Motown, the combination of jazz and soulful upbeat lyrics, defined the 1960s for many Americans. Born in the heart of Detroit, Berry Gordy’s independent Motown Records studio turned out more successful artists than any of the major labels. Touring the Motown Museum will introduce you to the origins of this distinctive sound and you’ll learn a great deal of history about the Gordy family, record company, and artists. Here is a bit of history on Berry Gordy’s Motown Records and information to help you plan a visit to the Motown Museum.
The Creation of Motown Records
Berry Gordy was born into a family of successful African American entrepreneurs in Detroit. One of eight children, he tried his hand in several jobs, served in the Army, and opened a record shop before turning to songwriting. Selling his works earned him little in the way of commissions. His friend, Smokey Robinson, joked that he should be in business for himself. Berry it to heart and borrowed $800 from the Gordy family savings pool to start Tamla Records. By 1960 the renamed Motown Records was already producing hit records
Berry envisioned operating a recording studio similar to the local automobile factory assembly lines. He took in budding artists, including an 11 year old Stevie Wonder, and created a process to churn out top notch stars. Motown Records had staff to create stylish matching outfits, simple yet iconic choreography, and even etiquette to prepare performers for public appearances. The most important, though, was music quality control.
Creating music involved songwriters, singers, and musicians to create the songs, then sound engineers and other staff to finalize it into a product. The beauty of Motown was so many talented artists were always around to feed off of each others creativity and offer advice. A key element was the house band, a group of roughly 13 musicians known as The Funk Brothers. Every song and album needed to go through a committee for approval before release, which led to Motown producing so many #1 hits.
Named Hitsville U.S.A., Gordy owned a row of 8 houses on West Grand Blvd; each with its own piece of company operations. The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, just to nae a few, launched their careers in these former homes. Motown Records churned out hits from 1959 until 1972 when Gordy moved operations to Los Angeles to get involved in the movie and TV industry.
The Motown Museum Experience
Elder sister of Berry and Sr. VP of Motown Records, Esther Gordy Edwards, stayed behind to overseer operations in the old Hittsville house when Motown Records moved to California. Visitors often came by asking to see legendary Studio A. In 1985, after several years of giving impromptu tours, Esther converted the building into the Motown Museum.
The museum consists of two original buildings, Hitsville U.S.A. and an adjoining home. Visitors begin tours on the main floor lobby, where guides will give an overview of the Motown Records company and music history. From there, guests enter a small theater for an introductory movie. Here you will get a more in depth view of Berry Gordy, Motown Records, and the artsists.
The second part of the tour takes place upstairs. The upper floor of one of the houses is a gallery filled with memorabilia from the Gordy family and the musicians of Motown Records. Tour guides will spend a good deal of time in here relating historical info and often filling in with great renditions of classic Motown songs. After the guide is finished, guests are given time to look around at all the items, including the black hat and single sequin glove donated by Michael Jackson.
An unique aspect of the house we learned is how the attic was converted into an echo chamber. Music was sent up there through the studio microphones, played through a speaker, then sent back down to the recording machines to create a distinctive sound. Our guide gave a great demonstration of the effect by signing under a hole cut into the ceiling.
Next to the gallery, visitors can view the restored apartment where Berry Gordy lived with his family in the early days of Motown Records. Much of the original furniture remains. Back down to the first floor, now on the Hitsville house side where the company offices were located. It’s a real flash back to see the rotary dial phones and typewriters. There is even a telephone switchboard which connected all of the houses.
Finally, the part everyone has been waiting for: the legendary Studio A. I was surprised to find out the studio is actually an attached garage which was acoustically insulated and has adjoining areas for sound mixing and isolation rooms. Original instruments and other equipment are packed into the surprisingly small recording area. The original nineteenth century Steinway piano recently restored by donations from Sir Paul McCartney fills a good bit of the room.
The Future of the Motown Museum
While it was interesting to tour two of the original two houses, along with the famed studio, I was excited to learn that a major $50 million expansion is in the works. Slated to begin around October 2017, the 40, 000 square foot addition will add new buildings housing a theater and interactive exhibits plus dedicated parking. The project is expected to be completed in late 2019. The Motown Museum may need to close down for long periods in 2018-2019 for renovations, so get in for a tour while you can.
Motown Museum Visiting Tips
- Visits are by guided tour only and reservations are highly recommended. Tickets often sell out, but can be purchased up to 21 days in advance. Tours begin every half hour and last around one hour.
- Ticket prices are in the $10 to $15 range. Free for kids 4 and under and museum members.
- There is no dedicated lot for the museum, so parking can be difficult. Street side parking is available in front of the museum on West Grand Blvd and the residential street behind has some room. Parking is not allowed the neighboring lot, which belongs to the funeral home.
- Photography is prohibited inside the museum. So put away those cameras and cell phones.
- The Motown Museum is equipped with a ramped entry and an elevator to make it fully accessible.
- When you’re in Detroit, you need to experience the food! Here is a tour of some Detroit classics.
- For more information and to purchase tickets visit the Motown Museum website.