Paul Harris revisits the place in Detroit where a music genre was born and where legends first became household names
FOR just 60 seconds, I found myself alone in the relatively nondescript recording studio.
Worn flooring and fairly tatty and spartan decor would give little indication just how groundbreaking this room was in the annals of music history.
I’m standing in the Tamla Motown Studio A, the crowds of fellow sightseers having concluded their tour and made for the inevitable gift shop.
I’ve sneaked back in to be alone with my memories. Not the first time I’ve been there, but definitely the first occasion I’ve enjoyed that moment of solitude in a place which spawned many of my favourite records.
It was here that Diana Ross and the Supremes, Michael Jackson, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Martha Reeves, The Marvelettes, Jimmy Ruffin and dozens more recorded tracks that were to make them and Tamla household names throughout the world.
And where an entirely new genre of music, the brainchild of Berry Gordy in 1959, was born.
Numbers which have remained Tamla Motown standards. Or just plain Motown, as it is known in America.
From outside, the tiny blue and white building might just be any suburban home on the wide Detroit boulevard.
But for the script sign ‘Hitsville USA’, a large picture in the window bearing the words ‘I am Motown’ and adjacent signage advertising Motown Museum, it would be easy to dismiss it as any other house.
But the Motown story began on a shoestring.
Gordy borrowed $800 from his family to create the R&B label Tamla Records in January, 1959.
He had apparently asked for $1,000, which the family wasn’t prepared to gamble.
The original loan document is displayed in the Motown Museum, complete with details of interest payments.
Needless to say, that advance was repaid on time, in full, and £800 rapidly became millions as hit after hit emerged from the tiny premises — 180 Number Ones worldwide, to be precise.
Motown, so called because the record label was formed in Detroit, home of the motor industry, became a production line, just as Gordy had seen in the Ford plant where he had worked after leaving the army, and after being employed for a short time by his father.
The word Tamla that originally teamed with Motown derived from the 1957 film Tammy and the eponymous hit song after which Gordy wanted to name his fledgling label.
He discovered that the name Tammy Records was already in use and opted for Tamla instead.
The first release was Marv Johnson’s Come to Me, in 1959, and the first hit, Barrett Strong’s Money (That’s What I Want) in the same year, which made it to Number 2 on the Billboard R&B charts.
Visitors on the guided tour of 2648 West Grand Boulevard, where Gordy originally lived, literally over the shop, are shown a hole in the ceiling, with loft space above.
Below it, they are invited to shout or sing.
It was there that Gordy discovered what became known as an echo chamber and which was actually used for some of Motown’s most famous hits, lending them their unique sound.
Lining the walls are black and white images of the dozens of stars, all of them household names, who launched their careers with Motown.
A silver glove, donated by Michael Jackson, is also displayed.
There’s Berry Gordy’s small apartment where he continued to live with his wife and family.
And the kitchen table on which they packed records ready for dispatch.
But it’s what lies below that is the very essence of Motown — Studio A.
On the stairs to the basement studio is a world map with pins marking the countries from which visitors have made the pilgrimage to Hitsville.
There’s scarcely an area of any of the continents not represented.
You see the original switchboard and reception desk, the cigarette and chocolate vending machines which must have sustained artistes during long recording sessions, and then squeeze into the famous studio where it all began and continued until 1972 when Motown moved to Hollywood.
The small control room overlooks the studio which looks almost like an amateur’s home set-up with basic, visible soundproofing and ancient microphones.
Visitors, for some reason, are not allowed inside it, although our guide allowed me to get close up to photograph it through the soundproof glass.
She had earlier confided how she had started at the studio tour as a cashier before being persuaded to become a guide.
All her colleagues are encouraged to sing Motown hits to visitors. She never believed she had the voice to do so, but in time it became apparent that she had.
Perhaps she, too, was fulfilling Gordy’s dream that he wanted to create a place where kids could walk in off the street and walk out a star.
The fact that Gordy himself was such a battler was perhaps a reflection of his own early career as a boxer.
Little known is the fact that he once fought on the same bill as Joe Louis.
Studio A is dominated by the original 1877 Steinway grand piano which accompanied so many hit records.
Sir Paul McCartney was so awe-struck when he visited that he paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the piano’s renovation to preserve it for posterity.
Apparently, when he first saw it, he couldn’t resist a turn on the ivories.
There are worn patches on the floor where feet tapping to the beat, gradually eroded the surface.
That studio, too, was the only one licensed to record Martin Luther King’s speeches. Motown was, and remains, unique.
Visitors are encouraged to join in a rendition of My Guy, the sheet music for which is displayed.
The deportment, dress and behaviour of artistes were as important as the music they recorded and there were lessons in all three before they were let loose — a lead perhaps many of today’s stars of stage, screen and sport would do well to emulate.
The ghosts of Motown stars seem to hover over the very place where they were born artistically and visitors leave with the distinctive sound ringing in their ears, many mouthing silently (or in some cases not so discreetly), their favourite numbers.
I defy anyone not to... I certainly did.
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