In its heyday, Detroit had two assembly lines: the auto factories and Motown. Christened the “sound of young America” by founder and songwriter Berry Gordy, Motown churned out hits like Model Ts. Gordy’s label took black kids off the street – some like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, not even teenagers yet – and turned them into stars. An army of in-house stylists, choreographers, and jazz studio musicians assembled the raw parts, and the public got a polished, finished product.
Motown’s Studio A, presumptuously dubbed Hitsville, USA by Gordy, was open 24 hours a day. Occupying the converted garage of a modest house on Grand Boulevard, it was right across the street from the sprawling Henry Ford Hospital, a beautiful complex with limestone trim and clay roofs, and about a mile from the “golden tower” of the Fisher Building. But the real magic was in that garage, echoing from a secondhand snare drum doctored up with electrical tape, a creaky 1877 Steinway piano, and a stock ’62 Fender Precision Bass. Gordy lived upstairs, right under the attic, which was painted black and used as an echo chamber. He’d go to sleep to the sensuous sounds of “My Girl” and “Where Did Our Love Go?” dancing through the cracks in the floor.
Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Jackson 5, The Four Tops, The Temptations – there’s little doubt Motown broke black music into mainstream America in an unprecedented manner, crossing the black and white lines of 60s society carrying odes to joy and paeans to heartbreak. Uplifting chords, hummable melodies, funky bass lines, and infectious call and response choruses were somehow the norm, as if a great song was always a snap of the finger or a tambourine away, a turn of the dial on an exquisite sculpture of streamlined Detroit steel.
“Motown was about music for all people – white and black, blue and green, cops and robbers,” Gordy once enthused.
Music nerds with ironic haircuts waste countless hours trying to reduce the alchemy of Motown into a formula, a surefire way to capture the beat that drove the world. But the truth is that the sound was the musicians, the inner city kids full of passion, inspired in equal parts by the beauty and decay that surrounded them. If your mind is true, your heart is pure, and you just blow, then you get Motown horns.
It’s that easy.
Motown changed when Berry Gordy packed up and moved the company to Los Angeles in 1972. As if it wasn’t bad enough that the auto factories had skipped town, Detroit couldn’t even keep its signature sound from fleeing to the warmer, palm tree pastures of California. Gordy had dreams of Hollywood, and tired, old Detroit just wasn’t cutting it.
But not everyone left. The Funk Brothers, the backbone of the Motown sound and regular patrons of Detroit jazz clubs, stayed. So did Gordy’s sister, Esther, and it was her dedication to Motown’s legacy that preserved the little two-story white duplex that had launched her brother’s musical empire.
Now open to the public as the Motown Museum, the studio and lounge area look just like Brother Berry left it, right down to the calendar on the wall and the Milk Duds in the vending machine. It’s a bizarre time capsule of the early ’70s. It reminds me of the big, temple-like Detroit Public Library building on Woodward, both a potent reminder of the good times and, also, how the times have passed Detroit by. Big typewriters, spools of tape, clean lines and bold colors – yep, this ain’t the 21st century. If they’d just let you sit at the piano, you too could be Stevie Wonder banging out “I Was Made to Love Her”.
With upbeat tour guides that lead rousing, half-mumbled sing-alongs to Motown hits, the Motown Museum is a perfect retreat for Baby Boomers from the cold, hard realities of the out world. “Well, since this is the room where they sang all those wonderful songs, it wouldn’t be right if we left without singing at least one, right?”
Under a unifying, all is love message, the realities of standing smack dab in the middle of the nation’s most segregated metropolis melts away. Americans listened to black music in ’60s, turned protest songs like “War” and “Ball of Confusion” up to 11. As the country’s greatest generation exchanges its Fruit of the Looms for Depends, they have a world of nostalgia to be proud of.
Just don’t let it bother you when the streetlights on Grand Boulevard don’t work.