This week’s Free Ride* muses on the songs of supreme diva and queen of Motown, Diana Ross, who turns 67 today. It is amazing to think of all that teenage genius that converged in motor city in the late 50s and early 60s, making music that would not only entertain but help break down racial barriers and change the world. Diana Ross was only 16 when she approached her old friend and neighbor, Smoky Robinson, about getting in on the ground floor of Berry Gordy’s new record label. Gordy initially turned down the audition, because she was underage, but she and her fellow singers essentially camped out in front of the Hitsville USA studio until they worked themselves into jobs, first as background singers and later as major artists.
Diana Ross came of age during the years of the freedom struggles, and she sang about freedom, both as a solo artist and with the Supremes. The freedom she sang about was in the realm of personal relationships, though, not civil rights. Perhaps the quintessential “freedom song” in this respect is You Keep Me Hanging On, the 8th number one hit for the Supremes:
You claim you still care for me
But your heart and soul needs to be free
Now that you’ve got your freedom
You wanna still hold on to me
You don’t want me for yourself
So let me find somebody else
Why don’t you be a man about it
And set me free
In a real way, it was this music, which spoke honestly about the difficult challenges of romance, that wound up serving the cause of civil rights, perhaps having an impact for good in ways that far exceeded the movement music. Smokey Robinson talked about touring the South in the early days of Motown, when all the towns were segregated. But as the music gained cross-over popularity, he went back to those same cities and found black and white kids listening to the music, dancing, and holding hands. The experiences described in the Motown lyrics, such as being trapped in a bad relationship, was something young folks of all backgrounds could identify with. It didn’t hurt, either, to have the Funk Brothers, the session players of Motown, creating yet another amazing and memorable set of danceable riffs behind the vocals.
Another sign of the cross-over power of the songs of Motown is in the number of covers you find from all sorts of artists. You Keep Me Hanging On is no exception. No sooner had the song topped the charts than you had a cover from a psychedelic rock group, Vanilla Fudge. Later you’d hear a country version (Reba McEntire), a blues version (Gov’t Mule), a British pop version (Kim Wilde), and many others. Happy birthday to the woman who first gave it voice.
*Free Ride is a Saturday blog from Stan Dotson that takes a different artist or song each week and muses on lyrics of freedom. You can click on the live links in the post to hear the music referenced in the blog. If you have a favorite “freedom” song (it could be any song that has the word free or freedom in it), feel free to suggest it in the comment box below. As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.