Soul Music Gave Me Surrogate Fathers — Then Helped Me to Know My Own
Growing up, old-school soul connected me to who I thought my father was; years later, it connected me to the man himself
I used to think my father looked like Marvin Gaye. I’m talking about the Marvin of the ’70s, the What’s Going On/Trouble Man Marvin, the “I come up hard, baby, but now I’m cool / I didn’t make it, sugar, playin’ by the rules” Marvin. The denim-on-denim Marvin, with the two-month-old beard, the heavy-lidded eyes, and the devil-may-care grin. I used to study Marvin’s album covers while listening to his records in my bedroom, and I’d flip out over how much he and my old man looked alike. I was probably a little generous in my estimation. But if you’re a young, Brown boy whose father isn’t often around, older Black men — especially handsome and talented ones — tend to wield great power over your imagination.
I was born 40 miles west of Detroit, the birthplace of Motown Records. My parents divorced when I was a toddler, and I lived with my mother in Ann Arbor, while my father moved back home to Ypsilanti, a working-class city between the two. My father is dark Brown, had a cool swagger, smoked menthol cigarettes, and drank from brown paper sacks. My White, Jewish mother, bless her soul, listened to Joni Mitchell and Sarah McLachlan. Though I lived with my mother and went to school down the street from our house, Fridays after school she would drive me 10 miles to Ypsilanti and deposit me at my father’s house for the weekend.
My father was named after his father, Woodrow Holley, but nobody called my old man Woodrow. Folks called him Pot, a nickname he’d been given as a boy. Every weekend he would march me around Ypsi, making the obligatory visit to Floyd and Bo and Miss Genie and Miss Bullock and a nonstop parade of cousins, and they’d call me Lil’ Pot and tell me how much I looked like my old man. I’d smile and shrug, then we’d go on to the next house. In addition to the overflowing ashtrays and plastic-covered furniture and velvet paintings of naked Black women with towering Afros, there were always records spinning in these…