We had some interesting looks when we said we were going on a trip to Detroit. By choice – on purpose. The idea started when I looked at the Seattle Mariners schedule to see where they would be playing in May that would be new to us, somewhere we hadn’t already been. That would be Detroit.
We thoroughly enjoyed our Nashville experience with country music, and thought learning about the Motown Sound could be great too. We expected that we would recognize Motown music and artists more than we had with country music.
Someone recommended we watch the documentary Hitsville about the people and process of Motown before we went. Hitsville was only available on Showtime which we do not have. I had to start a trial subscription and then download the movie on the iPad. We took turns watching it on the plane to Detroit.
Hitsville was worth every inconvenience and we recommend it – even if you aren’t going to Detroit!
We went on the Motown Museum Tour our first morning in Detroit.
Hitsville and the short movie we began our tour with had segments with many people but the primary hosts were Barry Gordy and Smokey Robinson (It was fun that we had just seen Smokey in Nashville in December.)
Barry Gordy based his design development for Motown using the experience he gained working on the Ford assembly line. He envisioned a process that included Finding the Stars, Unlocking Potential, Writers and Producers, Quality Control, Artist Development and Touring. Underlying foundations would be Competition Breeds Champions and Innovate or Stagnate.
Barry Gordy’s parents and siblings had a family savings club. Each family member was expected to contribute. When money was needed by one of the family, a request was made and a response determined. Barry requested a $1000 loan, and was granted $800.
Barry Gordy’s wife found the house that became the Hitsville studio and later it and the one next to it became the Motown Museum.
One of Gordy’s first collaborators was Smokey Robinson. They released “Shop Around” under the Tamala label in 1959. The song was out there doing okay, but not great. Gordy called Smokey at 3:00 am suggesting a redo. It became their first major hit and big seller. That also began the tradition that the Hitsville studio was always open because you can’t time creativity.
Gordy switched the name of the label to Motown in 1960 in a nod to Detroit as the Motor City.
Smokey Robinson was a primary songwriter and wrote for many of the Motown stars. The songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland was also writing for many of the Motown stars.
The studio took responsibility for finding and creating hit songs for their artists.
Southern migration for jobs in Detroit factories led to many gifted musicians being in Detroit. After hours, they played in clubs and churches. The Detroit public schools had a strong music program which developed more musicians. Hitsville gave them a place to gather. It was a once in a lifetime musical event from 1960 – 1972.
Barry Gordy hired the best people he could find and key positions were held by men and women, black and white, and also those of Jewish faith.
Gordy used talented Detroit jazz musicians as his studio musicians. These musicians were already gifted at improvising and playing without written music. The group was known as the Funk Brothers.
The studio and its artists could shift and change things anywhere along the process because everything was done in house.
Over time the Motown studio purchased eight homes for various aspects of the business.
The Motown Museum owns six of them.
There is a wall in the museum that has copies of many Motown albums. Our guide told us that the first four albums released were without artist pictures. Gordy knew the music would appeal to all people but he first needed them to be willing to listen. That was more likely to happen without them knowing an artist was black.
The process of choosing to release a song was a collaborative effort. A quality control group decided whether they thought a song was a hit. They asked each person, if you only had one dollar left to your name, would you spend it on buying the song? If not, the song was abandoned or tweaked. Gordy found that the collective competition sharpened their tools but didn’t dampen the love and cooperation.
Motown was a collective, collaborative success. These are the tape masters for many of the songs.
Artist Development was done across the street in the house now owned by a sorority. Motown artists were taught the creative steps for writing, singing and presentation. Here they learned choreography and dancing.
They were assisted with costuming. Motown artists even had etiquette instruction so they would know how to interact with fans, the media, other celebrities and even royalty.
Marvin Gaye was a jazz performer in Detroit and wasn’t having much success. Barry Gordy helped him transition to the Motown Sound. Years later, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” became Motown’s best selling song.
