Detroit’s musical rebellion theme of revue led by Don Was
DETROIT — When days of deadly rioting broke out in Detroit a half-century ago, Don Was lived on the city’s outskirts, about to turn 16. He’d already been turned on to the power of protest music, but the unrest that enveloped 25 city blocks and claimed 43 lives was another turning point altogether.
“I just remember that as a moment where you could no longer ignore the injustice and the anger that was behind that,” said 64-year-old Was, a veteran musician, producer and president of Blue Note Records. “Things were just in your face — you couldn’t just go about your business anymore.”
Was brings those realities into leading the 10th Detroit All-Star Revue on July 15 at Orchestra Hall. The concert is part of the 25th Concert of Colors — a free, multi-day festival celebrating the musical and ethnic diversity of the city. This year’s revue sets out to commemorate Detroit’s history of musical rebellion on the eve of the riot’s 50th anniversary. For about a week in July 1967, city was convulsed in violence that began when police arrested black patrons at an after-hours bar.
The revue includes alumni of Motown Records and serves as a reunion for Was’ band, Was (Not Was). He said the theme of rebellion is “really broad.”
“In the most general sense, it represents any kind of dissent from the status quo, from convention,” he said by phone from his home in southern California. “It’s an attempt to improve your own life or the lives of many people. …Wherever there is a culture of rebellion, there is great music to go along with it.”
Music that’s important to him — and likely working its way into the set — includes “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield, “Respect Yourself” by the Staple Singers, “Everyday People” by Sly and the Family Stone and “The Motor City Is Burning,” recorded by legendary bluesman and Detroiter John Lee Hooker a couple months after the riots, and covered a year later by Michigan-based punk pioneers MC5.
Was, a Grammy-winning producer behind songs for the Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop, Ringo Starr, Bonnie Raitt and most recently, the late Gregg Allman, said Detroit long has been a hotbed for rebellious music of many genres by virtue of its industrial ethic — from Hooker cutting records while working on the auto assembly line to the sonic “fireball behind the MC5.”
“There’s a brand of music that comes out of Detroit — a little raw, aggressive — I think that’s political,” said Was.
“Detroit being a working-class town meant that people were working hard, not necessarily at jobs that they were dying to do but jobs that could keep a family at a minimal level of survival. … It’s a harsher reality than some other places.”