UNITED SOUND SYSTEMS
Address: 5840 Second Avenue, Detroit, MI
External Website via United Sound Systems Recording Studios
Current status: Endangered with threat of demolition by Michigan_Department_of_Transportation_(MDOT)
Please refer to:
External Website via United Sound Systems Recording Studios
United Sound Systems Recording Studios (USSRS) became one of Detroit's first, independent, recording studios in the 1930s, providing a site for musical innovation and technological experimentation in the creation of modern sound not only in Michigan but throughout the United States and the world. The business, founded by James Siracuse in Detroit's Cass Corridor in the 1930s, moved to its present Second Avenue location north of Wayne State University just before World War II, and has been in continual use the majority of eight decades. The studio, which early on served as a space for industrial and promotional film production, is best known as the site of numerous well-known musical recordings, including those by the most popular artists of many genres. Jazz greats like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, blues legends like John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, Motown stars such as Jackie Wilson and Smokey Robinson, pop singers like Jack Scott, soul singers such as Aretha Franklin and Isaac Hayes, funk groups like Parliament and Funkadelic, and rock bands like Rolling Stones and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, all recorded at USSRS. (Included amongst these recordings, is Tamla 101, released in 1959 as Motown Records's first 45 single by the singer Marv Johnson.) In addition, major technical and engineering advances were made at the Studio that would ripple through the global recording industry. Finally, the building itself is a unique example of how residential spaces were re-imagined in Detroit as modern musical spaces. As of winter 2014, the studio, which has been rehabilitated for a reopening, is endangered by a major federal highway project. Because of this incredible legacy, the present owner has asked the Detroit Sound Conservancy to begin the process to achieve historical designation with the Detroit City Council to designate the USSRS as an historic district in Detroit.
Both the business enterprise started by James Siracuse and the building that housed United Sound Systems are significant to Detroit’s music industry and its history. The business provided a foundation for the musicians and entrepreneurs who contributed to the development of a thriving and influential music industry in Detroit. The “Detroit Sound” that was created and made famous by the artists – singers and instrumentalists, promoters and investors could not have been possible without the skill and talent of the sound and recording engineers – the technical people – who worked for the studio and the record production companies. Berry Gordy who went on to build the Motown empire first recorded at the United Sound Systems studio in 1958.Over the years, while others honed and perfected the finances and the image of the Detroit music business, the studios shaped and perfected the music – in all its diversity - that came to be recognized world-wide as the Detroit sound.
According to David Meikle on SoulfulDetroit.com, when the studio space was abandoned, instruments and sheet music, as well as equipment from cables to sound boards, microphones to mixers were left behind much of it destroyed, stolen or irreparably broken by the time new owners took control and readied the building to re-open as a studio. Archaeologists and historians would have been able to piece some of that story together, and may be able still to mine memories and other documents that have survived, for some of the untold story of United Sound Systems.
The building is now threatened by the proposed widening of I-94 that would result in the removal or loss of the studios. Studies by the Michigan Department of Transportation present a conflicting historical narrative of United Sound Systems and of the building, and are cited to justify the demolition or removal of the building. However, MODT officials say the highway expansion plans are not cast in stone leaving some room for preservationists to hope and some time for them to generate the funds and the public support they will need to succeed in saving the historic home of United Sound Systems.
What are the important events that have happened at USS?
Jim Siracuse Era
- There is currently a debate within collector forums and Detroit music historians, as well as MDOT, about the origins of USS. The issues revolve around when the first Cass location for the studio began and when it moved to the current Second Avenue location. See for instance "United Sound Systems: Universal Origins?" (November 2013)
- 1933: MDOT argues that USS is founded at 5015 Cass Avenue. The building is no longer extant. It was demolished before 1949 when the area was redeveloped by Wayne State University. The site is now taken up by the Science Hall.
- 1939: USS still at 5015 Cass Avenue.
- Approximately 1940: Siracuse begins renting out space at 5840 Second Avenue.
- According to Detroit City indexes, USS was at Second Avenue by at least 1940.
- 1942: James Siracuse co-writes song called "Bomb Tokyo." (Explanation and track via Leo Early)
- 1943: Listed in Billboard at Second Avenue.
- 1947, December 21: According to the "Jazz Discography Project," Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Duke Jordan, Tommy Potter, and Max Roach record “Klaunstance” for Savoy Records in as session that also includes takes of "Another Hair Do," "Bluebird," and "Bird Gets the Worm."
