Tuesday, August 11, 2009

My Motown Experience

This past summer, I took the opportunity to delve into the history of Motown music. As a professional disc jockey, I am always intrigued by the history and evolution of different genres of music. I can confidently say, that in almost every one of the hundreds of events I’ve DJ’d over the years I was asked to play some Motown music. And almost always, a Motown set will get people dancing. So, I have no doubt that many people still love the Motown sound.

Admittedly, it was a recent episode of American Idol, that piqued my deeper curiosity of Motown. The show transported their finalists to Detroit to see where it all began and to meet Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records and Smoky Robinson, one of its longtime stars. Since I have family members who live in a Detroit suburb, I vowed to visit Hitsville U.S.A. the next time I drove through the city.

What I discovered immediately was that the story of Motown is not only an amazing accomplishment in music but it was also an entrepreneurial triumph. In fact, before personal computing made the home-based business model a profitable option, Berry Gordy tested the waters in the late 1950’s and early ‘60s. Hitsville U.S.A., the name that Gordy gave to the modest two-story home on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, is now the Motown Museum.

Gordy, who had always been musically curious as a child, wandered from one interest to another as a young man holding a variety of jobs from amateur boxer to factory worker. It was at a Detroit automobile factory that he first considered applying the efficiencies of the assembly line to the pursuit of song writing and recording. What if, he wondered, a process could be designed that would integrate all of the efforts necessary to produce a hit song. What would that look like? Then, what if we could duplicate that process and produce hit after hit the likes of cars coming off an assembly line. He would need a factory of sorts, a place where creative people could congregate and man the assembly line of hit songs, writers, musicians, vocalists, recording engineers, salespeople, etc. With loans from family members he began to piece together his dream at his West Grand Boulevard home.

For ten bucks one can take a brief tour of Hitsville U.S.A. College students from Wayne State University lead small groups of visitors through the original home of Motown. I couldn’t help but feel the presence of so many stars who worked the assembly line of music – Smoky Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross. I sat at the piano that was blessed by Marvin Gaye and others. Very cool stuff. At one point, Berry Gordy owned eight homes on the street and used each of them for a different purpose, song writing, recording, accounting, marketing, distribution etc. Employees would walk from one house to the other in the neighborhood during the course of a workday or week. Eventually, the whole effort required a larger space and was moved to a multi-level commercial building in the city much like Henry Ford needed to move from a small garage to a factory. In the end, Motown Records would eventually move to L.A. where Berry Gordy could work his magic on an even larger scale.

To enrich my experience, I decided to read the book Berry Gordy himself wrote entitled, To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown. It is his account of how it all began, grew for 25 years and changed music as we knew it. It is also, in many ways, a chronicle of the black community’s struggle to achieve in a repressive society. It is a story of the appreciation of talent no matter its color, the seed of diversity before diversity was popular. In a word, my tour of hitsville U.S.A. and reading the book in tandem was “moving”.

Compounding my Motown experience was the death of Michael Jackson shortly after my visit. It was only a week or two prior to his death that I was peering through a glass case at the museum that contains his famous sequined glove. The only other glove on display, by the way, is at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, my hometown.

Gordy describes in his book the first time Michael Jackson and his brothers auditioned for him. Michael, the youngest was only nine years old. “He sang his songs with such feeling, inspiration and pain – like he had experienced everything he was singing about…. The other boys seemed nervous, but not Michael. He knew I loved them.”

The entrepreneur in me wishes that somehow the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the Motown Museum in Detroit could find a way to collaborate in an effort to magnify this great success story. I’m guessing that with today’s technology a group in Cleveland could virtually tour Hitsville U.S.A. and a group at the Motown Museum could virtually tour the Rock Hall of Fame. In fact, perhaps together the two entities could find a way to make all of the stories housed at both sites accessible to anyone on the planet wherever they are. But, I digress. For me, my part in all of this continues to be to share the magic of Motown with the many people I am honored to entertain throughout the year, playing those classic hits that helped move our American music scene and our culture to better days.

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