Sunday, August 22, 2010


The house above, on Detroit's West Grand Blvd., was purchased by Berry Gordy Jr. on a family loan of $800. He had sold his first song, Lonely Teardrops, and his pay was $3.75. His parents both owned businesses and he realized immediately that the middlemen were collecting the money on his work. He wanted control of his own work and talent. He decided to get a loan, (from his family) buy a house,  and open up a recording studio. It was a risk, but he was able to get it off the ground almost immediately since the black community was full of talent with little outlet for that talent in the general population. Most radio stations wouldn't play black music on white stations. One short range black station was all they had.
 Motown Record Company changed that in a big, big way. Over the years, came Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and The Supremes, Elaine Brown, The Jackson Five, The Platters, Billy Ekstein, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations...the list goes on and on. What a walk down memory lane is this fun, fun museum, even though no picture taking is allowed. In fact, Motown recorded Martin Luther King's I Have A Dream Speech. It was first given in Detroit and went over so well he used it several times, in Washington DC, in Montgomery, Alabama and elsewhere.
As business grew, Berry Gordon bought the house next door, and the one next to that, and another and another until he had eight buildings around the area that tested, recorded, trained, dressed and made history with new young musicians.
Starting out, Berry recorded in his garage and lived in a modest apartment upstairs. Part of the famous "Motown Sound" came from a hole in the ceiling that gave an echo to the singers that other studios tried to duplicate with equipment. It was just a hole in the ceiling. Sometimes, an artist was chosen by the following test. Berry would gather the employees in the studio and play a piece and ask, "If it was your last dollar and you were hungry, would you buy this record or would you buy the sandwich?"  He would ask them all and if one said, how hungry? or What kind of sandwich. He still considered that a vote for the artist because they hesitated.
 Motown got the first black act on Ed Sullivan's show. Motown got the first black act in a white night club. Berry knew that radio stations could only play from one label three times in a day. So he did the math and developed many labels. He actually recorded everything but classical music in his studio.
Motown records got to white stations by sending a record with a blurb with no picture of the artist. Kids liked the music, the beat, they could really dance to this stuff. When they finally saw the artist, and found out he or she was black, it was fine with them. In fact, the whole black musical community stuck together because of their training at Motown. Motown set the professional tone for black musicians and they succeeded.
Berry also recognized that black musicians had jobs, often shift work, just as he did on the assembly line at Ford at one time.  They couldn't come in and record from 8am to 5 pm. He kept the place open for 24 hours a day so musicians always had access to the studio. (Two hours of that time was used for cleaning.)
A singing or playing talent, didn't always know how to act on a big stage, in front of an audience. He hired a woman to teach them manners, to dress professionally, to always be on time, to practice good grooming, to choreograph their act and so on. It was an amazing transformation of talent to spectacular success.
After our visit, in which all of us sang and danced, (sort of), Jim's longtime friends,  Art and Sue Lambart led us to a Mexican Restaurant near where Art taught English as a second language at one time. He learned Spanish when he was building a Nuclear Power Plant in Mexico and has managed to retain his Spanish and likes to practice using it.

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