Sunday, 6 November 2011
MONKEY USA PART 3: MOTOWN RECORDS, DETROIT, MICHIGAN
Of all the places in the world I wanted to go, one stood out head and shoulders above the rest. Detroit. If you believe what some people say, Detroit is best avoided. It certainly has earned a reputation and it’s not now for its motor industry or Berry Gordy’s assembly line of hit records. But a pilgrimage to one clapperboard house that stands at 2468 Grand West Boulevard has been top of my wants list for as long as I can remember.
The train journey from Chicago to Detroit took longer than the scheduled five and a half hours as it crawled through the likes of New Buffalo and the wonderfully named Kalamazoo, which sits bang in the middle of the two cities. Most places looked small, suburban, with lots of little detached houses proudly waving Old Glory from a flag pole on the front lawn. That’s until you reach the outskirts of Detroit. The difference is as immediate as it is shocking. Fortunately I’ve never been in the remains of a war zone but that’s how these deserted streets with empty, vandalised, burnt out buildings appeared.
People are leaving the city in their droves. Twenty-five percent of the population have left over the last decade and almost a million since Gordy began his Motown Empire in 1959. According to The Economist, “Those who are left are likely to be the poorest, least-skilled and so least mobile. Only 11% of Detroiters aged between 25 and 34 has a college degree; in Seattle, the equivalent figure is 63%. Around 50% of the city’s adult black males are unemployed, and 38% of all Detroiters live below the poverty line.” The problems that create are obvious. Our waitress later in the day would, with a detectable hint of pride, claim Detroit was the second most dangerous city in America and not to go anywhere on foot.
If I was prepared for that bleak scenario I wasn’t prepared for Detroit train station. I was thinking it’d be a busy station yet it’s a tiny two platform affair. It could’ve been any stop tucked away at either end of the Central Line. I also thought there would be plenty of taxis not only one, hell bent on scooping up as many passengers as he could. Could he take me and Mrs Monkey to Motown? “Moo-tun?” he says. No, Mo-town. “Mar-tan?” No, Motown Records. The Motown Museum. Hitsville USA. Dancing In The Street. “You have address?” Incredibly, a cabby in Detroit had never heard of it. Even when supplied with the address he looked totally bemused but that didn’t stop him scooping up an Austrian couple and squashing them in with us. They wanted a completely different destination and direction and despite Mr. Cabby’s promise to drive there afterwards they looked terrified by the prospect. It wasn’t like they had much choice.
A few minutes later – out of the blue - we were there. Motown’s headquarters and home to Studio A, the building Gordy named Hitsville USA. It looked wonderfully familiar, the same as in every picture, frozen in time: white structure, blue signage, and small strips of green lawn out front where the Miracles, the Temptations, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Vandellas, the Marvelettes and all the other magnificent lesser known artists would take a breather from recording the Sound of Young America and hang out amongst friends. The building is pretty and picturesque but because of how it looks in photographs I’ve always imagined it on a quiet residential street, maybe it once was, but it’s in fact on a busy unattractive main road and now untypical of its neighbours.
In through the door marked Studio A, past the small gift shop on the left, and down a short narrow corridor leading to the tour kiosk. We missed the start and after getting the lift up one floor the door opened into the main museum area where a dozen people were listening to an excited guide. I’ll call him Eivets Rednow. He explained how Berry Gordy needed a family loan of $800 to start his label and how Marv Johnson’s “Come To Me” was the first release on Tamla, the first of his many labels under the Motown umbrella. We heard how Gordy swiftly worked his way onto his first national hit, courtesy of Barrett Strong. Eivets Rednow breaks into song. “The best things in life are free, you can give them to the birds and bees…” He starts clapping his hands, and saying he can’t hear us. “I want money, that’s, what I want.” This set the tone for the tour: all singing and clapping and audience participation. I could feel myself and Mrs Monkey mentally moonwalking back to the lift.
We worked our way, as a group, around the room filled with records, photographs, tour posters and other promotional material displayed in glass cases whilst Eivets gave a thumbnail account of the Motown Story. With such a wealth of talent, for all the hits and misses, it was interesting to see which artists were afforded more space in the exhibits and the tour narration. The Supremes, for all their stature, scored lower than I predicted; the Four Tops were lucky to have their photo in a shared collage; whilst Marvin Gaye would’ve felt vindicated to get top billing with three complete cabinets to himself and Eivets bursting into Pop Idol versions of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” and “Sexual Healing”.
When Berry Gordy bought the premises he had a clear idea how he envisaged his operation to work: he would live upstairs, have his offices downstairs, and would convert the garage into a recording studio. All of which we see. His living area was kitted out with a mix of his own items and period pieces but it’s when the tour moves downstairs that we are spookily transported back to the early 60s. The reception area and desk where Martha Reeves worked as a secretary is there; a leather sofa where artists would wait is positioned just inside the front door reserved for the elite few; Gordy’s office has a memo pinned to the noticeboard from 1965 warning employees that card games are forbidden until after 6pm; a room filled with master tapes overlooks a candy machine stocked with Stevie Wonder’s favourite bar - fifth button from the right - so he always knew where it was; and there’s the control room complete with the original three-track mixing desk. Visitors were forbidden from taking photographs so I can't show you the evidence.
Standing in the doorway of Studio A – the Snakepit as the Funk Brothers named it – and walking down the few steps into it was a once in a lifetime hairs-on-the-back-the-neck moment. Even Eivets shut up as we silently sucked in the moment. It felt like entering a church. It smelt old and musty and damp. It felt cramped squeezed in amongst the instruments and equipment but here it was. Here was the Motown Sound. Here was “This Old Heart of Mine”. Here was open for 24 hours a day between 1959-1972, recording the greatest collection of music ever to come from one studio. Earlier we’d seen the echo chamber where handclaps and backing vocals were recorded (echo chamber is a grand description of a hole and microphone in the ceiling to create a reverb effect) and presently we’d see the room where the horns where recorded, but this was it. Soul Mecca. There were no flat concrete walls; it was all warm timber angles, soaked with sweat and soul. Amazing.
Now, what would have taken this to another level would’ve been to have some big Motown hits pumped through the studio PA. To hear the snap of Benny Benjamin's snare, the rumble of James Jamerson's bass, to hear Levi soar, or Smokey sing. But no. Eivets lined up the girls and made them curtsey and throw some Supremes shapes. I couldn’t look at Mrs Monkey as felt her obvious discomfort and waited instead for the tables to turn. Us boys had to sing “My Girl” and do The Temptation Walk. In the privacy of my flat I happily dance around like David Ruffin – I could’ve been Motown’s great white hope - but this was embarrassing as I performed a half arsed left to right to left shuffle and mumbled something about the month of May. A couple of my fellow Tempts didn’t share my English reserve.
We can now claim to have sung and danced in Studio A. Berry Gordy might not have signed us but what he gave was more than enough. A dream come true.
Next stop: Stax.