Established by Berry Gordy Jr. in 1959, Motown Records was the self-proclaimed “Sound of Young America”. However, it was also the sound of an America in flux. Inaugurated at a time when Detroit was riding high as the capital of the automotive industry, it captured the spirit of progress, reaping commercial success while breaking new ground. Its roster of black artists, from The Temptations and The Supremes to Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder played a massive role in uniting audiences in a country still largely segregated.
Today, Detroit is far removed from its booming heyday as America’s richest city, and some plot points in the Motown story have either been closed or demolished. But, dig a little deeper and you can still trace the history of the label through the places where the stars once lived, worked and sang. From Hitsville USA to the Fox Theatre, we explore Motown Detroit.
The place where it all began is the obvious place to, well, begin. The Motown Museum is housed in the label’s first HQ, Berry Gordy Jnr’s home on 2648 West Grand Boulevard. Gordy erected the sign Hitsville USA out front in ’59, a prescient move: Motown would churn out the hits like cars off a production line. The museum is now dedicated to preserving the legacy of the label; call ahead to book a private tour taking in costumes (including Michael Jackson’s black fedora), photographs and the Model D Grand Piano that played on so many of those famous records. You can even set foot in the original recording studio, Studio A, kitted out as it would have been in the “˜60s.
As befits a flourishing empire, many buildings on West Grand Boulevard would come to be acquired by Gordy. These include the house of the publishing company (now the entrance to the museum) and 2670 (home to the talent management company). Post-success, Gordy moved to the far less modest abode of 918 West Boston Boulevard, also known as the “Motown Mansion”. Make the short drive north, however, and you’ll come to 3067 Outer Drive, the one-time residence of Marvin Gaye. It was here that he wrote his classic 1971 album, What’s Going On.
Unfortunately, while the seminal 20 Grand Club no longer exists, those looking for the live venues where the Motown history played out should head to the Roostertail and the Fox Theatre. The former, located at 100 Marquette, is now largely used as a banqueting facility, but one small room still betrays its legacy as a key music venue: under the stage is a space that was once used as a dressing room, its walls adorned with the artists who have passed through, including The Supremes, Marvin Gaye and The Temptations. In Downtown Detroit, the Fox Theatre is still in active service as a concert venue. It was within these plush environs that the Motortown Revue played on their home turf. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Gladys Knight & the Pips and the Four Tops all played here as part of the package tour.
Finally, it wouldn’t feel right for a guide to this most forward-thinking of labels to only look back. Perhaps the best place to plug into Motown’s spirit is to explore the contemporary music scene today. Places like PJ’s Lager House, Populux and the UFO Factory, and record stores such as Hello Records do an excellent job of supporting and nourishing local talent. Detroit may no longer be the centre of industry it once was but, thanks to this thriving music scene, it remains at the forefront of culture, just as it did over fifty years ago.
Virgin Atlantic operates daily flights to Detroit, making it easy to discover the history of Motown Detroit on your next trip.
Have you ever followed in the footsteps of Motown’s artists? What did you discover? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Header image: The Motown Museum at 2648 West Grand Boulevard © Rain0975/Flickr
Written by L F Brailey