We open the scene on a skinny little black kid (me), age 4, circa 1960. I used to lay on the floor directly in front of my parents’ stereo, my cheeks taking on the carpet pattern, listening for hours to my Dad’s jazz and big band albums. I loved the music so much that I wanted to jump into that console stereo. I learned to read some of my first words by staring at the album covers.
One album from those early days that I remember very well is Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song. I loved that album. But I had no idea that he was black. You see, in those days, black artists rarely graced the cover of their own albums. Black artists were invisible. The original pressing of that Nat King Cole album, now a perennial classic all these years later, had two white kids on the cover, staring up at a twinkling Christmas tree. I was rather shocked to find out years later that Nat King Cole was actually black.
Cut to a few years later. My little 7-year-old ears were starting to perk up at the sounds of the hip and soulful new Motown artists on the radio. A musical and cultural revolution was starting. I remember those early Motown hits, the Miracles Shop Around and Mary Wells’ My Guy. I can remember hearing Diana Ross and the Supremes (in the early days they were only the Supremes), Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and the Four Tops blaring from our neighbor’s houses. The first 45 I ever bought was I Heard it Through the Grapevine, not the more popular version by Marvin Gaye that everybody knows but the first version to be released, a more gritty and soulful take by Gladys Knight and the Pips (still the better version if you ask me).
Suddenly, Motown music was everywhere. The black community had music that we could claim as our own, soulful and full of great hooks, with that unmistakable pop sheen that Motown became famous for. Of course, everyone loved this music. White audiences (especially the kids) jumped on board with the Motown renaissance. The hits were fast and furious, one after another after another. And yes, the Motown artists appeared proudly and prominently on their album covers, a revolutionary thing in those days.
I have many warm Motown memories. I remember my sisters and me clearing out the living room furniture and cranking up the stereo to dance to the Temptations and Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder, our Mom grinning in the background. I remember my sisters, my Mom and I gathering around our one little black and white TV to watch Motown artists on the Ed Sullivan Show. This was incredible. Black folks were rarely on TV. So when Diana Ross and the Supremes (and the other Motown artists as well) started making frequent appearances on TV, their impossibly stylish, sparkling gowns dazzling us as much as their luscious harmonies, we were transfixed. My sister Denise and her friends Floy, Joy and Angela started a music group, having been influenced by Motown’s female artists. When the Jackson Five hit the airwaves, my sisters and I paid tribute by sporting matching Afros just like Michael and his brothers. And yes, I rocked bell-bottom pants and platform shoes as well!