story by Jamie Rector and Kayte Deioma, photos by Jamie Rector
A downpour somehow seems an appropriate accompaniment to the glorious and gritty soul of Motown, which produced such hits as “I Wish it Would Rain” and “Tears of a Clown.”
The Motown Historical Museum is one of the more popular tourist attractions in Detroit, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from its location. About 15 minutes from downtown, past an old hospital, in a semi-residential, semi worn-down area, stand the modest buildings of Motown and Hitsville USA. The street in front is lined with tour buses. The two clean and restored houses that comprise the museum were the studio and office area of the Motown Record Corporation from 1959 to 1972 when it moved to Los Angeles. Signs point the way to the visitor entrance.
Making Musical History
Berry Gordy, Jr. started his fledgling record label with an $800 loan from his family. When he bought the first house on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit in 1959 and dubbed it Hitsville USA, he planned to apply the same philosophy to making hit records that the Ford Company applied to producing cars. Starting with Smoky Robinson and the Miracles, Gordy staffed his hit factory with a talented assembly line of song writers, arrangers, house musicians and front line talent to create the unique sound that became known as Motown. The company grew to occupy eight houses on West Grand before moving the headquarters to downtown Detroit and later, Los Angeles.
Just past the friendly guard, a long hallway filled with historic photographs welcomes visitors to the home of funk. All the main players are there: Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson Five, Diana Ross and many other familiar faces.
Tours run continuously, beginning as soon as they have enough people to start. After a brief introduction, and strict instructions to keep the cameras put away, the tour guide walks the group through a series of rooms with more classic photos of legends in their hey day, as well as original record covers, memorabilia, and gold records. The exhibit also includes stage costumes worn by Motown artists including Michael Jackson’s original hat and white sequined glove.
The Michael Jackson memorabilia was once stolen right out the museum. There was no case around it at the time. It didn’t take much clever sleuthing to find the thief. The day it was stolen, there was only one guest – and he signed the guestbook, complete with address. They tracked him down and got the items back. They were so happy to have the pieces back they didn’t even bother to press charges.
The living room, dining room and kitchen of what used to be Berry Gordy’s apartment, is restored to its 1959-60 appearance. Some of the original furniture remains, so it can be seen just the way it was. It is roped off, so you can look but not touch.
After this glimpse into daily life in the Motown house, the tour moves to the backbone of the Motown business – the office where it all began and where artists were signed. There are original notes and paperwork in the office giving it the feel that you have stepped back in time.
Adjacent to the office is the control room and the recording studio. The piano and drum set stand ready for the house band, the Funk Brothers, to walk in and start playing. Having all the singing groups record with the same backup band created that consistency of sound that is so Motown. Although largely unknown as individual musicians, the story of the Funk Brothers’ contribution to the Motown sound has recently been told in the documentary, Standing in the Shadows of Motown. In addition to Funk Brother Earl Van Dyke, the piano was also played by Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, who both broke the Motown assembly line mold by being songwriters, musicians and singers.
You can’t sit at the famous piano, but you might get a chance to stand where icons like Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, the Four Tops and Diana Ross and the Supremes stood to record their chart-smashing hits – an experience not to be missed.
Motown Historical Museum
2648 W. Grand Boulevard
Detroit, Michigan 48208