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Detroit Rock City

The local legends who defined the sound of the city

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When the late Rob Tyner of the MC5 implored his listeners to "kick out the jams!," he was barking on behalf of all the great rock & roll musicians yet to come from his hometown. In Detroit, they've been turning out an assembly line of ass-kickers with guitars since the heyday of the Studebaker. The fourth-largest city in the U.S. in the Fifties, known as the "Paris of the West" for its impressive architecture, Detroit began a long, excruciating decline to its present crisis. But for all its troubles – or maybe as a result of them – the city has never lost its rock & roll spirit. Here are the local legends who defined the sound of the city, from the postwar boogie of John Lee Hooker to the postmodern blues of the White Stripes.

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All credit to Detroit as an unparalleled music town begins, rightly so, with Motown, the little label songwriter Berry Gordy started in 1959 with $800 from his family and royalty money from "Lonely Teardrops," a big hit for "Mr. Excitement," Detroit native Jackie Wilson. Motown, of course, launched an entire youth movement with hits by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Four Tops, the Temptations, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and many others. Meanwhile, beyond Gordy's label, the city turned out other stars of soul and R&B, including Little Willie John, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, local doo-wop legends Nolan Strong and the Diablos and the great Aretha Franklin, whose father, the Rev. C. L. Franklin, was a well-known gospel-singing Baptist preacher.


Before soul, there was the blues. And like so many of his contemporaries, Mississippi native John Lee Hooker migrated north during the postwar period to take advantage of ample job opportunities in industrial cities. Hooker was working for Ford when his first hit, 1948's "Boogie Chillen'," established his name as one of the great electric bluesmen.

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Hard Rock

Detroit's reputation as a rock & roll city took hold with national hits by the garage-rock band Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. By the end of 1960s, the city had launched guitar-crazed rockers including Bob Seger, Ted Nugent (with the darkly psychedelic Amboy Dukes) and Alice Cooper, led by an entrepreneurial Detroiter named Vincent Furnier, who used his ghoulish theatricality (and Frank Zappa's support) to create one of the first "shock rock" careers.

In the early Seventies, Flint's Grand Funk Railroad ("We're an American Band") were one of the biggest acts in the world, and a few years later, a little-known Detroit belter calling himself Meat Loaf joined the cast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and sang lead on several songs on Nugent's Free-for-All album, setting himself up for his 1977 blockbuster Bat Out of Hell.

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Roots of Punk

Some of Detroit's hardest-rocking bands were so flinty and raw, they have since been identified as critical precursors to punk. Radicalized by the "White Panther" leader John Sinclair, the MC5's disdain for record industry politics led to their quick demise after a very promising beginning. Meanwhile, a trailer-park kid named James Osterberg recreated himself from a blues-loving drummer into a wildly charismatic frontman called Iggy Pop, after being transfixed by Jim Morrison at a Doors concert at the University of Michigan in 1967. Some claim Iggy performed the first stage dive during a Stooges concert in Detroit. Another group, Death, can also lay claim to punk trailblazing, as witnessed in the recent documentary A Band Called Death.

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Funk & Dance

George Clinton might have been a little eccentric to be a staff writer for Motown, where Berry Gordy put his female singers through finishing school to appeal to the broadest possible mainstream audience. "(I Wanna) Testify," Clinton's 1967 hit with a vocal group called the Parliaments, set the future fright-wig aficionado on the path that would lead to his two-headed monster, Parliament-Funkadelic, becoming one of the major driving forces in funk. In later years, Detroit's freaky tastes helped the "Belleville Three" – Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson – launch the electronic funk mashup known as techno.

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Power Pop

Early Seventies Detroit band Sky were successful enough to have two major-label albums produced by Jimmy Miller, when he was also in the midst of his great four-album run with the Rolling Stones. Sky's disappointing end prompted frontman Doug Fieger to move to L.A. to regroup, where he formed a power-pop band that blew up so fast in 1979, the hype drew comparisons to Beatlemania. That band was the Knack. Other Detroiters who worshipped at the altar of the Beatles: Marshall Crenshaw and the Romantics.

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After emerging in the late Nineties as the prankish chameleon of hip-hop, Marshall Mathers paid serious tribute to the rap battle scene that spawned his career in the feature film 8 Mile. Eminem's rap superstardom stands in sharp contrast to the cult stardom of J Dilla, the stage name of the late James Yancey, whose eccentric crate-digging production for A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Common and others made him nearly as influential in the sound of latter-day hip-hop. 

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After taking up breakdancing at a young age, a suburbanite named Bob Ritchie was one of the city's biggest names on the underground rap scene when he appeared on the Insane Clown Posse's debut LP in 1992. Kid Rock, as Ritchie is now known, later aligned himself with Detroit's meat-and-potatoes rock heritage by befriending Bob Seger, whom he inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.

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