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Techno, rock, punk, jazz, and hip hop — the pantheon of 20th century music has representatives from Detroit in every genre. And then there’s soul music, the genre that made Detroit synonymous with its most famous label, Motown Records.
The musical legacy of Motown has its roots in the Great Migration of the early 20th century, when millions of African Americans made their way to industrial cities like Detroit in search of opportunity. Theatres, bars, and clubs lined the streets of Detroit’s popular black entertainment districts like Paradise Valley and 12th Street, and live music could be heard any night of the week across the city.
In this vibrant atmosphere, a young Berry Gordy developed his Motown label in the late 1950’s. Motown grew to be one of the most successful independent labels of all time and was a huge inspiration to the artists and aspiring business men and women in Detroit and beyond. Soon, many mom-and-pop labels sprang up in imitation of Motown’s startling success. And the talent was there to support them.
But first and foremost was Motown. Comprised of two modest-looking houses on West Grand Boulevard, Motown’s Hitsville U.S.A. studio churned out an epic number of hit records between the late 1950s to the early 1970s, when Gordy relocated most of Motown’s operations to Los Angeles.
The houses look much the same today as they did during Motown’s heyday, thanks in part to the establishment in 1985 of the Motown Museum on its premises. When Motown Records moved to L.A., Berry Gordy’s sister Esther Gordy Edwards stayed behind and worked to preserve the company’s legacy in Detroit. The Motown Museum is now celebrating its 30th anniversary and sees 50,000 visitors a year.
“Musical tourism is a big part of what we do,” says Deanna Majchrzak of the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The Motown Museum, a partner of ours, in particular is huge in bringing in an international market. It’s one of Detroit’s biggest tourist draws.”
Inside the museum, you can see the label’s humble beginnings in Gordy’s small apartment next to the studio. There is Michael Jackson’s trademark sequined glove and black fedora, and the studio’s Steinway baby grand piano, which was recently renovated courtesy of Sir Paul McCartney.
Inside the magical Studio A, referred to as the “Snake Pit” by Motown veterans, people are often transfixed as they stand where Marvin Gaye sang “What’s Going On,” or look over to the piano that Stevie Wonder played. It’s hard to describe the feeling the studio conveys unless you’ve been there. Notes are hanging in the air and the music is alive.
United Sound Systems
Imagine Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and Aretha Franklin walking in to the United Sound Systems (located about a mile away from Hitsville) to record a version of “Jumping Jack Flash” 29 years ago. Did they stroll in the front door in broad daylight, or did they slip in through the back late at night, vanishing into the studio from a blacked-out limousine?
Founded in 1933, United Sound Systems Recording Studio’s legacy is just as impressive as Motown’s, if not as regularly celebrated. Hidden behind the building’s modest exterior are treasure troves of music history. In Studio A, George Clinton and Funkadelic recorded “One Nation Under a Groove” and Anita Baker recorded her 5x-platinum hit album “Rapture.” Upstairs in Studio B, John Lee Hooker recorded his first hit, “Boogie Chillen” in 1948, while stomping on a wooden board. Jazz greats like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker and soul artists like Isaac Hayes, Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John, and many more all cut records there.
That’s a lot of history for one building. In fact, as an active recording studio, United Sound is still making music and history in Detroit. (Local punk band Timmy’s Organism just recorded a new album on 2-inch tape in Studio A.)
If you’re not ready to cut a record at United Sound, tours are available by appointment. Sign up for one and you will notice that Studio A is a beautiful room with hardwood floors and intricately painted sound baffling panels. The walls are lined with donated gold and platinum records, testaments to the sound that made United Sound a desired destination for performers and producers. There are plans to turn part of the two-story structure into a small museum. (George Clinton donated his 1920’s Chickering baby grand piano, which was renovated on the reality show American Restoration.)
But United Sound’s future is in question.
When Paradise Valley was demolished in the early 1960s to make way for I-75, many significant sites in Detroit’s musical history were lost, including Joe Von Battle’s record shop; once again, a freeway threatens an important Detroit musical landmark. According to a 2004 environmental impact study by the Michigan Department of Transportation, United Sound Systems sits within an area slated for demolition to accommodate the widening of I-94, the freeway located just south of the studio.
United Sound’s owners and supporters have worked to obtain historic designation to prevent destruction of the site.
“The Detroit City Council just voted unanimously to give the studio historic status, so the City Council has been very supportive of what we do here,” says Richards. Unfortunately, even with the designation, the future of the building is still unknown.
Carleton Gholz, a consultant for the studio as it sought historic district status, is president of Detroit Sound Conservancy, a collective dedicated to increasing awareness of Detroit’s musical heritage. The group hosts tours that visit neighborhoods across the city and venues and sites including United Sound Systems.
For Gholz, the openness of United Sound to artists of various genres is fitting. The Sound Conservancy’s tours aren’t specific to soul music and take in the many facets of Detroit’s music, including techno, rock, and jazz.
“I’d like to look beyond specific genres of music to find collaborators in supporting preservation and awareness of Detroit’s musical legacy,” says Gholz.
A first step in the preservation of that legacy would be saving the United Sound Systems.
Michigan Audio Heritage Society Museum
Brad Hales is another passionate supporter of Detroit and Michigan music. As owner of People’s Records, Hales has amassed an incredible collection of photographs and ephemera beyond the music found on Detroit’s many soul labels, which he also collects vigorously. He started the MAHS (Michigan Audio Heritage Society) Museum within the Trinosophes gallery and art space to not only display some of his collected material, but also for archival preservation.
The museum is a labor of love for Hales and his supporting staff.
“We had a small matching grant from the Knight Foundation, but most of what’s in the museum has been from collecting ephemera over the years at People’s Records or on my own. We want to help tell the story here of the unheard artist,” says Hales.
The museum hosted a show featuring the underground Detroit Jazz collective and label Tribe, created in part by the recently deceased Marcus Belgrave. Hales plans on printing a book of rare photographs of Detroit musical notables, including many lesser known artists whose memory has stayed alive through the music they recorded. One potential project Hales would like support for is a small, low-watt AM radio station with world class programming devoted to playing Michigan music.
Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame
LaMont “Showboat” Robinson dreams on a larger scale. The owner of the Harlem Clowns basketball team would like to bring his Official Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame Museum to Detroit. The plan is for a museum similar in scope to Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but featuring soul, gospel, jazz, and R&B performers.
“Of all the cities that want the R&B Hall of Fame, we want Detroit because Detroit is the music capital of the world. Motown was the greatest independent music label of all time, and Detroit’s musical scene is worthy of so much respect. Paradise Valley, the jazz history, the 20 Grand, John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, David Ruffin, the Temptations…” says Robinson.
Robinson has already created a Hall of Fame honor roll and already inducted many R&B greats. A 2015 induction ceremony is scheduled for October 4 at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, with potential inductees including Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Jerry Butler, and many more. Robinson has received letters of support from Mayor Duggan and the Ilitch family (owners of the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings sports franchises) and is currently looking to find a home in Detroit.
Robinson’s Hall of Fame would be an impressive addition to the city’s institutions.
By Glen Morren and Craig Meek
This article was originally published in Model D as Hitsville vs. Soulsville: How Detroit and Memphis are embracing their soul music heritage, a feature produced in collaboration between Model D and http://www.ixiti.com/20150730461/stories/a-tour-through-detroit-s-musical-legacy/its sister publication High Ground Memphis.