Hitsville U.S.A. Still the Greatest Hit in the Motor City? – Part 1

I promised everyone I’d eventually get around to sharing my story from my recent trip to the Motown Museum in Detroit this past May. I was in town visiting dear family who just had their first child. After a long day today of helping reveal to the world, via Facebook, just how cuckoo for cocoa puffs another of my much more distant family members is, I thought this would be an opportune time to remind everyone, especially myself, that there are still some things in this world worth living for. And the Motown Museum, for anyone who has not yet had the opportunity, is definitely one of those things.

At first glance, it’s a fairly lackluster house on a busy Detroit street, Grand Blvd., completely surrounded (like most buildings in that city) by dilapidated buildings that are completely surrounded by brand new developments. Almost everything about the current state of the city can be summed up by looking up and down the street immediately in front of the Motown Museum.

Pockets of redevelopment have started to sprout up. Poverty and ruin still carries a heavy burden and is all too prevalent. The rich seem scarcely affected by its prevalence. Turmoil and tragedy tend to forge the strongest loyalties. And lastly, there aren’t a lot of NBA fans in Detroit. It very much is “Hockey Town.” That last one is hardly as significant as the others, but nevertheless, made for an interesting observation and some good conversation with the locals during my visit. For those of you who care, there is a logical reason for the lack of fandom around Detroit basketball, but for those who don’t care, I’ll proceed to my initial point.

The Motown Museum at Hitsville, U.S.A. appeared to be closed the Saturday afternoon I was there. That’s how little activity could be witnessed from the street directly in front of it. Shy of a few people snapping some family photos in front of the sign, all indications suggested nobody was home. Like any rational human being with a pattern of repeating irrational behavior would do, I tried to open the front door only to find myself surprised by its locked state.

Fortunately for me, there were smarter people than myself present to point me in the direction of the actual front door, located in the house next door. We made our way inside and purchased tickets to the next available tour. The short, 15 or so minute wait gave me ample time to examine every sign and photograph in the lobby, as well as make my purchases in the gift shop so I wouldn’t have to at the end when the place is packed, right? See, me is smarts.

The tour begins inside the lobby just on the other side of the box office as the tour guide explains the purpose of the row of aerial view, 3-d replicas of each of the houses purchased (all but one of which were located on Grand Blvd.) under Barry Gordy’s empire. I found this particular exhibit to be moderately boring  and it therefore seemed to drag on forever. That is, until the tour guide explained the real purpose for Barry Gordy buying so many crappy houses all along the same stretch of the same crappy street in Detroit.

Reason being: Motown Records was open and doing business 24/7, recording as many songs by as many artists as it possibly could so as to maximize its chances of producing successful music. That being said, full volume recordings would be conducted during all hours of the night, so neighbors would constantly complain to the police about the noise. Whenever that would happen, Barry Gordy would simply buy that neighbor’s house, and turn it into one of his offices. And this continued until he could finally just afford to buy the entire police force (my words, not theirs). I’m assuming laws regarding use of residential property for commercial purposes, especially of that magnitude, were much different to non-existent back then.

Anyhow, the next phase of the tour involved the 20 or so of us in that group cramming into a 6’x12′ iso booth to watch a very poorly produced film from the 1980’s giving a synopsis of the Motown Empire, complete with inconsistently loud audio samples of 50 or so of the greatest hits the label was responsible for. Again, I found the bulk of that exhibit to be rather loathsome, but came to find out that the microphone cables hanging from the ceiling in that room were the original cables that held the mics that tracked the backing vocals on “My Girl.” That’s awesome.

The next half of the tour was why I’d recommend spending as much money as it may ever cost to attend this museum tour, starting with the upstairs exhibit and attic demonstration, followed by Barry Gordy and family’s apartment above the garage, and finishing up with the tour of Studio A, the garage.

Upstairs at Motown is a giant room filled wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling with pictures of Motown artists during all phases of their career. Lil’ Stevie Wonder when he was 11, pictured during his first tour as a Motown artist, and to this day, Motown remains the one and only label he’s ever been signed to. Lil’ Michael Jackson, show stopper and victim of child abuse pictured with his envious siblings and bastard father. Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, The Temptations, the list goes on and on and on.

In the middle of the upstairs gallery is a small opening in the ceiling which leads into the original attic of the house.  Painted flat black all over and illuminated for exhibit purposes, you could see an old public address speaker aimed at an old ribbon microphone inside the attic. The story is that this is where Barry Gordy got the reverb effect he used on nearly every single early Motown recording. This story became undoubtedly true to me when the tour guide did a demonstration of the “echo chamber” effect the attic had by reaching his hands toward the opening while tilting his head back towards it, snapping in rhythm and singing, “I’ve got sunshine…” Uh-Mazing! Chills. Tears. Inspiration. I must go make music. Life forever changed.

And it only gets better from here. When I managed to pick my jaw up from off the floor and wiped the tears from off my glasses enough to see once more, the tour guide proceeded to give us a demonstration of the signature, Motown clap featured in so many hit songs from that era. That demonstration was followed up by a story about a tour he was giving a year or so prior when Pharrell Williams was in the tour group. According to our tour guide, Pharrell stopped him during the clapping demonstration and said, “You mean to tell me that’s how Barry Gordy sold over a million records?” Fast forward about 4 months from that day, ladies and gentlemen, and I present you with the meaning and inspiration behind the lyrics to Pharrell’s “Happy.”

“Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof.”

Yeah. That’s how freakin’ inspirational it is to stand there and listen to THEE source of the original Motown reverb. Pharrell has sold over 7 Million copies of that song world wide in a time where an ever decreasing percentage of music is legally purchased rather than streamed or stolen. It’s just one line of the song, but no one could say for sure whether Pharrell would have ever written that song had he not had my exact same tour guide on that day in 2013 at the Motown Museum.

“That’s pretty freaky Bowie!”

Part 2 coming soon…