Detroit soul music goes way beyond Motown | Michigan Radio
WUOMFM

Detroit soul music goes way beyond Motown

Feb 27, 2020

  

When you think of Detroit music in the 1960s, chances are the first thing that comes to mind is Motown Records. The iconic label produced some of that era's biggest hits.  But Detroit was full of plenty of other artists outside of the Motown label who were also deeply shaping the city's sound.  

Melvin Davis is one of those artists. He’s a soul singer known around the city as the “Detroit Soul Ambassador." His single “Find A Quiet Place (And Be Lonely)” is currently retailing for around $1,800 because it’s so rare to find a clean original pressing.

Davis got his start during a time when the music scene in Detroit was exploding. Motown was gaining huge amounts of interest, and the city was full of talented musicians. It was this rich and competitive landscape, Davis said, that made Detroit “so dynamic.” Another “ingredient” that impacted the sound of music in Detroit was the city itself.

“Opportunity was everywhere," Davis said. "And I think that was caused by other ingredients, like the fact that there was the auto industry, there was upward movement for all types of people… and they had the money to go out and support these different clubs and bars and situations.” 

Dan Austin is a DJ for "Motor City Soul Club," which hosts nights at bars where DJs play soul and funk music from Detroit artists.
Credit Dan Austin

Melvin Davis’ cohort of Motown-adjacent artists includes powerhouses like Aretha Franklin and Jackie Wilson. While many people associate Franklin with Motown, she was never part of the Motown Records lineup. There were other acts like Nolan Strong and the Diablos that created music with the classic Detroit soul sound, but never enjoyed the success seen by some Motown artists. The musical legacy of that era in Detroit's history also goes beyond soul, said DJ Dan Austin.

“It’s not just soul music, obviously there’s Motown," said Austin. "But you know Melvin is one of hundreds of artists from Detroit in the 1960s who put out music every bit as good as what was coming out of Hitsville Studios. They just didn’t sell as many copies.”

Austin is a history buff, DJ, and host of “Motor City Soul Club,” a group of DJs who spin Detroit soul and funk music.

The legacy of the Detroit music scene in the 1960s still colors the city today. There are artists from that era, like Melvin Davis, who still live in Detroit and perform, said Austin. Davis said that he hopes people open their eyes to the history and current talent in front of them. Austin wants to use his platform to do just that. 

“For me, it’s always been this push to get Detroiters and Michiganders to appreciate what it is we export to the rest of the world. And I feel like people here don’t really get it. It is such an honor to have people like Melvin, who are still performing right here in our own backyards.”