Aretha Franklin once called Detroit “a city of music legends”, and Aretha Franklin was never wrong. From the techno explosion of the mid-1980s to its Motown past and even further back to its days as the favoured northern escape route for haggard blues players of the delta, music whisks around the city like the wispy steam the billows from the grids. Perhaps its most prominent modern son is the one and only Jack White, a man who can not only make a guitar weep but get it to kick up a fuss and apologise for making a scene.
The musical legacy of the city is glugged heavily into the welter of his sound. Although he may have said, “I know that’s blasphemous when you are from Detroit, but I was never a fan of Motown stuff. I don’t care for the production much,” but it’s a little further into the region’s past that he stretches, thanks to the dusty corner of the city’s record stores. “It was something I’d been missing my whole life. That music made me discard everything else and just get down to the soul and honesty of the blues. There aren’t that many things left that haven’t already been done, especially with music,” he once said.
In the 1920s, blues was bursting out of the delta like the national guitar was finally allowed to truly sing. The downside of this for the musicians of the south was that all the busking corners were full, and all the juke joints were already billed. Thus, along with many other southern denizens, a slew of blues players headed north to try and ply their trade elsewhere. With a lot of noise already brewing in the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighbourhoods of Detroit, the draw of the cosmopolitan city prove to be an alluring one.
Thus, in time, the city would go on to crown Mamie Smith the ‘Queen of the Blues’, it would welcome Ma Rainey and christen her the ‘Mother of the Blues’ and even champion its own underrated favourite Ida Cox as the ‘Uncrowned Queen of the Blues’. This penchant the city had for female blues singers represented the melodic sensibilities and winter warming tones that the region still enjoys today, not just the sneering devil men of the era.
Jack White continues to tap into this Detroit sound even in forthcoming releases, or perhaps in the true mystical sense of the city, it continues to tap into him. It is a city that breathes music and as Jack White would tell you himself, he huffs it down. With his Third Man Records Store on Canfield St surely already on your travel list, we’re following the path he has woven across its concrete songsheet so that you may follow in his Cuban heeled footsteps and explore the hotspots of one of America’s most musical cities.
Jack White’s Detroit:
As the blues legend Blind Blake once sang, “When I got to Detroit, Hastings Street was the best street in town.” It is an area of the city steeped in the pre-Motown history that White devours. The old street ran almost the full length of Black Bottom from north to south and in its heyday it more. Jazz joints and blues bars than the famed Bourbon Street of New Orleans.
Fuelled by the motor industry this spot was where many folks in the Great Migration carrying dogeared guitars flocked. John Lee Hooker was amongst them and his sound soon presided over the street like a booming voice of a numen. While places like the Henry Swing Club may well have fallen victim to the city’s dereliction, the Midtown and Milwaukee Junction region still has lingering blues echoes and like White, you can catch a whiff of the booming past in these haunts.
The Royal Oak District
When White was 15, he engaged in an upholstery apprenticeship but already his passion for music was coming to the fore. He even formed a band with his employer called the Upholsterers and began frequenting the bars, record shops and music venues in the bluesy Royal Oaks area.
It was in the heart of this neighbourhood that he stumbled into a now sadly defunct restaurant called Memphis Smoke and was fatefully served by Meg White. Thereafter, the Royal Oaks became his permanent haunt and with the Royal Oak Music Theatre literally a few blocks from Memphis Smoke the duo took in every show they could, and destiny seemed to usher them towards The White Stripes.
If Detroit sounds like a cold hard city high on the warming boon of music so far, then the tale of Trumbullplex will surely dispel that. After all, it was clear from the get-go that White was peddling a uniquely bohemian brand of country and blues. In fact, he even opined that when he first opened his own upholstery store the business was doomed to fail because he was just too damn bohemian, spending time and money etching hidden poetry into furniture and eating into profits with uncharged flourishes. Part of this ethos has to do with the rather more whimsical side of the city.
Take, for instance, Trumbullplex in the Woodbridge area of the inner city. The hotspot is a self-described anarchist housing collective and art space providing a low-cost living to artists. However, it even offers up short-term lodgings for arty travellers too. In a leafier area of the city, these century-old homes offer the sort of reverie where you can imagine songs like the beauteous ‘We Are Going to be Friends’ taking shape.
Ghetto Recorders Studio
In the heart of the city, off the iconic Park Avenue, in the shadow of the Grand Circus, The White Stripes absconded to a crumby basement studio and recorded their debut record. Every review thereafter contained the phrase “that raw Detroit sound” and it proved so successful that they returned for their second album.
Sadly, the studio itself was demolished in 2017. However, as ever, the beleaguered city forever refuses to give up the ghost despite being beset by economic hardship and in the surrounding areas blues and rock joints are plentiful. Cliff Bell’s Jazz Club and Rusted Crow are both within shouting distance of the old studio and offer up a glimpse into the music past, which in White’s pantheon is revitalised into the present.