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Local Music

Motor City satisfaction

What community spirit, Democracy Now and the Grande Ballroom are to superstar producer Don Was

Don Was: "Detroit shall prevail!"
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Published 7/15/2009

We originally planned to just do a sidebar on Don Was, who is once again presenting his Detroit Super Session at this year's Concert of Colors. After all, we did a lengthy feature on the world-renowned producer and musician before last year's show. But as you can see below, the guy has done so much in the past several months that more than a sidebar was required, especially since most of the recent activity is so Detroit-centric. He, in fact, remains one of the greatest international musical ambassadors from this fair city that Detroit has ever seen.


Metro Times:
So this is the second year of the Don Was Detroit Super Session revue at the Concert of Colors. Do you plan to make this an annual event?

Don Was: I plan on doing it every year for the rest of my life! And if the popularity of the event eventually wanes, we'll just stage it in [Concert of Colors founder] Ismael Ahmed's living room. Ish and I have a great time putting the show together. We called each other up in April and made a list of Detroit musicians we dig. And the list is long enough that we could go another decade without repeating any artists. It's not hyperbolic to say that this is the best music town in the world! Every person in the Detroit area should be really proud of that fact.

MT: You seem to get as big of a kick out of this as the audience does.

Was: Last year's concert was one of the best nights of my life. It was such an honor to be onstage with Mitch Ryder and John Sinclair. Such a gas to play bass with the Detroit Cobras and the Muldoons. I got all choked up when Faruq Z. Bey got that five-minute standing ovation. Even now, it's emotional just talking about it. Orchestra Hall was filled with folks whose lives might've been shaped at the Grande Ballroom or the Belle Isle Love-in. We've never stopped digging music, never stopped appreciating these local artists. And here was such a warm connection between the musicians and the audience. And this year's show is gonna be at least as powerful — Question Mark, Scott Morgan, Sir Mack Rice and the first Detroit appearance by Teegarden & Vanwinkle in 30 years! It's 11 great artists spanning 45 years of Detroit music history, performing one song each, back-to-back. I mean, c'mon!

MT: The video you recently made with Iranian pop star Andy Madadian doing "Stand By Me" to show solidarity with the Iranian people was incredible as well as very moving. What was the genesis of that? It was similar to the project you did last summer in Detroit with the Middle Eastern musicians. Do you believe that music can still bring people together and even change the world? And how did the Bon Jovi guys get involved?

Was: I was driving around, listening to Democracy Now on the local lefty station. Amy Goodman was talking about how the movement in Iran is not about overthrowing the government — it's a civil rights movement and a youth movement. Being a musician, my first thought was that these kids need a marching song! Anyone who was around in the '60s remembers the impact of songs like "We Shall Overcome," "Blowin' in the Wind" or "Give Peace a Chance." Music really can change the world; it has tremendous healing powers and a magical way of transcending the issues that drive people apart. So I called up Andy — who is, arguably, the most popular Iranian pop singer in the world — and asked if he'd be interested in recording such a track. We met at the studio later that day and, as fate would have it, Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora and their producer, John Shanks, were working next door. They're old friends of mine and, when we explained what we were gonna do, they volunteered to help out.

Three hours later, we had a finished record. The next night, we posted the video on my site at mydamnchannel.com and on YouTube. Eight hours later, it was on CNN; a few hours after that, the BBC Persian language television and Voice of America started broadcasting it into Iran. We've had over a million hits for the video online. Three days after recording the song, our mission was accomplished and, based on the response we've gotten, the message of solidarity was profoundly appreciated. That's it — we're not selling or promoting anything. We didn't press any CDs. It blows me away that you can get a message out to the whole world with such immediacy.

Y'know, I produced a Richie Sambora album about 10 years ago and even went on tour with him playing bass for a while. He's my brother! There's a bond between people from Detroit and people from Jersey. The first time I met those guys, I felt like we'd all gone to high school together. And participating in that "Stand by Me" recording was a pure act of altruism on their part. I've got tremendous respect for those cats.

MT: Tell us how your upcoming Sirius Radio Outlaw show came to be and the various interesting guest teams you recently put together here.

Was: One day, the guys from the Outlaw Country channel at Sirius XM Satellite Radio called me up and asked if I'd be interested in doing a weekly music program — presumably because they play a lot of the records I've produced. As it turns out, I've always wanted to do something like the show that Nat Morris used to do on WGPR-FM in the early '70s. Every afternoon, he'd broadcast live from the showroom of Quality Discount Furniture on Seven Mile and Gratiot. You could just walk in and dedicate a song to the kids in your high school. Musicians like Ron Banks and the Dramatics would drop by to plug their record. It had a real community feel. So we created a show for Sirius based around that premise,

It's a combination of Detroit civic pride and "outlaw" country music called the Motor City Hayride and it's intended to send a message to the world that Detroit is still jumpin'. We spin cool records and interview local people who are keeping this city interesting and vibrant. Kim Silarski, who produces the show, has done an incredible job of lining up guests and locations. Our first show was recorded in Campus Martius park with — who else? — Nat Morris! We've done a show with Ron Gettelfinger in the lobby of Solidarity House, Ken Cockrel Jr. at a bar near the Fisher Building, Mitch Ryder and Geoff Fieger on Bagley outside of a Tigers game. Nate Robertson in the Tigers dugout during batting practice. The interviews are fun. Plus, it's the only radio show on earth where Iggy Pop segues seamlessly into Conway Twitty! By the way, you were an articulate and erudite interviewee, Bill! Thanks for being on the show.

MT: You're obviously loyal to Detroit. Some stars have turned their backs on this city. Why do you remain so dedicated to the people and especially the city's music? Do you think Detroit can make a comeback? And do you plan to take [Detroit City Council President] Ken Cockrel up on his recent offer to you to turn one of Detroit's old abandoned buildings into a studio?

Was: I love Detroit. Plain and simple. It's my favorite place in the world. I live in L.A. but don't feel a part of any community there. I'm not really certain that there is a community there! By nature, we're all tribal creatures and I belong to the tribe of Detroit. The Concert of Colors and the Motor City Hayride help keep me connected and I've been trying to spend more and more time here.

And we are gonna take Kenny Cockrel up on his offer of a building! [Grammy Award-winning recording engineer and musician] Steve King and I have plans to open the People's Recording Studio — where anyone with a song can walk in and record for free. Maybe we can train some engineers and producers too. It's gonna take some maneuvering, some benefactors and a lot of community spirit to do it right. But that's the way this city will get back on its feet. Small entrepreneurs with big dreams and community spirit. Detroit's got more spirit than any place in America. We shall prevail!


Don Was' Detroit Super Session 2 takes place at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, July 18, on the Meijer Main Stage. With Sir Mack Rice, Amp Fiddler, Scott Morgan's Powertrane, Question Mark, Teegarden & Van Winkle, Blanche, Thornetta Davis, Gorevette, the Go, the Upscale, the Layabouts and Mick Bassett.

Bill Holdship is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to mailto:letters@metrotimes.com.

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