Stop! In the name of music

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Come to Detroit’s Motown Museum. Surrender to the Temptations and you’ll have a Supreme time at this place of Wonder.

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This particular visit the museum was closed. But I’m grateful to have had a chance to return to Motown.

It all started here in this small house on 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan.  From a converted car garage that was called “Studio A” came music that changed the entire world. There is a party question people ask that goes something along the lines of “If you were on a deserted island and you could only listen to one kind of music…” Well, my answer would be easy “Motown”. The music of The Temptations, The Supremes, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson Five and a host of others. The music you can dance to, think to, cry to. Music so infectious, bouncy, full of life that I am tapping my toes even now as I write about it.  

Years ago I read a quote that said something to the effect of “All that we see, all that we touch and all that we experience, was just once a dream in somebody’s head.”  Barry Gordy’s dream was to be a songwriter. he would compose songs in his head while working at the Ford Motor Assembly Plant in Detroit.  Eventually, a couple of his songs made their way to singer Jackie Wilson. One of his songs “Lonely Teardrops’ even became a top 10 hit and another song “Money (That’s what I want) was even covered by The Beatles. Still, none of this success really gave Gordy financial independence to leave his day job. Gordy began to understand that in order to really make any money in music you would need to make your own.

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Even before the label had even placed a single into the Top 10, Gordy put up the “Hitsville USA” sign. His faith in himself and the music was so strong, he knew they were on the verge of great things.

Gordy had an epiphany, why not take the same ideas that made Henry Ford prosperous and apply it to music. So he applied compartmentalization and the assembly line concept in record making. Have a team of musicians that just focused on playing. Songwriters who just wrote songs, And artists who were polished, professional performers. He also had what he thought was a perfect name: Tammy Records. (After a hit movie at the time “Tammy and the Bachelor”. After finding out that name had already been taken he changed it to Tamla Records.

Now that he had a concept of how to produce music and an ideal name for a record company Gordy needed capital. He took his songwriting royalties, borrowed money from friends and family, and bought the house that would one day become the Motown Museum. Gordy and his family would live on the second floor and they would have their offices would be on the ground floor and the studio would be in a converted garage.

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The museum limits photography to just Studio A. Which is really fine by me as this is where the magic really happened anyway.  There’s a cool story about this piano. Paul McCartney was touring the museum, and when he saw the piano he asked if he could play it.  (Who’s going to tell a Beatle no, right?) So, as he began playing it he noticed it was badly out of tune. So Sir Paul made a sizable donation to the museum so they could fix and repair the piano to mint condition.

Now that Gordy was up and running he needed to get some music acts to produce. He held auditions for singers writers and musicians. One of the first music groups he auditioned was a high school kid named Bill Robinson who went by the nickname “Smokey” and sang with a group called “The Matadors”.  Robinson also brought a huge notebook of songs he had written. Gordy liked Robinson’s ambition and hired him and his backup singers but told him he didn’t like the name “Matadors” and maybe they should be “The Miracles” instead. He and Robinson wrote a song together called “Shop Around’ that became Motown’s first Top 10 hit. About this time Gordy also changed the name to “Motown” to better reflect the town he lived in. (Detroit is called “The Motor City” due to the number of auto assembly plants there at the time)

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A big drum sound was a major part what gave Motown records its definitive bounce. Drums were often triple or even quadruple dubbed over.

Gordy had an uncanny knack for spotting raw talent. But he also knew that this was a gem that needed to be cut and polished. He set up a school for his discoveries to learn stage presence, poise, and the many nuances of performance. He had a team of writers who wrote many of the songs for the singers. The main writers were Brian Holland, Eddie Holland, and Lamonte Dozier who just between themselves would pen over 40 Top 10 hits making them the second most successful songwriting team of all time.  (after Lennon-McCartney). Gordy also used the same session musicians on all of his records.

The group called “The funk brothers” was a set of 13 players who gave the song the tight percussion and walking bass line that became such a signature sound that even today it is still known as a “Motown rhythm” Some of the trade secrets included overdubbing drums (or using two drummers simultaneously) to “fatten” the track, or using snow chains or a tire iron to give the cymbals a metallic edge.  Many of these sounds were reminiscent of the cacophony of the assembly plants many of them came from.

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The study has two alcove areas one which held the backup singers and the other was used for occasional string arrangments. Although most Motown records were fairly simple arrangment-wise.

 

As the label grew Gordy purchased the adjacent houses on West Grand. One building for the accounting office, one for finance ( the musicians called it the “Money House” because it was where they would pick up their checks. And also a house that was the finishing school for the musicians. Motown’s roster was astounding. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, The Jackson Five, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Jr. Walker,  and many others. From the years of 1961 to 1970 alone, Motown would have over a hundred Top 10 hit records. By the mid-1960s Motown records was making about 20 Million dollars a year in profit. (about 160 Million in today’s money)

At its height, the studio ran 24 hours a day. ( Although sometimes a two-hour cleaning break in the morning was the only stoppage). The performers would often come in just to sing the tracks. The producers focused on a clean simple style, so complex arrangments were eschewed for a more straightforward musical quality.  Gordy would often hold a quality control meeting over a recording. His question was always if you only had a dollar to your name would you buy this record. If the answer was no, the record would be stripped down and reworked.

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Gordy was a hard guy to satisfy. He knew a record would probably never be good enough to be released in his mind. To counter this the producers and musicians would listen to the recording. If they liked it they had to defend why. Gordy could be overridden if everyone else thought the record was good enough.  Probably the most famous example of this was “I heard it through the grapevine’ by Marvin Gaye. everyone loved it except Gordy, so he was got an override and the record became a huge hit.

Gordy was always conscious of the fact that he and the artist were dealing with some racial roadblocks such as getting white radio stations to play his records. He wanted his performers to be dignified. “Musical Royalty” as he called it. So at the finishing schools, the artists were given lessons on etiquette, and how to move and talk. Many of the artists who filled his roster were from broken homes and with little money. Gordy wanted to show the world black entertainers could compete with white performers and even beat them at their game. He created music that was beloved by everyone regardless of pigmentation.

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Gordy would eventually move the company to Los Angeles and the house was mostly dormant. Barry Gordy’s sister Esther commented that there was always a crowd coming by the old Motown house to take pictures. She came up with the idea to reopen the house as a museum. In 1985 the museum opened, The first floor has the original offices and a rotating display of artifacts from some of the many artists who been with the label. The second floor has Mr, Gordy’s apartment as it was when he and his family lived there and of course Studio A where the records were recorded. There is way too much to cram in this tiny house and so the museum is currently working on a multimillion dollar expansion. The new expansion will give the museum to display memorabilia from all the artists at once and have listening stations where you can enjoy the amazing records.

I am SO EXCITED to come back to Detroit once they build the new Museum. I loved seeing this museum but it felt like only an appetizer. I wanted to see more gold records, and costumes, and photos and personal items. In fairness, the museum does an excellent job in keeping the exhibits rotated to display their huge catalog in their limited space. this expansion will give the museum the due it deserves. 

Tickets to the museum are limited and often sell out. I would recommend purchasing online a few days before your visit if possible. Admission is 15.00 adults and 10.00 Seniors. For me, it was money well spent. 

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