the museum of americana

a literary review

Roadwork — Nonfiction by Amanda Lewan

 

The road was a black paved sheet of music. Driving it was as smooth as the sound of soul music to Tony Green. He felt the bumps and crescendos from inside the old Chevy Impala, worn from years of use. The car was a gem when it was first purchased, a sign of success in the city of the automobile makers. Now it carried the music men who could hear the highway and feel the bass beat of the white dotted line. The music kept them going. It kept them moving forward to Hollywood.

Tony Green was leaving his home of Detroit. He’d already left his music gig of over twenty years, playing bass for The Dramatics.  He was born and raised in Motown, knew its soul and groove, and from an early age, learned the bass guitar he heard his stepfather play so often. His biological father was away in Vietnam and would call every week asking what he wanted as a gift. One day Tony had the courage to ask for a bass guitar. At fourteen, he knew what he could do with the instrument. Now Tony was much older and re-thinking what his music would mean to the world.

Next to him in the passenger seat was David Ruffin Jr., a young man in his twenties that Tony was now mentoring. He was hoping to land him a gig soon and become his manager. David was another boy of Motown lost in his own world of sound, trying to find his voice. Tony knew it, but he saw something special in him. When David asked him to join him in Hollywood, Tony didn’t think he had much to lose. The glory days of The Dramatics were over, too far to get back up again. Tony had to get out. He had to keep playing.

Some people are made of plastic. You know some people are made of wood

Some people have hearts of stone; Some people are up to no good.

What you see is what you get.

The first time Tony left Detroit he was a few months shy of eighteen. The Dramatics had heard him play at a club in the city and asked him to join his tour. Tony had to tell them awkwardly, that he needed permission from his mother. This wasn’t the first time Tony had been invited to travel and play. His mother had turned down another band the year before, but when Ron Banks and LJ Reynolds came by the house, she didn’t hesitate. “You ain’t doing nothing in school, so go,” she said to him.

The night before Tony left, his friends threw him a huge party. At seventeen, he was going to travel the world with The Dramatics, playing with real musicians all the time. Tony couldn’t wait, but he would have to wait a little longer. The party ended and Tony fell asleep on his couch. When he woke a group of burglars had broken in. They shouted at him and forced him to hold a pillow over his face; they forced him to lay still while they pillaged the home. When they found his guitar, Tony couldn’t sit still any longer. He jumped and shouted, and the burglars agreed to leave him his bass guitar.

Now Tony was driving across the country, to where the plains stretched out in bellows of brown and green. They only had one tape, and it played a new sound over and over, a bass and a beat, and words that went along with it. It sounded like a type of poetry, but it was a new sound Tony wasn’t too sure of.  The album was called The Chronic by Dr. Dre, and the beats were slow and steady, creating what was known as “G- funk.” Tony thought the sound was funky and he was starting to like it.

You never been on a ride like this befo’ with a producer who can rap and control the maestro.

Tony drifted back to the sound of the Motown stage he loved. He saw himself stepping out with his bass guitar for the first time with The Dramatics. His first gig was in Oakland, California. At that time he’d only played for small groups of one hundred or so, but this crowd surpassed 8,000 attendees on just the first night. The band started playing and the stage began moving. Tony was frozen by this movement. He hadn’t expected the stage to actually move. He quit playing for three minutes before he shook away his fright and began to play. They started with the classic hit, “What You See is What You Get.” Tony knew it by heart and the show went on.

After seventeen hours of driving and listening to the Chronic, Tony was beginning to visualize this music too. It bumped and had a bit of a twang, but the fast-moving words reminded Tony of a different kind of funk that he liked. He didn’t know where they were really going now as this music played on. He didn’t know where he was going at all. The Dramatics had gone too far into drugs, and split. They had told Tony he’d regret leaving the group. Tony didn’t want to feel regret. He didn’t want to feel the pull of fear in this new direction, but he had to go on.

They arrived in Arizona with a blast of heat and bit of trouble. The Impala broke down in the desert and the two were stuck waiting for a friend from California to pick them up. Hollywood was on the horizon, but Arizona gutted them, stalled them from moving forward.

