Detroits Smash Hit: Motown Studio Tour in Founders House
By Ron Hurst
DETROITThe house really is just a simple structure, on a wide avenue, in a Detroit neighborhood on the fringe of a downtown that's currently getting an extreme makeover for Super Bowl XL next year.
But this white, brick dwelling, with its blue trim, is not about football. Far from it. A sign perched just below the second-story windows says it allHitsville USA.
Call it, if you will, the house that Berry built. Berry, as in Berry Gordy, Jr.
Gordy, a former featherweight boxing champion, Army veteran and then rising songwriter, was the mastermind behind the superstardom of the likes of The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson Five, Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder and many more.
In 1959, Gordy moved into the house (OK, so he didnt really build it) at 2648 W. Grand Boulevard and took up residence, primarily, on the second floor. He even moved the kitchen upstairs. The first floor living room, with a view of the boulevard, was surprisingly spartan.
But in the rear of the first floor, Gordys dream came alive as he borrowed nearly $1,000 from his parents and cobbled together an oblong-shaped studio and a tiny control room where he flipped the switches, turned on his singers microphones and recorded their umpteen songs. Many of them, in time, would become #1 hits. Legends.
The house, and not some corporate high-rise, was the beginning of Motown, the Motown sound of the 60s and early 70s heard the world over. For the past 19 years, the house has been the home of the Motown Historical Museum.
Every year, some 40,000 visitors, a third of them foreigners, make the trek to Detroit not only to see automobiles being assembled (something Gordy once did), but to walk in the same footsteps where the giants of Motown (taken from the citys nickname The Motor City) stood as their humble beginnings took hold.
Theres been talk of developing Motowns legacy into something bigger and fancier downtown, but since the house is a state historical site, it wont be moved, according to Bobbie Chamberlain, the museums Manager of Public Relations. In 1972, Gordy and his companys headquarters transferred to Los Angeles where he still resides. Last November, he celebrated his 75th birthday. Gordys direct involvement with Motown technically ended in 1988 when he sold his musical empire to Hollywood entertainment conglomerate, MCA, and a Boston investment firm, Boston Ventures, for $61 million, although he still keeps a hand in Motown-related projects.
The tour of Gordys former Detroit home, it turns out, doesnt start there. It actually begins next door, in the second of eight neighborhood houses that he eventually acquired as Motown blossomed on the music scene. Many will say exploded.
By how much, you ask?
A study conducted by the Harvard Business School more than a decade ago concluded that Motown had one of the three most-recognized entertainment trademarks in the world, along with Disney and Playboy.
On this day, about 20 people, including this writer and family, joined the tour with our rhapsodic guide, Patrice, leading the way. She began the walk and her talk by explaining the background of the various photographs, plaques, gold records and costumes on display. Even Michael Jacksons legendary white glove from the early 1980s is here.
For those wishing to rest their legs a bit, a short video of Motown highlights is shown.
Of course, theres the museum gift shop with the usual assortment of T-shirts, magnets, mugs and music for sale. One of the biggest sellers is the Motownopoly board game.
Youd better Shop Around, Patrice chirped, as she broke into a smile and started to sing Motowns first million-selling hit.
But,its where the music was recorded that gets the most attention here and, frankly, its reverence.
Take, for instance, the control rooms well-worn floor. Its said to have been from Gordys constant toe-tapping to the beat of the music during endless recording sessions. And then, theres Studio A, with its wood paneling and fiberboard fitted into place to act as acoustic soundproofing.
Hey, theres a picture of Stevie Wonder near where were standing!
And, over there is one of Diana Ross! Oh, if these walls could only talk.
I need you, Patrice said, with a motion to me to come forward. And, I need you and you and youand you!
We, five hand-picked males, were told to take our positions a few feet in front of the pack.
Just line up here and give me some rhythm, she exhorted.
We began by swaying back and forth, snapping our fingers and gettin into it. Berry Gordy would have been proud. Maybe.
Now, the tour guide commanded, start singing My Girl!
Ive got sunshine on a cloudy day.
When its cold outside Ive got the month of May.
I guess youd say
What can make me feel this way?
My girl (my girl, my girl)
Talkin bout my girl (my girl.)
Gentlemen, exclaimed Patrice, youre standing right where the Temptations were when they recorded My Girl.
Wow! I said, slowly extending the sound of the word. A chorus of oohs, ahs, ohs and whoas erupted from our group.
Youd think wed just arrived in heaven. Or, perhaps, had won the Super Bowl.
For the moment, this was even better than both.If You GoThe Motown Historical Museum (2468 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit) is open Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults, $5 for children 12 and under and (groups of 20 or more $6 and $3 respectively. 313-875-2264; motownmuseum.org.
Copyright © Ron Hurst 2005