By Ron Bernthal
The unmistakable Motown sound began here in Detroit, actually right here on this street , West Grand Boulevard, in this very house, the former home and recording studio of Berry Gordy, Jr. a house that he named, Hitsville USA.
This year, the house where the Motown sound originated, celebrates its 20th anniversary as the Motown Historical Museum, and a visit to this small, unpretentious attraction, on a working class street, not far from downtown Detroit, is like taking a step back to the beginning, in August , 1959, when Berry took an $800 loan from his family’s savings club and bought the two-story house, installed a primitive recording studio, and got down to the business of creating singers and songs that would change the music industry, and listeners tastes in music, for ever.
Berry was not a novice in the business. He had co-written a series of smash hits for Jackie Wilson several years earlier, including Lonely Teardrops, and had already discovered groups like the Miracles, Mable John, and Marv Johnson. But when he began producing hit records with the Marvelettes, Mary Wells, the Temptations , the Four Tops, the Spinners, and Martha Reeves and the Vandalas, to name just a few, Detroit’s Motown sound became world famous, and Gordy Berry was on his way to becoming the very wealthy and well known founder of the Motown Record Corporation.
“Detroit was where young people were making music. In the streets, in the schools, everywhere, and Mr. Berry found a way to harness all that energy and soul and direct to the business of creating records,” said Robin Terry, Executive Director of the Motown Museum.
A tour of the museum allows visitors to walk through all the rooms in the house, and the way its set up, with actual furnishings and appliances from the late 1950’s, provides a pretty realistic feeling of that era. Worn carpeting, a kitchen table covered with original hand written notes and old album covers, and bedrooms that look like the occupants have just gotten out of bed and went out for their morning coffee, present an accurate, if not eerie, feeling. The songs of former Motown singers, emanating from speakers throughout the museum, also help bring the visitor back in time.
This year, from November 10-12, the Museum will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a tribute to the museum’s founder, Esther Gordy-Edwards, Berry’s sister. Smokey Robinson and other special musical guests, many of whom are still living in Detroit, will entertain. As for the Motown sound, it still lives happily in Detroit, and around the world, as it too celebrates an anniversary this year…at 45 years old, the music is as young and vibrant as ever.
(Motown Historical Museum, www.motownmuseum.org 313-875-2264; Tuesday thru Saturday, 10 AM – 6 PM; Closed Sunday and Monday; Admission: Adults $8.00 per person, Children (12 & Under) $5.00 per person)
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