Berry Gordy, Jr. served in Korea, returned to Detroit, got a job at Ford, and started writing songs for his friend Jackie Wilson. Gordy figured out two things. First, there was money in publishing. Second, a lot of the kids who came up singing in Detroit’s black churches had voices that were perfect for rock and roll.
In 1959, Gordy borrowed money from his family, bought a two-flat at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, and put up a giant sign reading “Hitsville USA”. He lived upstairs with his wife and kids, and set up shop downstairs. He built out a recording studio in the attached garage, and the rest is history. Where there’s history, there’s a museum.
Gordy eventually acquired the house next door to 2648 for office space, and that’s where the Motown Historical Museum tour begins. It’s $10 a head, and it’s a bargain. The facility itself isn’t: basically, the museum is the dining room of a two-flat with a bunch of record jackets tacked to the walls. But, your tour comes with a guide! A full-fledged, knowledgeable, tons-of-fun guide!
And I’m not joking — the guides are great. After showing a movie about the magic of Motown, the guide takes everyone upstairs to the aforementioned dining room and starts the tour. Here’s a picture of the Gordy family. There’s the sheet music from “Reet Petite”. Over on the other wall are the first Motown albums, designed without artist pictures so as not to upset white people who might not have bought records put out by black people. The museum makes it clear that the civil rights movement is as much a part of the Motown story as the music.
And then, the tour starts to get really interesting, at least for someone who makes a living selling intellectual property. We learn how Gordy grew the business. He signed the artists. He wrote many of the songs himself, with a stable of staff songwriters to help. He had a charm school, Artist Development, which trained the singers in dancing, deportment, and other niceties of performing and dealing with the public. (Remember, these kids didn’t have a mother like Lynne Spears or Dina Lohan to take them to dancing lessons as soon as they could walk.) The education was probably necessary in that era; Motown artists needed to look every inch a credit to their race, as people said back then. But these services cost money, and I’d wager that it was added to Gordy’s profit rather than taken from it.
The songwriting, though, was the big money. Gordy got a cut whenever any of the songs was recorded. Motown had many artists coming through who needed full albums-worth of material, so songs would be re-used; there was no expectation that every Motown singer would receive a unique set list. Hence, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” was recorded by Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and The Temptations. That made more money for Motown Records than a series of one-off songs for each singer, and it also gave the record buyers better tunes than LP fillers had to be. Genius, huh?
Of course, if your interest is more along the line of stage costumes, there are a few of those, including one of Michael Jackson’s sequined gloves. The guides also explain a lot of the production details that created the Motown Sound. But that’s not really what’s fun. What’s really fun is the visit to the studio. Where the guides turn the ladies into Supremes and the gentlemen into Temptations, and you will be grateful that photography is not allowed in the museum.
The Motown Museum isn’t as deep as the Rock and Roll of Fame, nor is it as flashy as Graceland. Nevertheless, it is worth the trip. You’ll leave with a great perspective on how Gordy was able to introduce so many talented singers to the world, creating a unique sound and making a lot of money in the process. You may leave with some new dance moves, too.
The Motown Historical Museum is at 2648 W. Grand Boulevard in Detroit. It is open Tuesday through Saturday most of the year (Mondays in the summer) from 10:00 am — 6:00 pm. Admission is $10, $8 for those 65 and over or 12 and under.