Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Detroit: Hitsville U.S.A.

“Out of a little house in Detroit, Michigan called Hitsville, USA, came inner city youth, little black boys and girls who grew into the men and women that changed the face of popular music in the world.” –Kimasi Brown

At one time Detroit was a hotbed of contemporary music. What do Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, the Four Tops, Diana Ross & the Supremes, and the Jackson 5 have in common? Did you guess that they all recorded music on the Motown label? How do you suppose Motown got its name? Detroit is known as the Motor City so “Mo” is from Motor City and “town” works well with it. Somehow, Mocity wouldn’t roll off the tongue as smoothly.

Hitsville U.S.A. was the sign that hung above the front windows of Motown Records a record company housed in a small two-story house. Established by Berry Gordy, Jr. in January 1959 with an $800 loan from his parents, Motown music had a profound effect on Americans who couldn’t get enough of this hot music. The black-owned studio featured many of the most famous recording acts of the 1960s. The Motown sound was easily recognizable, so much so that if a Motown song came on the radio, you knew it immediately and couldn’t stop yourself from singing along. And if you weren’t in your car, the music made you want to jump up and dance. It was “feel good” music, and for the first time ever, white America fully embraced and celebrated black music and musicians. Motown music reflected what all people want—truth, love, hope, and respect. And as a result of Motown’s success, by 1966 Berry Gordy, Jr. had parlayed his $800 loan into a $20,000,000 fortune.

Berry Gordy, Jr.
Born in Detroit, of parents who were entrepreneurs, Berry Gordy, Jr. began his career as a professional boxer and prizefighter. Duty called so he joined the military to serve during the Korean War. Fulfilling his enlistment Gordy was discharged, and he began a new career as a songwriter. After receiving a royalty check from a major record company for only $3.19, Gordy’s friend Smokey Robinson told him, “You may as well start your own company.” At the time no one envisioned that Motown would become a powerhouse whose music would influence the entire world.

Many teenagers in the 1960s had a collection of 45 records with the Motown label.
In the early days, young budding recording artists performed mundane chores before they became big stars. Many were from the neighborhood surrounding the studio and most were teenagers. Diana Ross of The Supremes served as receptionist and answered the telephones. Other artists mowed the grass and mopped the floors. It was as if the entire operation was a large family with each person chipping in to do his part as they worked hard to be successful.

The Funk Brothers provided the distinctive instrumental accompaniment to Motown records. In 2003 they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
The “Motown Sound” was created in ingenious ways. Music and people who loved each other came together. The sound began with R & B (rhythm and blues) music, lively melodies, and added strings and horns. The old house had a hole cut in the ceiling to create an echo chamber. Hand claps, finger snaps, and foot stomps added background rhythm. Gordy even had volunteers stomp on large Detroit telephone directories to get a particular sound for one hit record. Berry Gordy was a perfectionist who kept his studio operating 24 hours a day. And he was a stickler for punctuality. At Motown you were late if you weren’t early for your recording appointment. On time was considered late. So, if you were to begin recording at 3:00 it was expected that you would be there by 2:30. Once, when all members of the Temptations did not show up together to record, the song was given to another group who had a smash hit with it. 

Young Michael Jackson and his brothers performed for Motown as The Jackson 5.

Right outside the door to the little studio in the back of the house stands a candy machine, the same one that has been there for more than 50 years. Musicians and singers were encouraged to eat some sugar before recording to provide them with a burst of energy. When Little Stevie Wonder, who is blind, recorded for Motown, dimes were left on the top of the machine for him. He knew just which plunger on the machine would give him his favorite Baby Ruth bar, the fourth plunger from the right. The man who filled the machine always put Baby Ruth bars in the same slot so that Stevie would have no trouble accessing them.

Motown artists
Berry Gordy eventually bought a series of houses that were next to each other. The entire block of houses became known as The Empire on West Grand Boulevard. One of the houses was used for artist development. Recording artists were provided with lessons for voice, dance, and piano. And Maxine Powell taught social graces—how to walk, sit, talk, and behave. Manners were of utmost importance and highly emphasized. Artists were taught how to look, act, and sing like professionals. To emphasize togetherness and camaraderie, members of singing groups were dressed alike in what Motown called uniforms. The word, costume, was never used because “uniform” had special connotations that reinforced everything the artists were taught. Even though they enjoyed making music, it was very serious business.

To Maxine Powell, manners and social graces were of utmost importance. It was she who ensured that Motown artists presented themselves well.
When Motown began, Civil Rights legislation had not been passed and segregation was the order of the day in many parts of America. Particularly in the South, audiences were kept segregated with blacks on one side of an auditorium (or in the balcony) and whites in another. During this time Berry Gordy chose not to put photographs of Motown singers on album covers shrewdly figuring that black faces might not sell to white teenagers but that the music they created would. The Motown Sound bridged the gap between black and white and the old walls between the races began to crumble. When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, segregation was outlawed for good. Among musicians, though, segregation had died out long before as artists worked together harmoniously and racial discord generally did not rear its ugly head.

In the early 1970s, Motown moved to Los Angeles, and Berry Gordy began to produce movies as well as music. By the time Motown music began to fade from the scene, it had racked up more than fifty #1 singles. Today Hitsville USA has been preserved and now serves as a museum. Standing in the tiny room where so much great music was created was a treat I shall long remember. I could envision Diana Ross singing into one of the microphones that was suspended from the ceiling or a young Michael Jackson harmonizing with his brothers as they recorded hit after hit as the Jackson Five. Now, people from all over the world come to experience the Motown Museum. Even Paul McCartney of the Beatles was a recent visitor. If you should ever visit Detroit, a trip to the Motown Museum is well worth the small admission price.

To honor Berry Gordy's amazing accomplishments, the road in front of the Motown Museum is named for him.

Click here to listen to Martha and the Vandellas sing "Dancing in the Street":

1 comment:

Rach said...

Oh, I LOVED this post!! :o) I want to go! :o) It was fun growing up with parents who loved the Motown sound and as I was reading, I had a steady stream of Temps hits playing in my head.