Black Bottom Saints by Alice Randall
HarperCollins (ISBN 978-0-06-296862-3)
Black Bottom Saints, a retelling of the glory days of Detroit, is a step back to when Motor City – and Motown – were not just household words but the powerhouses of the nation’s auto and music industries.
Detroit-born author Alice Randall, author of Rebel Yell and the smash country hit “An American Girl” recorded by Patricia Yearwood, presents a cast of characters – some famous and some not – who helped create Detroit’s golden age.
At the heart of the novel is Ziggy Johnson, based upon Joseph “Ziggy” Johnson who wrote articles for the Michigan Chronicle and founded the Ziggy Johnson School of the Theatre and who inspired Randall to become a writer. The fictional Johnson lies dying in the hospital as tells the stories – often heroic and always poignant – of the people who built Detroit. Randall also ends each chapter with a drink recipe honoring each Black Bottom Saint. Randall honors such luminaries as Robert Hayden, Joe Louis, Ethel Waters, Tallulah Bankhead, Martin Luther King Jr., Della Reese, Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr.
It wasn’t just the famous who created Detroit’s golden age, though.
“The factory folk – the breadwinners – drove the Black City. Black Detroit knew this. We gave the factory folk who worked in the automobile plants their proper respect. We loved those men who did that shift work that meant eight out of ten Black families in Detroit owned the home they lived in and could afford to go out to a club to hear live music any night they chose. Our breadwinners built this city. We remember when River Rouge ran twenty-four seven.”
However, that all started to change in the late sixties as told in the chapter on Ted Rhodes.
“It is 1968. Father’s Day is coming soon. And there will be a Youth Colossal with or without me. But it won’t be in Detroit. The Gathering has been blown up. Twelfth Street has been burned down. Paradise Valley has been forgotten. Idlewild has been fatally wounded by integration and television. One performance seen by millions eclipses live shows. Little German Beetles and Japanese Bluebirds are popping up all over the road. They do not need hundreds of thousands of us. We were needed in Detroit. This is not Detroit. Detroit is yesterday. Detroit is tomorrow. Detroit will come again.”
That ending note of resilience may well be prophetic. Detroit is rebuilding. Detroit is being rediscovered. It’s writers and artists like Ziggy – and Randall – who will lead Detroit’s next renaissance.
(Michael Tidemann writes from Estherville, Iowa. His author page is amazon.com/author/michaeltidemann.)
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