Twirling the Dial: My Motown Memories

As a kid growing up in the 1960s, it was the most coveted accessory you could own. No, not a pair of fashionable Foster Grant sunglasses, or a slick chopper-style bicycle with plastic fringe on the handle bars and a leopard print banana seat (guilty as charged). For those of us in tune with the sounds of the genre-redefining decade, a transistor radio was the seminal social sidekick. We loved listening to that little mono wonder, its tiny shrill speaker sparking a hundred journeys directly into the center of our mind. In conjunction with a weekly trip down to Sears to pick up the latest must-own 45s (always stocked per Billboard‘s Top 40) and your parents’ permission to use the massive console stereo — complete with auto tone arm and “continuous play” spindle — a child had endless sonic opportunities to explore. But you had to have that wireless device first. I’ll never forget the joy upon receiving my first one.

Growing up in Chicago had its own unusual aural perks — the primary one being the gig-normous mobile hit parade known as WLS. With its ample supply of AM delights, every hour was a refresher course in the latest supersonic song stylings. There was the Beatles followed up by the Mamas and the Papas, a smidgen of the Strawberry Alarm Clock immediately buttressed up against a classic bit of Miss Aretha Franklin. In one hour you literally hear every significant pop culture cut imaginable. While it argued for its place as the vanguard of commercial music, WLS was just like any all powerful media outlet. It set the tone. It determined the buzz. If it loved an artist or particular group, you heard their latest release in endless, almost omnipresent rotation. If they didn’t like you, or failed to get enough audience response to your latest outing, a particular track could disappear faster than a freak flag at a Mayor Daley rally.

I was doubly lucky in that my father coached for the Monsters of the Midway themselves, the Chicago Bears. As a result, my household was an unusually racially integrated place, always mindful of what was happening on the city’s South Side. My father loved all aspects of black heritage, especially the food, and I’ll never forget the arguments he had with my mother over the proper way to cook a sweet potato pie (being from the South, she thought she was right…). With lonely players far from home taking up residence in our living room on a weekly basis, there was always diversity at the dinner table. And on one of those fateful visits, a particularly imposing lineman grabbed my trusty transistor, swung the dial directly past the megawatt WLS, and in a single signal conversion, forever changed my view of ’60s music.

Now I was no dummy. I had heard of Motown. Whenever the Supremes or the Four Tops made their way onto Ed Sullivan’s “really big” stage, I would scoot up toward the TV and watch in rapt pop-soul attention. If any other artists from Hitsville USA had a single in the Top 40, my paper sack from Sears would almost always contain their wax. But learning that there was an entire station dedicated to music like this completely blew my little Caucasian kid mind. As we sat there listening to the latest offering from Marvin Gaye or the Temptations, it was like a gap had been bridged in my upbringing. With my trusty felt marker, I placed a recognizable red mark over my new favorite station. That the name escapes my instant recall today is not some heresy on my part. It took a great deal of mental archeology and a trip through Google to remember WLS. Eventually, I discovered the other important call sign: WVON.

Junior Walker

Because of the communal feeling within the team, everybody appeared to respect each other’s taste. In the locker room, it was always a battle between LS and VON, with each side racking up significant wins. During those intense battle royales, each side would literally sing their favorite song to suggest the next turn of the dial. I was personally witness to several Hall of Fame names belting out off-key versions of Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Hide”, and most memorably, a high-pitch falsetto take on “The Tracks of My Tears”. Oddly enough, the one song that seemed to bring both sides together was the sensational Smokey Robinson and the Miracles number “The Tears of a Clown”. From the opening orchestral swirl to the fantastic backbeat, that particular tune, no matter the station playing it, got everyone up and dancing.

As time progressed and AM gave way to FM, my memories of WLS and WVON remained forever linked to the Motor City’s main musical export. Even today, when a classic Motown track comes up on my iPod or a satellite radio channel, I am instantly whisked back to a time when music knew no specific boundaries, when all parties could dance in the street and easily embrace the sounds coming out of a tinny PA style speaker in Soldier’s Field. Sure, it now seems horribly naïve, and knowing what I know today, there were hundreds of underlying issues involving the Bears that I had little or no experience with (they were the first team to integrate their rooming lists, using position, not ethnicity, as a means of making such a determination). But I will never forget the night I met up with the “real” sound of Chicago by way of Detroit. It turned my transistor radio from something I loved into an indispensible part of my life — and Motown has stayed there ever since.