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Motown Museum in Detroit

October 07, 1990|MICHAEL A. SCHUMAN | Schuman is a free-lance writer living in Keene, N.H.

DETROIT — "Come and get these memories ..." --Martha Reeves and the Vandellas

"Let me tell you about a place I know. "To get in it don't take much dough ..." --The Temptations

The year is 1959. Diana Ross is a Detroit schoolgirl. Stevie Wonder is an anonymous, visually handicapped 9-year-old. Michael Jackson is in diapers.

And Berry Gordy? Well, Berry Gordy is a 29-year-old assembly line worker for the Ford Motor Co. about to stun friends and relations by quitting his steady job to make records.

Today, more than 30 years later, Gordy's sister, Esther Edwards, recalls the moment.

"His friends asked, 'You're going to quit all this security and money to follow your dream?' They thought he was crazy."

Gordy didn't care. He bought a cozy blue-and-white house on Detroit's West Grand Boulevard with $800 he borrowed from his family's savings club. Then, he stretched a banner across the front of the house bearing the name he had chosen for his new address: "Hitsville USA."

A year later, he christened his company. The name he chose was Motown, and a musical legend was born. Within a decade, Gordy would introduce Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, the Jackson 5 and countless other musical artists to the world of entertainment.

As Motown expanded, Gordy purchased more houses on the block to hold various divisions of the company. In 1972, Motown moved its headquarters to Hollywood, but Hitsville USA in Detroit continued to be used until 1988.

Today the house is the Motown Museum, dedicated to preserving the history of the artists who changed the sound of American pop music.

Edwards, the museum's director, elaborated.

"All the early residents," he said, "were young kids who had to have three things: talent, the desire to be a superstar and character. And most of the early ones were from single-parent or no-parent families."

For example, Edwards recalled the part that her brother's company played in the early 1960s in the life of a blind Detroit youth who was destined to become a superstar.

"Stevie Wonder was 10 1/2 years old when he first came through this door," Edwards said. "His mother said she used to cry because she thought when he grew up he'd have to sell pencils or apples to make a living. And here he was--instrumental in making Dr. King's birthday a federal holiday."

There are audio as well as visual memories inside the museum.

Throughout the guided tour, the sound of vintage Motown recordings filters through the various rooms. "Nowhere to Run" might be playing while visitors wander through Gordy's former private residence upstairs.

As the guide told us about the Motown Revue, a more obscure memory-jogger such as "The One Who Really Loves You" by Mary Wells provided the background music. Later, while Gordy's humble homemade Studio A was explored, Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up" was heard.

The tiny Studio A has seen a parade of Motown's greatest talents. Hit songs such as "Where Did Our Love Go?", "My Girl," "Please, Mr. Postman" and "Tears of a Clown" are just a few products of this music factory.

A casual look around the studio provides a wealth of clues to its past. Resting against the wall is a sign proclaiming, "The Sound of Young America." Original sheet music reclines on stands, microphones hang from above like electronic vines, and the drums still sit enclosed in a booth to muffle their sound.

Then there's the black concert grand piano that has been visited by the talented fingers of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Lionel Richie. In fact, the last album recorded in Studio A was by Richie's Commodores in 1972.

There's even a little white toy piano that was used and can be heard in recordings such as the Supremes' "I Hear a Symphony" and the Temptations' "Beauty Is Only Skin Deep."

The toy piano was one of several props used for improvising certain effects. Said Knowles: "There were no synthesizers then. They used whatever they could to make the sounds they needed--bottles, sticks, rocks, whatever it took."

Those Neanderthal days of music technology are further exemplified by the control room with its relics, such as the primitive three-track console and the boxes of reel-to-reel recording tapes. Even the vending machine in the studio boasts its original 10-cent packages of Milk Duds, Baby Ruths and Oh Henry bars.

But not all is old in this house of musical memories. There are, for instance, later accessories, such as the hat and singular glove that Michael Jackson wore on Motown's 25th anniversary television special in 1983. Both are protected in a locked display case.

Album jackets dating from the early 1960s cover a wall in the upstairs room that once was Gordy's private residence. Some are true classics: "Stevie Wonder, the 12-Year-Old-Genius" and the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back."

Posters of Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder and a juvenile Michael Jackson, circa 1971, holding a coat over his shoulder like a young Frank Sinatra, blanket another wall. Sheet music covers a third.

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