I clearly remember how, as a kid, I would listen to the radio for songs like “Uptight”, “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?” and “Stop In The Name of Love”. These songs had a certain sound, but since I just heard them on the radio, for a long time I just chalked it up to being “60s music”. Later I learned more about Motown Records, with it’s definitive sound, and today Alexey and I went and took a tour of this historic studio.
I wasn’t even familiar with who Berry Gordy was before today. I was so impressed at how hard he worked to bring his vision for music to a reality in founding Motown Records. The museum highlights how he borrowed $800 to purchase the original house ($400) and music equipment ($400), converted the garage into the now famous studio A, and how this $800 investment became ground zero for some of the best recordings in music history, not to mention a thriving $20 million enterprise.
Gordy’s original goal for the music he produced was for it to “have a good story, a good beat, and to be something everyone can enjoy.”
Berry Gordy worked with many singers who had a ton of natural talent, but he hired an in-house music theory teacher to give each Motown musician a well-rounded understanding of music. He also hired a woman to groom the musicians in formal attire and etiquette, anticipating that many of these musicians would soon rise to fame and rub shoulders with royalty and aristocracy on an international level, which they, of course, eventually did.
In the upstairs of the building is where Gordy and his family lived. The museum shows a kitchen table stacked with cups, food, and stacks of records. There was no distribution deal for Motown in those days, so all the records were packaged and shipped right on site. The tour guide pointed out how musicians on the Motown label were essentially family and would spend lots of time with Gordy and his family. I got pretty excited when the tour guide pointed to an orange vinyl couch and said “Stevie Wonder sat there” !!!!!! Pictures weren’t allowed anywhere in the building, so you’ll just have to go see that couch for yourself next time you’re in the Detroit area.
Definitely the coolest part of the tour was at the end, when they let us stand right inside studio A. All the instruments are still in the studio – the 19th century Steinway grand piano, hammond organ, drum kit, and vibraphone. It felt pretty magical to stand in the same room that Smokey Robinson, Dianna Ross, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5 all stood, danced, grooved, and sang. Right in front of the mixing board, the linoleum floor is worn right through to the wood in several places, from decades of musicians, producers, and sound engineers tapping their feet to the mix.
Motown Records is an inspiring story of a small, tight-knit group of people who worked extremely hard, and also extremely creatively, while overcoming obstacles of racial prejudice, to define a new era in music, and introduce it to the world.