Grit, glamour and gloryWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | email@example.com
There are places on Earth that absorb human energy and store it like a psychic battery. Events of great emotion create “hotspots” that retain the tenor of overwhelming sentiment.
I stop short of believing in haunted houses, but I have experienced a preternatural cold three times in my life — while standing in a train boxcar once used to transport Holocaust victims to Auschwitz; standing at the Ground Zero site in New York City; and when touching a Titanic artifact that was raised from the lost ship’s Atlantic Ocean resting place.
It is a blessing that this psychic energy is most potent and life-affirming when it is created by positive emotions, by love and creativity and that most elusive and hard-to-define entity, fun.
I first encountered that energy in Memphis, Tenn., inside the modest setting of Sun Studio. Standing in the same space where Sam Phillips recorded music by Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, Charlie Rich, Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins, Rufus Thomas and so many others, I felt the vibrations of revolution, the confluence and tension of race, talent and the fulcrum of ambition.
But even that powerful feeling was dwarfed by a recent visit to Studio A in Detroit’s Motown headquarters, Hitsville, USA Motown Museum, less than an hour north of Downtown Toledo, has opened a new exhibit, “Girl Groups: The Grit, The Glamour, The Glory,” which honors such first ladies of Motown as Diana Ross & The Supremes, Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, The Marvelettes, The Velvelettes and The Andantes who, like their background fellows The Funk Brothers, sang on 20,000 recordings.
The exhibit, which includes fascinating information on the role women played in Motown, includes a lineup of dresses worn by the label’s superstars and archived materials from concerts and promotions. The story of Motown founder Barry Gordy Jr. is captured in video, photos and a walk through the actual rooms where he began a musical and cultural revolution.
As well known as the Motown story is, it is easy to take its impact and legacy for granted.
Gordy started the company with an $800 family loan in 1959 in his home of 2648 W. Grand Blvd. (which is now co-named Berry Gordy Jr. Boulevard). Gordy converted his garage into a studio, his kitchen into a control room and his small dining area into “shipping and receiving.” From such modest beginnings, Gordy, described by critic Dave Marsh as “the most musically talented executive in the history of the record business,” built an empire.
The Motown statistics are staggering. Between 1961 and 1971, 163 Motown singles charted; 28 of those hit No. 1. The Supremes alone racked up 12 No. 1 records. The list of Motown artists reads like a roster of Hall of Fame rockers, and it should; in addition to Gordy, Rock Hall inductees include The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, The Jackson 5, Gladys Knight and the Pips, sidemen Benny Benjamin and James Jamerson and writers Brian Holland, Lamont Dozer and Eddie Holland — and Mary Wells and The Marvellettes have been nominated.
The hit parade of Motown classics could choke a jukebox and fill a large portion of an iPod: “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”; “Reach Out I’ll Be There”; “Heat Wave”; “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”; “You Keep Me Hangin’; On”; “My Girl”; “My Guy”; “It Takes Two”; “I Can’t Help Myself”: “Shop Around”; “Dancing in the Street”; “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone”; “The Way You Do You the Things You Do”; “I Second That Emotion”; “What’s Going On”; “Where Did Our Love Go”; “Stop! In The Name Of Love”; “You Can’t Hurry Love”; “I Wish It Would Rain”; “ABC”; “It’s the Same Old Song”; “Standing In the Shadows of Love”; “For Once In My Life” and an overwhelming number of other landmark recordings.
Listening to Motown recordings today one can still hear the vitality and energy Gordy and his army of writers and musicians managed to capture. The Motown Museum illustrates the business and artistry of Gordy’s genius. Under glass, a single sequined glove and black fedora symbolize Michael Jackson’s presence. A gallery of album covers shows the progression from generic illustrations (because so many American record stores of the time would not display albums with black artists on them) to proud releases on Motown’s Black Forum label, which released spoken word recordings from Martin Luther King Jr., Langston Hughes and black soldiers in Vietnam.
The tour includes a glimpse of the rooms where the Gordy family began its entrepreneurial efforts; the window where Gordy once sat mailing vinyl records now frames a perfect view of the street sign proclaiming “Berry Gordy Jr. Blvd.”
But as compelling as the museum and offices are, it is Studio A that embodies rock ’n’ roll. My media tour was led by Allen C. Rawls of the Motown Museum Board of Trustees. Rawls spoke of auditioning for Motown when he was 15, and how he and kids on passing school buses would stare out the windows to see which stars were in the neighborhood. Rawls carries himself with great dignity and gravity, but his love for the Motown legacy shine through his storytelling like sharp rays of sunshine.
The control booth outside Studio A, Rawls pointed out, has deep grooves worn into the floor, where producers and engineers pounded and stomped their feet while making music that shook the world.
Stepping into Studio A, knowing one’s feet are descending steps walked on by Marvin, Stevie, Smokey, Diana, Martha and scores of other monumental artists, is a transcendent experience. The battered headphones and microphones frame the small room; it is amazing that the thundering sounds on Four Tops and Vandellas records were made in such a small and modest space. Lines between black music and white music were obliterated in Studio A. Memories of love and loss, heartbreak and triumph, were given a soundtrack in Studio A. The piano in the studio is a stand-in; the one Earl Van Dyke played on Motown classics is in New York, being refurbished courtesy of the generosity of Motown fan Paul McCartney. But the drums played by Pistol Allen, Bongo Brown and Uriel Jones are there; so is the vibraphone played by Jack Ashford.
Sun Studio promises of mischief, sex and trouble. Studio A at Motown vibrates with peace, love and soul.
When deciding which records to release, Gordy would ask his players, “If you only had $1 in the world, and you had to choose between a sandwich and this record, which would you choose?”
Having been immersed in the grit, glamour and glory of Studio A at Motown, there isn’t a sandwich on the planet I would take over any one of a hundred Motown songs.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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