The Men of Motown

I grew up in an Italian-American family who lived by some hard and fast rules. Men were breadwinners, women the caretakers. You stayed with your own kind, pledged allegiance to them, and dared not break your promise. And then there was this rule, which held me in its grips for many years: Men don’t cry.

It’s not that Italian guys didn’t show any emotion. My dad never hesitated to complain about being treated unfairly at work. My uncles described the hardships of life during the Great Depression. One had such a sense of humor that I smile just thinking about him today. But I never saw a man in my family cry.

Growing up, I soon learned that this no-weeping-allowed rule also applied beyond my family. On TV and in movies tough guys outsmarted weaker men, and classy guys wooed the ladies. I got the message that it was okay to kill another man or make love to a woman, but you better not get caught crying in sadness or regret.

This ban on tears proved especially challenging in my tween and teen years, when I had a lot to cry about. I was trying to figure out why I didn’t act like other boys or pick fights on the playground. And why wasn’t I interested in chasing after pretty girls? I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone about this—especially the guys in my life— so my confusion grew, eventually turning into a depression. A good cry would have helped, but I knew that wasn’t what guys did. That is until I heard a much different message from an unexpected group of male role models: the men of Motown.

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Motown singers and groups were among my earliest musical influences. Their songs let me imagine myself “Dancin’ in the Streets” and the confusing world of romance almost sounded fun in “You Can’t Hurry Love.” I got to try out both “My Girl” and “My Guy” as I figured out who I wanted to date. And when all that grown up stuff got to be too much, Motown men showed me it was okay to cry, with my stereo sharing the news in recordings by the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, and the Temptations.  I also liked Little Stevie Wonder and even littler Michael Jackson, but it was the mature Motown guys who I looked up to. I could relate to their songs of sorrow.

So badly I wanna go outside
but everyone knows that a man ain't supposed to cry
Listen, I gotta cry 'cause crying eases the pain…

Those lyrics from “I Wish It Would Rain” might read like an over-the-top Hallmark card, but that’s where a song—and a singer—can make a difference. The lead vocal on that Temptations classic was David Ruffin, a gravelly voiced crooner who could squeeze emotion out of any string of words. Click here for a sample.

I ended up listening to David sing his misery a couple hundred times and somehow it made me feel better. It was true, I realized: No matter what the men in my world were trying to teach me, crying did ease my pain.

I got the same message from Levi Stubbs, lead vocalist of The Four Tops. You know you’re listening to a Four Tops song when Levi’s distinctive baritone starts wailing, sounding like he was born in the cavern of a man’s greatest grief. Here he is, at his achingly best, on “Ask the Lonely.”

 Just ask the lonely
they know the hurt and pain
of losing a love you can never regain…

Levi and David became my first examples of a different kind of man. They were joined by Smokey Robinson, who, at the other end of a vocal range, was exploring the mysteries of love. Smokey was at his best, I thought, when he used those upper notes to describe the height of his pain. I’m sure I wasn’t the only listener to think he’d written “The Tracks of My Tears,” just for me. Voted Class Clown in my senior year popularity poll, the words were bitterly true. Here’s Smokey on “The Tracks…”

People say I'm the life of the party
'cause I tell a joke or two.
Although I might be laughing loud and hearty
deep inside I'm blue.

So take a good look at my face.
You know my smile looks out of place.
If you look closer it's easy to trace
the tracks of my tears…

Throughout my adolescent years, in the privacy of my bedroom, I struggled with the difference between what I was seeing in my world and what I was feeling inside, and music was my constant soundtrack. Songs helped me figure out who I wanted to love. They showed me how to treat my fellow human beings. They set me on a journey to discover all that I can be. And part of who I am is my sensitivity to the world, which is sometimes expressed with tears. Thanks to the men of Motown, I now know crying is perfectly fine.


 What song is guaranteed to bring your tears?