Detroit—Live from New York City
By Herb Boyd
Special to the Michigan Citizen
NEW YORK CITY — It may be less than an hour-long train ride from the Lunt-Fontanne Theater at Times Square where “Motown: The Musical” is currently in previews to The Roulette performance space in Brooklyn where gentle giant Yusef Lateef was recently in concert with percussionist Adam Rudolph, but the music was light years apart.
What the events have in common is Detroit. Both Berry Gordy Jr., the founder of Motown whose autobiography “To Be Loved” is the wellspring of the musical, and Lateef courted their muses on similar turf, beginning in the city’s legendary “Black Bottom” and its potent entertainment offspring, Paradise Valley.
While there may be no direct connection between Gordy and Lateef, they share a number of common threads. More than a cursory examination of their resumes will reveal that some of the musicians who labored in the studios backing some of the Motown singers also found time to jam with Lateef during his formative years in the city.
Neither Gordy nor Lateef currently reside in Detroit where their musical genius was forged — Gordy is on the West Coast, and Lateef, for the most part, dwells on the East Coast in Amherst, Mass. That both men in their advanced ages are currently active — Gordy at 82 and the show’s producer, and Lateef at 92 — is remarkable, especially for Black men.
There’s a good chance they bumped into each other in the night clubs, particularly the Flame Show Bar or Klein’s, respectively, where Gordy at one time was an aspiring photographer and Lateef was at the helm of his many ensembles.
Both venues for these former Detroiters were packed with spectators. As expected on this opening night, the press corps was out in full force, and several notable ex-Detroiters were present, including Brian Holland, Richard Davis and songstress Frida Payne. They, like the rest of the audience, probably found it irresistible not to sing along with the musical’s performers who reprised most of Motown’s great hits. In effect, the musical was part “Motown Revue” and a chronology of the company’s rise to prominence.
Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, as well as performances by the Temptations and the Jackson 5 dominated the musical; even so, it was nice to see a few of the less heralded songwriters and producers such as Mickey Stevenson, Norman Whitfield, and Lamont Dozier and the Holland brothers at least get a mention. Though this was Gordy’s version of the legal disputes between them, and one wonders how Brian Holland reacted to Gordy’s interpretation.
Lateef’s venture was not a rush of nostalgia but a presentation of his compositions performed by a string quartet, a trio of horns, a solo pianist and finally, by Lateef and Rudolph.
If any in the audience came with the expectation of hearing the hard-charging, blues infected music Lateef perfected and popularized in the past, they were sorely disappointed. Fortunately, this was a younger crowd who has grown accustomed to the evolved Lateef, enhanced by Rudolph’s love and affection.
Each one of the pieces bore a similarity as they moved from instrumentation to instrumentation, a kind of airy, atmospheric mood with a peaceful resolution, free of tension and conflict.
The only blues moments came during Lateef’s duet with Rudolph, and it was most engrossing with Rudolph providing a deep drone-like beat on a large, clay vessel while Lateef on oboe took at least one listener back to Hastings Street.
It is amazing the extent to which Detroit is in the news today on the political, economic and cultural front. Of course, while the sad developments around former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and others involved in his corruption scandal and the recent appointment of an emergency financial manager have captured the headlines, there are other newsworthy events that are keeping Detroit in the spotlight.
Two film projects, “Detropia,” which is completed, and “Detroit, 48202,” a work in progress, are being screened in New York City this week; and authors Charlie LeDuff and Mark Binelli have made appearances on national television shows promoting their books about the city. Moreover, there are several plays with Detroit themes making the rounds by Bill Harris, Dominique Morriseau and Marvin Gaye’s sister, Zeola.
But there’s nothing like Detroit’s music, whether from the distant past or recent creative efforts by renowned composers, to wash away the tears and brighten up the city’s misery index.
With Lateef showing no signs of surrendering to Father Time and Gordy as indefatigable and creative as ever, this fresh gloss on Detroit may give the city the sunny disposition that lit the way “back in the day.” Yes, Detroit lives, at least in New York City.