Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Motown: So Much More Than A Hit Factory

I've got to admit that I've developed a certain dead spot for overplayed Motown songs. Perhaps it's the fact that "The Big Chill" created a certain nauseating hipness among yuppies that I still can't overcome. Perhaps because, like many songs of my all-time favorites the Beatles, many songs just get played too death.

So I visited the Hitsville U.S.A studio in downtown Detroit last week with some trepidation.

Let's just say that I needn't have worried.

I've been to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. I've been to the Experience Music Project in Seattle.

This museum beats them both by the length of James Jamerson's stand-up bass.

Sure, it's smaller and less encompassing. It also only covers a small part of music history, compared to the other two.

But boy, there's something to be said about being in a place where history was made. Especially one that's no bigger than an average sized house.

I have to thank Pete Williams, the docent who guided us on the tour that lasted more than an hour. He made the entire experience well worth the $10 per person it cost to get in. Not only was he a constant source of information, but he put everything in proper context – so that all of us on the tour were properly blown away with what we learned.

Like what?

Like how a hole was cut in the ceiling of the house to get that great sound chamber echo effect on the early recordings. Like how the studio was open 24 hours a day – and there was a full-time cook on staff, just to keep musicians in the studio and out of trouble. Like how artists like Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and nearly all the Motown legends used to help package 45s in their sleeves on the kitchen table. And why Gordy avoided putting artist's pictures on Motown's first four albums, just to see if he could appeal to white audiences in ways that other r&b labels had never accomplished up until then.

Indeed, you really got a sense of the momentousness of what Motown accomplished. Starting 50 years ago this year, out of that tiny house came Motown's most important output, thanks to the talent involved and one man's innovative ideas. If you put the No. 1 records produced by the Beatles, Elvis Presley and Madonna all together, you still wouldn't come close to the number of chart toppers this Detroit label produced, redefining the way "black" music was perceived by white Americans forever.

Unlike the Stax studio in Memphis, which was rebuilt after a fire, Hitsville U.S.A. is still the original studio that remained active until the early 70s when Motown headed west forever. Thanks to Gordy's sister, who turned the house into a museum, not a thing has been touched Not the couch Marvin Gaye used to sleep on. Not the switchboard where Martha Reeves answered phones when she wasn't making hit records. Not Studio A, which still has the drum set and vibraphones once owned by Stevie Wonder. (Or for that matter, the old-fashioned candy machine with the Baby Ruth always third from the left – because it was Stevie' s favorite candy bar)

It truly is a slice of the Smithsonian in downtown Detroit.

In honor of the visit, I put together this quiz – partly from my own knowledge, but also partly on information that Pete shared with us during our tour. Answers are on the bottom along with explanations. (You can take the quiz for real when you follow the Spoofus link in one of the columns and sign up for the free site)

1 – Record label founder Berry Gordy Jr. got some of the seed money for starting Motown for penning hits like "Reet Petite" for this pioneering artist who Van Morrison later immortalized in one of his songs.

  • A – Smokey Robinson
  • B – Jerry Butler
  • C – Jackie Wilson
  • D – Curtis Mayfield
  • E – Marvin Gaye

2 – What peculiarity inspired folks who knew him to nickname original Motown artist William Robinson "Smokey"?
  • A – His velvety voice sounded "Smokey."
  • B – He loved the TV show "Gunsmoke."
  • C – He was a chain smoker never seen without his Lucky Strikes.
  • D – He learned how to do smoke signals from a relative who was Ojibwe.
3 – Although this artist originally came to Motown to work as a session drummer, there were no such jobs available. Instead, this legendary vocalist started out as the janitor at Hitsville U.S.A, the tiny two-house complex at 2648 West Grand Blvd. in Detroit, Michigan that was the label's primary recording studio throughout the 60s.
  • A – Marvin Gaye
  • B – Levi Tubbs
  • C – Lionel Richie
  • D – Eddie Kendricks
  • E – Barry White
4 – Although the label claimed Diana Ross "discovered" the Jackson 5, the first Motown artists to see the group were actually Gladys Knight and this guitarist from the Motown band, Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers, who would later become half of a famous comedy team.
  • A – Tommy Smothers
  • B – Jerry Lewis
  • C – Dick Martin
  • D – Mike Nichols
  • E – Tommy Chong

5 – Spurred by anti-Payola laws that prohibited radio stations from playing more than a certain number of songs by a single label, Berry Gordy Jr. created more than a dozen Motown-affiliated labels that put out R&B, jazz, rock and even spoken word recordings. Which of the following well-known personalities did NOT have any of their material released by Motown or one of its affiliates?
  • A – Aretha Franklin
  • B – Dionne Warwick
  • C – Bobby Darin
  • D – Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • E – Sammy Davis, Jr.

