Hitsville USA, located at 2648 W. Grand Blvd has been known worldwide as the capital of Motown records even long after its recording equipment stopped spinning. Today, Hitsville stands in the same place it did in 1959 when the Motown founder, Berry Gordy, Jr. purchased it. Once the main recording studio for Motown records, Hitsville has since been converted to “The Motown Museum”. The conversion did not drastically alter the aesthetics of most of the property, making it very much recognizable as the famed studio that cultivated world-famous artists such as The Supremes, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and many, many others.
Mr. Gordy, Jr. takes out a loan.
Berry Gordy was born in November 28th 1929 and was the seventh of 8 children. His parents Berry Gordy Sr. and Bertha Ida Fuller were entrepreneurs owning a total of 5 companies. One of which was a plastering company that Gordy Jr. begrudgingly worked for as a youngster. His parents, like many others, came to Detroit from Georgia, enticed by the promise of the growing Auto industry1. Gordy Jr., inspired by Joe Louis, trained hard to become a professional boxer where he fought in a number of matches from 1947-19502 including one in 1948 where his name appeared on the same fight card as Louis3. In 1951 Gordy Jr. served 3 years in the Korean war, where he drove the chaplain to and from the front lines4. Upon returning home, Gordy took up work at the Ford Assembly line. Although he despised this work and only stayed a week, he found musical inspiration amid the rhythmic clicking and whirring of the machinery. He often found himself humming along to the “beat” as he completed his monotonous work5. He started his musical career as a writer but made minimal money writing for acts such as Jackie Wilson. His early work as a writer and producer was under a company named Jobete, a contraction of his children’s names. His first royalty check, which surmounted to a huge dissapointment, was for $3.19. Encouraged by his friend Smokey Robinson and driven by his aspirations, Gordy decided to open his own recording business6.
In 1959, Gordy Jr. approached his family in need of seed capital. Along with his 7 siblings and his parents, Gordy Jr. created a family fund dubbed, Ber-Berry, in which they each deposited $10 a month. Of the fund’s operation, Gordy Jr. once recalled, “It was easy to put money in, but impossible to get it out.7” A withdrawal form the Ber-Berry fund required a unanimous agreement from the entire family. Fortunately, Gordy Jr. was successful in his pitch for the 1959 loan and walked out of the family meeting with $8008. He paid this back a year later with 6% interest and 30 years later, he sold Motown records for $61 million9.
With his initial $800 loan, Gordy Jr. put a downpayment on a two-story house located at 2648 West Grand Boulevard. He named the house “Hitsville” and intended to turn it into a “music factory”. The mechanical beats laid out by the machines on the assembly line were not the only inspiration he drew from Ford Motor Company. He also wished to take an “assembly line” approach to turn aspiring singers into superstars10. The effectiveness of this approach is obvious in the company's’ 1966 “hits ratio” (the percentage of records released that made the national charts) which reached an impressive 75%11. Upon purchasing the property, music production work began promptly. Curtains from a theater were used to soundproof the room and his father’s plastering company helped to fill cracks and fix holes in walls. The house boasted an attached photography studio which was later converted into the famous “Studio A” in which early Motown superstars recorded. Gordy Jr. took up residence on the second floor of Hitsville, where he lived from 1956-1959. In the years following the original purchase of Hitsville, Motown would expand across a total of 8 neighboring properties along West Grand Boulevard. All of the properties were a former residential houses. They were re-purposed to hold particular Motown business or production-related offices, supporting the Motown label, as well as the company’s numerous sister labels. At the time, DJs could only play 3 songs per record company per hour. To circumvene this limitation, Gordy Jr. created 32 different record labels, all under the umbrella of Motown. He often sent seemingly random people to deliver records to disk jockeys as a means of disguising his ruse12.
Hitsville was loved by the artists who spent countless hours recording their hits in its comfortable atmosphere. In the early days, hot, homestyle meals, were enjoyed by whoever was lucky enough to be around for supper time. Mary Wilson of the Supremes recounts more casual times when she and fellow members of the group would sit in on recording sessions of artists like Mary Wells, Mabel John, and Henry Lumpkin, attempting to learn as much as they could. When the Headquarters of Motown records was moved downtown to the Donovan Building in 1968, many of the artists complained of its cold, unfamiliar atmosphere, and they yearned for of the good times they enjoyed when recording at 2648 W Grand Blvd13.
What was left behind
Hitsville continued to record Motown music even after the company’s headquarters were moved to the Donovan building in downtown Detroit. In 1985 the Motown Museum was opened and the famed studios that pumped out Motown hits became accessible to the general public. Consisting of the first two houses purchased under Motown Records, The museum has changed little since the days of recording. Everything from the switchboards and recording machines, down to the rolodex that sits open on the desk in the lobby have been preserved for generations to come. The vending machine sits in the hallway exactly where it was when Stevie Wonder would frequent it. The Baby Ruth, his favorite candy bar, is still positioned four spots from the left, a location that the vending machine clerk took extra care to keep consistent so the visually impaired Motown star would have no trouble satisfying his sweet tooth.
An archaeological approach to examining the details of this historical property reveals many interesting anecdotes of the prolific record company. Worn floor tiles in the studio’s production room mark where sound engineers thumped their feet along with the beats of the songs blaring through the speakers. On the second floor, a square hole in the ceiling, leading to the attic, is located where it was in the 1960s. This strange acoustic feature was designed by Berry Gordy Jr. as a “shower simulator”, an idea inspired by the common belief that voices sounded best while singing in the shower. Referred to as “the echo chamber”14 artists would record portions of many tunes here. The echo effect that the “chamber” gave to instruments and to a singer’s voice can be heard in many Motown recordings. For example, in the Temptations song “My Girl”, the rhythmic, snapping that is heard throughout the song was achieved by snapping into the “echo chamber”. An elegant Steinway and Sons Grand piano sits in Studio A where is was once played during recording sessions. Having fallen into disrepair, the old piano was in much need of restoration work, which was completed in 2012 thanks to generous funding from Paul McCartney. For the restoration work, Motown Records returned the piano to Steinway and Sons in order to maintain the instrument’s authenticity. In 2012, upon the restoration’s completion, McCartney was joined by Berry Gordy Jr. at a performance in Steinway Hall to raise money for the Motown Museum15.
1. Gordy, Jr. 1994
3. Motown Museum
4. Gordy, Jr. 1994
5. Motown Museum
6. Gordy, Jr. 1994
7. Gordy, Jr. 1994
8. Gordy, Jr. 1994
9. Motown Museum
11. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 2013
12. Motown Museum
13. Wilson 1999
14. Motown Museum
15. Steinway and Sons 2012
Gordy, Berry. To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown: An Autobiography. New York: Warner, 1994. Print.
"Berry Gordy Boxing Records." Box Rec. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.
"The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum." Berry Gordy Jr Biography. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.
Wilson, Mary, and Mary Wilson. Dreamgirl ; & Supreme Faith: My Life as a Supreme. New York, NY: Cooper Square, 1999. Print.
"Articles." Sir Paul McCartney Calls on Steinway & Sons to Restore Some Motown Magic. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.