fresh tidbit or confirmation of an oft-told tale. Even
The Michael Jackson Story
, my first book, a paperback quickie I wrote in a furious two months in summer '83, was in my mind really just an excuse to dig for Motown gold and make some much-needed cash.
As I talked to old R&B heads who'd been around when Joe and Katherine Jackson brought their brood from Gary, Indiana, to Detroit, I actually became more interested in the world they had entered into by joining Motown than with the headlining family itself. I'd been writing regularly for
Musician
magazine, so in 1983 I pitched them a profile of the Motown session men. Except for the names of legendary bassist James Jamerson and drummer Benny Benjamin, the session players behind the hits were faceless. They were often praised by the singers but rarely by name, whereas producers like Holland-Dozier-Holland, Norman Whitfield, and Smokey had a near mythic status.
Unlike Booker T & the MGs (the Memphis Group) or Philly's MFSB, the Motown session cats didn't have catchy handles. Hidden behind the Motown marketing machine, they were as obscure as an old-time Delta bluesman to even dedicated music fans. Through my contacts among musicians I was able to run down a phone number for Anne Jamerson, the wife of James. I'd heard Jamerson was gravely ill. To my surprise, Anne thought it was a great idea for her husband to talk with me, and put me in contact with him at a hospital in California. From what she told me, medication had messed with his ability to play and sent him into a depression. Others suggested he'd suffered from drug and alcohol abuse brought on by the loss of the support system he'd had back in Detroit.
I wasn't allowed to go see him, but she set up a phone call on a Sunday afternoon. His voice was weak and weary, and his tone bittersweet. He guided me through sessions, told me the studio group's nickname, the Funk Brothers, and gave me the kind of sensual detail about the making of Motown's hits that had been lacking in interviews with the producers and artists over the years. He related that his works were inspired by life, noting, for example, that the percolating riff that anchored “Standing in the Shadows of Love” came from watching the hips of a woman strolling down a Detroit avenue.
For me it was a revelatory experience, putting me close to the creation of the sounds that had flowed from Ma's Motorola. As crucial as that conversation was, it was just a gateway to a world that could only truly be explored by trips to one of the most vilified cities in America—Detroit, Michigan.
In the early eighties the nighttime streets of downtown Detroit were empty, save the occasional tumbleweed sighting by Cobo Hall. Okay, I exaggerate, but not a whole lot. Aside from the nights Cobo filled with suburban Red Wing fans (many from across the border in Canada), or for a concert, pedestrians were scarce. Sometimes even cars, the spine and pride of the Motor City, could be few and far between.
Between the 1967 riots and its early eighties notoriety as the United States' murder capital, not much had gone right in Detroit. Its anemic downtown nightlife was just one of the results. In fact, even during the day Detroit didn't resemble Chicago or Boston. But to be walking through Detroit at night must have seemed particularly foolhardy to the locals. Yet there I was, in a brown leather jacket and wool cap, armed only with a notebook, seeking one of the city's remaining musical oases.
Slipped in between the empty streets and the haunted avenues were clubs and bars where nocturnal culture still thrived. I'd enter and be met by the sound of jazz, and on the bandstand, playing for a middle-aged crowd, would be the men who made the Motown sound. You'd see pianist Earl Van Dyke or Johnny Griffith tapping ivories on “Green Dolphin Street”; Uriel Jones or Pistol Allen using brushes on “Stella by Starlight.” No matter that they'd played on scores of pop anthems, at heart they'd been jazzmen, and, since these gigs were as much for their pleasure as for money, it's jazzmen they remained.
But I didn't just go to Detroit to see the players. Wrapped around the Motown sound was a network of workers, the people who on a daily basis executed Berry Gordy's vision, and you'd see them at these clubs as well. Motown Records left Detroit in 1972, but the fellowship the company had engendered was still palpable.
So was their bitterness. No matter how wonderful the memories of individual moments were, the overall tone of those who remained behind was tart, like the taste of a lemon had replaced that of an orange. The longer you talked to these men and women (all the musicians were male) you understood that the ex-Motowners shared the same sense of abandonment that filled the city itself.
BOOK: City Kid
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