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Inside the push for an R&B Hall of Fame in Detroit

Music aficionados and archivists say the need is here, but support is hard to come by

Norman Thrasher might not be a household name, but his biography is worth an evening of Googling and YouTube videos. Seventy-five years ago next year, more than six years before the release of the first Tamla-Motown Record, Thrasher graduated from singing on street corners to cutting a record as part of The Serenaders for Joe Von Battle’s Paradise Valley record label J-V-B. Other groups followed, including the Royal Jokers who recorded for local Fortune Records and The Midnighters who recorded for regional powerhouse King Records in Cincinnati who recorded the original version of “The Twist” in 1958.

Thanks to R&B Hall of Fame and Museum crusader Lamont Robinson, Thrasher is sitting across from me at Cass Corridor’s Avalon International Breads on a Monday afternoon. He is a sharply dressed man, calmly reading the newspaper, who can claim to have taught Chubby Checker—and therefore my white Port Huron-born parents—how to move their hips to rock ‘n’ roll.

Robinson, a basketball player and entrepreneur, has brought Thrasher along as a character witness to attest to his struggle to create an R&B hall in Detroit.

What started out as a way of dealing with Robinson’s childhood love of music and his own expanding R&B memorabilia collection in Cleveland, where he grew up, has now turned into an annual award show and museum concept that, as of today, declares in its logo that it resides in “Detroit, Michigan.” But a recent rally for the museum at Bert’s Marketplace has been canceled – and Robinson is clearly frustrated, as he tells me what he perceives is a lack of financial support from the local business community and City of Detroit.

“Detroit breathed it into life,” he says. But now he and his president, Cheryl Ruffin, daughter of the late Temptation who joins us during the interview, are considering offers from other cities.

Thrasher, peering over his newspaper, affirms Robinson’s reading of the situation: “Fattening frogs for snakes.” This bit of vernacular wisdom is all too prescient. Detroit was a key maker of the moves, sounds and politics of R&B – but other cities, it seems, may reap the rewards of tourism.

Despite a recent announcement of the proposed $50 million dollar expansion of the Motown Museum, Detroit has an acute deficiency of spaces to honor its musical legacies – especially R&B, which was central in providing a firmament to Berry Gordy’s imagination and talent to Motown. Yet the Motown legacy, both real and imagined, continues to suck the air out of the room.

But it shouldn’t. Dan Austin, a spokesman for the R&B Hall (as well as DJ, preservationist and, until recently, deputy communications officer for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan), made a compelling case to me via email: “For those who say ‘Detroit already has Hitsville, so it doesn’t need a larger hall of fame to honor all of R&B music,’ I’d say there is most certainly room for both. If the Baseball Hall of Fame said it wanted to locate in Detroit, would we say no because we already have a Tigers Hall of Fame here? An R&B hall could help the Motown Museum by bringing in more tourists who want to see them both.”

Singer Melvin Davis, whose musical resume is, like Thrasher’s, stunning, puts it more succinctly. “The war is over. Motown won. However, the R&B Hall of Fame is a great opportunity to shine a light on the complete history of rhythm and blues. There were so many ingredients to make Motown and Detroit what it was. This legacy should not be diminished by Motown’s superior accomplishments.”

Emails and a phone call to Motown Museum chairwoman Robin Terry asking if the museum’s expansion might include other legacies beyond Motown recording artists were not returned for this story. But even if Motown did embrace some of those legacies – like Jackie Wilson, who was seminal to Gordy’s early songwriting career, or United Sound Systems, where the first Tamla singles were cut – there would still be social justice work to do.

In just five years, the group that I founded and currently lead as executive director, the Detroit Sound Conservancy, has found intense gaps and needs in preserving the legacies of various genres of Detroit music, from the remnants of the Graystone International Jazz Museum and Hall of Fame in the vacant Book Tower last year, to Club Heaven’s Sound System laying dormant in a west side basement this year. One R&B hall will not provide reparations for all of the artists who laid the groundwork for contemporary pop music along the “Chitlin’ Circuit” after World War II but who more often than not struggle to shore up their legacies and survive. But not taking the opportunity to create a place in Detroit that nods to the likes of Thrasher or Davis – while they are both still alive, it should be noted – should set off a red flag.

After expressing his frustrations for about an hour, and insisting that he wants to make a decision by the end of this year, Robinson looks me in the eye as if to make sure I don’t get the wrong idea about Detroit, the city he now lives in with Ruffin as his fiancée. “My heart is in Detroit. But I’m leaning towards Philly. That said, I’ll always have a ‘satellite (museum)’ here in Detroit.” Already, Robinson has about 30 pieces at Bert’s Marketplace.

I appreciate the sentiment, but Detroit cannot allow itself to be a satellite. If Robinson concludes that the conditions are not right, he may not be wrong. But they never have been, and the forecast may not be getting better. It’s time to pool some resources, visions and activism – and stop fattening frogs for snakes. 

CARLETON S. GHOLZ, PH.D., IS THE FOUNDER AND EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE DETROIT SOUND CONSERVANCY AS WELL AS A WRITER AND DJ. 

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