Long before Wal-Mart or Target, there was the Woolworth store, also known as a five and dime. It was in our local shopping center, and sold all kinds of cheap stuff. They had a lunch counter, but because I was rather young during the days of Woolworth’s, I rarely had money to spend eating. I went to Woolworth’s for one thing and one thing only — their 3 for a dollar 45 RPM record bin.
On Wednesdays in the summer, and on select Saturdays during the school year, my friends and I would get a ride to Great Northern Shopping Center for a four hour excursion. This was long before the mall was built there. Our first stop was always Woolworth’s — that place that singer Nanci Griffith describes as having the “wonderful smell of popcorn and bubblegum smeared around on the bottom of a leather soled shoe.” I would walk in and take the first right. And there in the four column discount record bin I would look for one thing. This label:
My goal was always to find the top three records I wanted the most. I rarely had more than a dollar to spend. These records were already off the hit parade, but they were within my price range. Yes, I did buy other labels, but first and foremost I looked for Motown.
Motown was my main music from the ages of 10 to 15. I liked other acts — yes, at one point I had a serious crush on Bobby Sherman. And I loved the Monkees, of course. Those acts came and went. This music, The Four Tops, The Supremes, and the Temptations, went along with the Beatles hits and Simon and Garfunkel and Bob Dylan that were popular at the time. It was forever music.
And forget the Beatles vs. Stones debate. It could get just as heated when arguing who was better: The Temptations or the Four Tops.
But something happened — well, lots of things, really. First, black music started to address heavy duty social issues. We went from my all time favorite song by the Tempts, “I Can’t Get Next to You” and the new and sparkling take-it-all-to-the-next-level Jackson Five singing “ABC,” to darker tunes like “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” and “Freddy’s Dead.” I couldn’t relate. (For the record, Jackson Five bypassed this phase and went right to disco and more adult R & B).
Motown was black music packaged for white kids. I know that now. It had to change. The African American music community had things they were working out within themselves. I recently read quite a bit about it in the excellent book I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway. This was happening at the beginning of the 1970’s, and Hip-Hop was soon to be born in the Bronx and live and grow to what it is today.
But even in the music business, voids are filled. At the same time Motown was altering its message, I discovered the likes of James Taylor and David Bowie and Carole King and Joni Mitchell. White people’s music was changing, too, and in ways that were safe for little old suburban me. Plus, I started buying record albums, and no longer purchased 45’s anyway. Motown was left behind. And just before the Beatles broke up, it was big news when Diana Ross decided to leave the Supremes to go solo. Not just big news — it was HUGE!
My young music life revolved around that blue label and the acts performing on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was the roots and the tree of what I thought music could be. When we recently saw Smokey Robinson, he spoke fondly of the early days of Motown. I know for sure the family environment and the creativity of those times stretched from Detroit to this girl in Cleveland, spinning records endlessly in her bedroom and singing along to every word.
(I tried, but I couldn’t choose just one.)