 

~

 

Tony and David sat with their friend Dion at her apartment in Hollywood. It was late. They’d arrived earlier that week to the city. Dion and David had already poured a few drinks and were ready to head out to the clubs.

“Come on out Tony. You’ve got to get out and see Hollywood,” Dion playfully said.

“I’ve been here before. I’ve seen it all before.”

“Come one, we need to get out there. There’s a great show tonight at one of the clubs,” David said. “You’re missing the music here man.”

They poured him another drink. Tony wasn’t much of a drinker, but he sipped and he listened. He’d felt down the entire ride from Detroit to California. He’d been down for too long. He thought about the words The Dramatics said to him when he quit to manage David: “You’ll be crawling back.” He imagined himself on the floor drunk and crawling back, all the way through Arizona and the plains back to Detroit. The fear of failure curled inside of his stomach. Later, at the club, the three stood in line together outside. Dion in a short bright dress and heels leading the way. The sound of music coming from inside soothed Tony.

Inside, it was loud and crowded. It felt good to be out again. Across the room David spotted a familiar face. Warren Griffin also known as Warren G. was with another artist Snoop Dogg, and the group met and mingled. It wasn’t long until Warren G mentioned that his friend, Dr. Dre, was in need of a bass player. Tony had been familiar with the new music, but he knew the album already from their drive, and he knew he could play it. They agreed to meet and for Tony to try out for the role.

A week went by and at eight a.m. on Monday morning they arrived at the studio, Village Recording. Tony started playing for the rappers and once he started, he couldn’t stop. He played about twenty songs in a row for them. He was offered the job on the spot to play for the hip hop crew in California. He was happy to keep on playing his bass guitar.

“I can start you off of seven hundred a week,” said Dre.

“Seven hundred a week. Doing what?”

“All you’re doing is putting bass lines to my beats,” said Dre.

Tony was thrilled. “This is David Ruffin Jr. He’s a singer,” he said, vouching for his friend.

“I don’t need a singer,” said Dre.

“This is David Ruffin Jr. He can cut the grass,” said Tony.

  “I see. You just want your boy. I can start him off too,” said Dre. Tony played on more than two hundred hip-hop and rap songs, between Dre, Snoop Dogg, and others in the new sound of funk Tony was starting to love.

 

~   

 

But Baby, I’m for real. I’m as real as real can get. Said if what you’re looking for is real loving. Then what you see is what you get.

Every day on his way to the studio Snoop would pull up playing The Dramatics in his car. Tony hadn’t shared much of the details of his history in Motown to his new crew. One day, they asked him if he’d ever heard of The Dramatics. Tony was put on the spot. He couldn’t lie to his new team, so he confessed that he had played for them many times before. He grabbed the cover from Snoop Dogg and pointed out his name in the credits.

“I didn’t want you to judge me solely on the past,” he said.

But Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre were thrilled. This new discovery led to a compilation, a remix of a Snoop Dogg’s work mixed with the beats of the Motown sound. Tony was surprised when he returned to visit home to see people riding around in their cars, windows down, the bass beating loudly as if a signal they were alive. As cars crept through the neighborhoods of Detroit,  they’d played the sound of old and new beats together.

But we got something old, and something new for y’all tonight.

“The whole West Coast sound is really the whole Motown sound infused with mood synthesizer. The bass is Motown,” said Tony Green. “The bass is always Motown.”

Tony worked for Dre from 1993-1996, when this period of funk came to an end. Dre was having financial problems and Tony and David were laid off from their jobs. Tony went back to Detroit, but  never stopped playing bass. In 1971, he came up with the name Roadwork, a name he played under from time to time. In 2005, he brought the name back for the music he makes to this day in his hometown of Detroit. He plays steadily, knowing that no matter the trends the bass beat is where he belongs.

“Sooner or later, something will break out again,” said Tony.

I mean what you see is what you get, now baby.

And the real thing is the best thing yet.

 

~  ~  ~

Amanda LewanAmanda Lewan is a writer based in Detroit. She is founder and editor of the online publication Michipreneur.com. Her creative work has been featured in The Nation, About Place Journal, Niche Literary Review and more. This essay is a part of a forthcoming collection of Detroit stories on reinvention. Follow her work at www.amandalewan.com.