Diana Ross and the Supremes took longer than most Motown groups to refine their act and get that first hit. “Where Did Our Love Go” made their mark and was followed by many others. They were eventually Motown’s highest volume group. The Supremes performed on the Ed Sullivan Show on December 27, 1964 in the first of 14 appearances.
The Temptations was another group that took awhile to find their first hit but eventually made it with “My Girl.” It was followed by many more.
Martha Reeves was a secretary at this desk at Motown. She got her chance on the mic when a union rep was coming in and they needed a vocalist (as required by contract) in the studio right away. Martha’s first hit was “Dancin’ in the Street.”
Stevie (before he was Stevie Wonder) was ten when he began at Motown. He enjoyed a particular brand of candy bar so Gordy made sure it was always in the same location in the machine. Dimes were set on top so Stevie could always find one.
Motown signed and developed the Jackson 5 featuring a very young Michael.
Michael eventually donated a hat and glove to the museum.
Over time Motown artists began touring the country. In Detroit, they were used to separate neighborhoods for blacks and whites, but they experienced different levels of segregation in the south. Integrated groups were enjoying the music but the world was ugly outside the music hall.
Martin Luther King recognized the emotional integration Motown was making in the country. Its impact was profound. Black became chic.
In 1968, five of the top ten records of the year were from Motown. The company outgrew the houses and moved to downtown Detroit for four years.
With a cycle of great success comes change, and that happened at Motown. Artists had some freedom but only within Gordy’s boundaries. Instead of top-down driven innovation, the artists began to want to innovate their own talent.
Diana Ross, Barry Gordy’s biggest star at the time, defied and almost separated from him over her plans for her future career.
Holland Dozier Holland left Motown over principle and formed their own company.
Stevie Wonder, at age 21, considered leaving Motown to do his own thing. Instead, he negotiated with Barry to have full control over his own music. He and Marvin Gaye were the first to be allowed full creative control.
Despite Smokey Robinson sending Gordy information about earthquakes and smog, eventually, the company moved to Los Angeles. Motown then changed from a record company to an entertainment conglomerate. For example, the Jackson 5 had records, a cartoon series and a show on Broadway.
Pushing Barry Gordy’s boundaries even further, Motown artists wanted to address the country’s social problems in their music. They wanted to impact what was happening in the world.
Marvin Gaye was one of the first to do this with the song “What’s Going On.” Gaye layered multiple tracks of himself singing and playing. The production was brilliant and the content was outside Motown’s previous brand.
The company Gordy had started grew beyond his assembly line artist development and beyond his original vision. Ultimately, like his artists, he believed that reflecting the world was a good thing.
Back in Detroit, the original house, and studio A are available to tour. We were able to go into the small recording studio where so many famous artists had recorded hits with that unique Motown Sound. Together, our tour did our own rendition of My Girl paired with some choreographed moves. We definitely could have used some artistic development!
The studio piano is an 1877 Steinway. After the studio moved to Los Angeles, the piano was eventually deemed unplayable until Paul McCartney donated funds to refurbish it.
At the end of our tour, we were invited to “Shop Around” in the gift shop!
Detroit has many large murals. This one was right outside our hotel. It was a great first morning in Detroit. Yes, Detroit!
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So much great history there. I really enjoy music of that era. I was born in Detroit (Lincoln Park actually) and lived there until I was seven. I’ve only been back last year when Teri and I flew in there to travel up north. Glad that you enjoyed yourselves.
Greetings! So grateful for your post on Detroit! As I was born & raised in the City, I can attest to the good education that we received from Detroit public schools. Our high school featured commercial foods, cosmetology, drafting, office machines, and much more. Our musicians were indeed top-notch. As a young violinist, I performed on public television and took advantage of the many wonderful opportunities that do not exist today. When I travel back home to visit family & friends, I will put the Motown Museum on my list. The revitalized downtown area is amazing. Thank you for a wonderful post!!
Debbie, What a kind comment, thank you. It is always interesting (and a little intimidating)
to see reaction from people who know the space about which I’m writing! I plan to write a few more posts about our trip to Detroit. I hope you will enjoy those too as I see you have subscribed. Welcome along on our trips! Serene