6 – Although choreography was a big part of how Motown acts performed, this legendary group never could do anything more elaborate than some back and forth movement – simply because its members couldn't dance.
  • A – The Temptations
  • B – The Four Tops
  • C – Diana Ros & The Supremes
  • D – Martha & The Vandellas
  • E – Smokey Robinson & The Miracles

7 – Besides Martha Reeves (of Martha and the Vandellas), who is a member of the Detroit City Council, this singer who is a Cook County (Ill.) Commissioner is the only other former Motown artist (as of 2008) who serves as a publicly elected official.
  • A – Dennis Edwards
  • B – Tito Jackson
  • C – David Ruffin
  • D – Jerry Butler
  • E – Florence Ballard

8 – This group of four friends from Ferndale (MI) High School started with one of Motown's lowest affiliates, VIP Records, and spent most of the 60s as chauffeurs, chaperones and shipping clerks for the company before breaking out in 1970 with the Stevie Wonder-penned hit "It's A Shame."
  • A – The Commodores
  • B – The Chi-Lites
  • C – The O'Jays
  • D – The Manhattans
  • E – The Spinners
9 – Although relatively unknown, this vocal trio made up of Jackie Hicks, Marlene Barrow, and Louvain Demps appeared on more No. 1 hits than any other Motown singer or group – because they provided the backing vocals for many of the songs and even stepped in for missing Supremes from time to time. What were they known as?
  • A – The Chordettes
  • B – The Andantes
  • C – The Marvelettes
  • D – The Funk Sisters
  • E – The Mary Jane Girls

10 – This landmark 1973 album – recently listed by Rolling Stone as one of the top 500 albums of all time – is said to be the final album primarily recorded at the Hitsville U.S.A. studio before Motown shifted the base of its operations to Los Angeles.

  • A – "Innervisions" by Stevie Wonder
  • B – "Let's Get It On" by Marvin Gaye
  • C –"Masterpiece" by The Temptations
  • D – "Get It Together" by the Jackson 5
  • E – "Touch Me in the Morning" by Diana Ross

1 – (C) Jackie Wilson. But you knew that already if you had been following my blog. Gordy wrote "Reet Petite," "To Be Loved" and "Lonely Teardrops" and received a loan from family members so he could quit his job on the Ford assembly line and start making records instead.

2 – (B) He loved "Gunsmoke." Supposedly, as a kid, Smokey would race in front of the TV whenever his favorite show was on, blocking everyone else's view. Hence the nickname.

3 – (A) Marvin Gaye. The legendary singer came to Motown because he wanted a job as a session drummer. But all the slots were filled. So Gaye took the only job that was available: As a janitor, who would clean up the studio and the offices once everyone was done. Needless to say, that job was not permanent.

4 – (E) Tommy Chong. This bit of information from Pete almost knocked me out. I mean, c'mon. Michael Jackson and Cheech & Chong forever linked? What a strange pair. I think you would agree. (That's him, second from the right on an early album by the Vancouvers)

5 – (A) Aretha Franklin. Although a native of Detroit who stil lives in her hometown, Franklin was discovered by Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertugun of Atlantic Records before Gordy could get to her. The others? Well, they all recorded on Motown affiliates during the 60s and 70s. Gordy released many of MLK's great speeches on vinyl. In fact, Pete claimed that the popularity of the "I Have a Dream" speech is due to the fact that people were able to listen to it on their record player. I have my doubts about that …

6 – (B) The Four Tops. If you've ever seen the Four Tops perform, you probably knew the answer. They just go back and forth, back and forth and put their hands in the air. Though choreography was an important part of marketing Motown acts, the Four Tops simply couldn't dance. But boy could Levi Tubbs sing …

7 – (D) Jerry Butler. Though his best recordings weren't with Motown, "The Ice Man" briefly signed on to the label during the 70s. Then, in 1985, he was elected to the board of commissioners for Cook County, which is where Chicago is located.

8 – (E) The Spinners. I stumped both Pete and my wife (a Ferndale graduate, no less) on this one. The fact is, the Spinners were with Motown for a number of years without getting much of a shot from Gordy and the other label executives. "It's a Shame" and the Wonder-penned (and produced) "We'll Have It Made" were the group's only Motown hits. In 1971, at the suggestion of Aretha herself, they switched to Atlantic and with the help of Thom Bell and some killer songs, became oe of the biggest r&b groups of the 70s with songs like "Rubber Band Man," "I'll Be Around" and "They Just Can't Stop It (Games People Play)"

9 – (B) The Andantes. Some day I hope some filmmaker takes these women out of obscurity, in the same way that the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002) gave the Funk Brothers their due.

10 – (B) "Let's Get It On" by Marvin Gaye. It was simply a revolutionary recording – and it was fitting that Hitsville U.S.A had its swan song with this classic album. The last piece of music recorded at the original Detroit studio? The instrumental "machine Gun" from the Commodores' debut 1974 album (the one that, thankfully, lacked ballads from Lionel Richie or any other group member.)

How'd you do?

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