What do you do on a drizzly October afternoon in Detroit?
For my husband Tym and I, it was a trip to the Motown Museum on Grand Avenue. A friend told us not to miss this museum, and she was right.
So much happened in that old American Foursquare at 2648 Grand Avenue. The year was 1959 when Berry Gordy borrowed $800 from his family and turned it into $20 million in seven years. His is one of the most amazing business success stories of the 20th century.
Gordy, a songwriter, was inspired by the rhythmic sound of machinery at the Ford assembly plant where he had worked. His first business, a record shop had failed, but he was determined to set up his own music publishing and recording business.
Gordy added a back room to serve as a studio and converted the kitchen into a control room. He came up with a catchy name, “Motown” and offered his co-written song, “Money” to a young singer, Barrett Strong. The fledgling recorded peaked at #2 on the rhythm and blues chart. Not bad for a startup.
Soon Detroit became synonymous with the “Motown sound,” an upbeat form of rhythm and blues featuring various black vocalists.
Motown offered a danceable alternative to the British Invasion started by the Beatles. In 1964, the band was asked, “In Detroit, Michigan they’re handing out car stickers saying Stamp out the Beatles,” to which Paul McCartney replied, “Yeah well… first of all, we’re bringing out a Stamp Out Detroit campaign,” thus launching a friendly rivalry with Motown
Our amiable Hitsville guide broke into soulful song as she led us from room to room, pointing out the typewriter that Diana Ross used as a Motown secretary, the microphones used by the Temptations and the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder’s harmonic, Michael Jackson’s sequined glove and an orange vinyl couch that doubled as Marvin Gaye’s bed.
Motown’s singers mostly lived within a few blocks—Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves, Mary Wells, Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder. Gordy signed them all. Over time he bought eight properties along Grand Avenue to house offices for sound mixing, finance, shipping and public relations–and education.
Young wannabes were taught by Maxine Powell, a renowned modeling and staging coach who taught poise, grooming, etiquette and elocution. Motown was a class act—no disrespect, saggy britches or ragged t-shirts allowed.
Gordy’s Hitsville, U.S.A. was Dreamsville, for the young musicians who walked through those doors to become stars.
Was it magic? Sort of.
Gordy was a shrewd businessman who believed in turning negatives into positives. To get around the rule that DJs air only one song per label per hour, he created several labels to gain more air time for his artists on Motown, Tamla, VIP, Gordy, Melody and Soul.
Motown songs focused on emotions that all of us have in common: love, heartache, ambition, loss, shame, pride. Music is the great equalizer, for who can resist tapping their toes to “Do You Love Me,” “”My Girl” or “Going to a Go Go”?
Gordy and his powerhouse of musicians experienced racial prejudice, but instead of accepting victimhood, they put their energy and talent to work and literally won over the nation and the world. Motown offered more than entertainment. Its music was a great equalizer, appealing to everyone, regardless of age, gender, race and social class.
Years later, Stevie Wonder teamed with Paul McCartney to record “Ebony and Ivory,” that made Number 1 for seven weeks in 1982. Years later, McCartney paid homage to Motown when he toured Hitsville and noticed that the old Steinway grand in bad shape. And so the piano that can be heard on so many Motown hits has been refurbished, thanks to McCartney’s checkbook.
What goes around does come around. All of us would do well to take some cues from stories told inside that big old house in Detroit.