Museum tour crystallizes Motown founder’s legacy
A couple weeks ago I found myself in Detroit touring one of America’s great music destinations, the Motown Museum.
The home of Motown from 1959 to 1972, Hitsville is a must visit for any music fan. Essentially a two-story home converted into a recording studio and administrative office, the overall impression of the building is not that impressive. The music created inside, however, is a completely different story.
The guided tour starts off with a quick history of the label and founder Berry Gordy. After writing a number of hit singles for other R&B artists in the late 1950s, Gordy, a former boxer, founded Motown with the encouragement of Smokey Robinson, his business partner and lead singer of the Miracles, and a small $800 loan from his family in 1959.
Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” became the label’s first hit in 1960. Just a year later, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles followed up with “Shop Around,” the label’s first million-selling single, and the teen girl group, the Marvelettes, earned the label’s first No. 1 pop hit with “Please Mr. Postman.”
A seemingly endless stream of hits followed from the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5.
In just a few short years Gordy built up a recording empire in the heart of the Motor City so adept at topping the pop charts it became known as Hitsville U.S.A.
The tour continues with a walk through the second-floor Gordy apartment and, finally, the original recording studio, Studio A. The interior of Hitsville is original to the 1960s heyday. The desk that Martha Reeves answered phones at looks untouched, as does the couch Marvin Gaye slept on and the candy machine young Stevie Wonder frequented.
Tour highlights include the hat and sequined glove Michael Jackson wore when he moonwalked at the Motown 25 Yesterday, Today, and Forever show, the studio’s ingenious echo chamber which helped give Motown its signature sound, and a 1877 Steinway piano used by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and other Motown legends.
What will stick with me the most though is how Gordy was able to build a community through music that crossed racial and political lines, not only within Detroit, but with the entire world.
The initial Motown roster included artists that grew up in and around Detroit’s public housing projects. For example, the founding members of the Supremes all grew up in the Brewster-Douglass housing project with Smokey Robinson. The greatest feat Gordy ever achieved was taking the best talent out of Detroit’s poorest neighborhoods and packaging it for mass audiences worldwide.
Initially that packaging meant omitting pictures of the artists on their own records because Gordy wanted people to judge the music by its quality and not the color of the artists’ skin. It also meant Motown’s songwriters had to start writing music based on universal themes so all audiences could relate.
“I wanted songs for the whites, blacks, the Jews, Gentiles, the cops and the robbers. I wanted everybody to enjoy my music,” Gordy said.
Motown’s catalog, more than 180 worldwide No. 1 hits, speaks volumes to Gordy’s legacy. Lined with nothing but classic hit records, Gordy’s ability to connect all walks of people through music during a time of extreme tension is as impressive as any piece of memorabilia hanging on the walls of the museum.
Motown defined the sound of 1960s young America, but those records are still as fresh today as they ever were. I hope there’s still Motown magic left for us to draw on. Gordy’s vision of uniting the world around a simple pop song is as relevant today as it was in the 1960s.