Westbound Records: The Sounds Of Detroit

Detroit in the late 1960s was a hotbed of talent, from the rock groups playing the Grande Ballroom to the soul talent vying for a deal with Motown, to numerous jazz groups at lounges all over town. But when Motown left for California in 1971, that talent was left with nowhere to record. But another label, Westbound Records, stuck around. In its eccentric way, it did its best to document black music as it changed in Detroit.

Armen Boladian was driving westbound on 8 Mile Road one day in 1968 when the name came to him. Ever since he'd been a high-school student, he'd been making records, but now he was going to get serious and keep a label going, and Westbound just felt right.

Funkadelic was the band behind the Parliaments, a vocal group signed to Revilot, a label that was in severe financial trouble. The Parliaments' leader, George Clinton, was restless. The songs he'd been selling to Motown didn't get cut, and he had ideas he wanted to record. So he signed Funkadelic to Boladian, and sure enough, in time they had a hit.

"I Bet You" was only a Top 20 soul hit, but it was so unlike the other music coming out of Detroit that it attracted the right people: Funkadelic wouldn't be a hit-making machine for another 10 years, but meanwhile, its albums on Westbound were staples in the dorm rooms of hip black college students.

One thing Boladian knew was that radio people could help you find a hit, and he was lucky to have a good working relationship with Martha Jean "The Queen" Steinberg, program director of CKLW in Windsor, Ontario, across the river from Detroit. Steinberg was from a distinguished black Memphis music family — her brother Lewis had been Booker T and the MGs' first bassist — and in 1971, she told Boladian that Willie Mitchell, a Memphis bandleader, was becoming a producer and needed a label. One listen to the master Mitchell was trying to sell convinced him, and Denise LaSalle gave Westbound its first No. 1 record.

The record made Willie Mitchell enough money for him to get to work in the studio with a young singer he'd discovered named Al Green.

The Next Big Thing

Westbound was smart to look out of town for talent; it was something few regional labels did. Dayton, Ohio, isn't far from Detroit, but far enough that the Ohio Untouchables, a band based there, knew they were being overlooked. Changing their name to the Ohio Players, they mixed blues, gospel and a new kind of music being championed by Sly Stone and James Brown called funk. Westbound knew about funk, and signed the band.

"Pain" wasn't a huge hit, and the Players' biggest success would come later on Mercury, but once again, Westbound showed its experimental bent.

The biggest innovation for the label caught it by surprise. The Detroit Emeralds were a standard three-piece vocal group with a decent track record for the label, when they released "Feel the Need" in 1972.

It didn't get a lot of airplay, but it suddenly started selling like crazy, particularly in Boston, where it had caught fire in a new institution: gay discotheques. A producer named Tom Moulton had done an unauthorized remix, extending the song's length, and now Westbound found itself in the disco business, with hits by Dennis Coffey and CJ & Co. following over the years.

More Surprises

One of the most remarkable records Westbound issued in the mid-'70s was a failure, but not because of its quality. "Alvin Stone" by the Fantastic Four was nothing more or less than a rock opera crammed into 6 minutes and 46 seconds, telling of the rise and fall of a black gangster. It was way ahead of its time, and makes fascinating listening today.

Besides disco, another thing that had kept Westbound afloat was gospel music, and that's where it found its last national hit in 1983.

The Clark Sisters were part of a Detroit gospel family that went back to the 1930s, and the danceable rhythm of "You Brought the Sunshine" made it a huge club hit. Times had certainly changed since that drive down 8 Mile, and Boladian pulled back from the national scene, content to record gospel and license reissues of his back catalog, which he continues to do today.

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