- 1948: John Lee Hooker’s seminal side "Boogie Chillen.'" See the Wiki on: "Boogie Chillen.'"
- 1949: April: According to MDOT James and Shyla Esther Siracuse acquired the deed to 5840 from William C Hollands (single) and Clarke D and Violet Hollands (husband and wife), who owned it as an investment/income property.
- 1950s: Dizzy Gillespie records tracks for Dee Gee Records and Prize.
- 1951: Detroit singer Little Willie John records his first record, "Mommy, What Happened to Our Christmas Tree," at USS at the age of 14.
- 1952: Sonny Wilson (aka Jackie Wilson) records "Danny Boy"
- Anthony Siracuse, James Siracuse's brother, mentioned as the owner of Circle Music Company (Billboard, November 13, 1954, pg. 130).
- From 1954 to 1956, Detroit-based country singer and songwriter Jimmy Work recorded for Dot Records at United Sound Systems. With Casey Clark's band, Work made two of his most successful songs: "Making Believe" and "That's What Makes The Jukebox Play." CarCityCountry.com
- "In June 1955 Chief Redbird and His Cherokee Braves cut Redbird's 'Big Chief Yodel" and "No Need To Cry" at United Sound Systems in Detroit. Fortune Records issued the songs in 45- and 78-rpm formats. "Yodel," which began with Redbird pounding his tom-tom, told a humorous story about a yodeling Indian chief who became a star on television." (Maki and Cady 25)
- 1956, April - 1961, May: According to MDOT, USS read edition built.
- 1958: Berry Gordy release singer Marv Johnson's “Come to Me,” (Discogs) the first release for what would evolve into The Sound of Young America and the juggernaut Motown label. The track is issued in 1959 on United Artists for national distribution, but Berry Gordy reserved the right to sell the song in the Detroit area under his own label, his first label, and this was the very first one, Tamla #101. This was essentially Motown's first single, which predates the purchase and acquisition of Motown's Studio A.
- 1966: The Rationals record Otis Redding's "Respect."
- 1966: Darrell Banks records soul masterpiece “Our Love.”
- 1968 United Sound Systems Brochure
- 1969: Bob Seger, "Ramblin, Gamblin Man"
- 1969: Isaac Hayes, Hot Buttered Soul
Don Davis Era
- 1970: Funkadelic, Free Your Ass, And Your Mind Will Follow
- 1971: United Sound was bought by Don Davis, now the chairman of First Independence National Bank in Detroit, who cut a huge number of records. Don Davis had been the lead Producer at Motown in the Golden Era, and eventually learned that he was never going to see a dime from Berry Gordy. So he quit, got backing, and bought the biggest studio in Detroit. He duplicated the Funk Brothers with a section that played on all the house-produced records. In the 1970s, 'The Company' was the house rhythm section that played on everybody's records.
- 1972: Don Davis purchased a new recording console designed by Daniel Flickenger. Pete Bankert purchased the Flickenger Recording Console in the late 1980`s from Don Davis. It has been re-built over the years and still in production to this day at Rock City Studios at 670 Airport Blvd Ann Arbor MI WWW.ROCKCITYSTUDIO.COM
- 1973: Protopunk legends DEATH recorded their famed demos for what would become ...For the Whole World to See at United Sound under Don Davis and his crew in 1973. The studio is featured briefly in the documentary film "A Band Called DEATH" with interviews from Don Davis and other notable USS personalities. Hear "Politicians In My Eyes."
- 1979: R&B Artists The Dells record Face to Face.
- 1980s: The studio continued strong through the 1980s, recording many Detroit-based and international acts.
1985: Red Hot Chili Peppers - Jungle Man (and the rest of the Freaky Styley, was recorded in May 1985 at United Sound with George Clinton filling producing duties.
1985: Aretha Franklin, Who's Zoomin' Who including "Freeway of Love."
1986: Aretha Franklin. Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones are featured on Franklin's take on "Jumpin' Jack Flash'." The United Building is featured in this video.
1986: Anita Baker records Rapture.
1989: Detroit rap group Detroit's Most Wanted record, "I Save My Words 4 Wax." (Discogs)
- 1990s: In the ’90s, after years of serious neglect, the lights were turned off and the doors of the storied studios shut for what might have been the last time. Despite its notorious history, the studio was abandoned when owner Davis moved on to other interests. The studio was left to rot like so many Detroit landmarks.
Roger Hood Era
- 2004: USS was reopened in November 2004 under new ownership, Roger Hood and his wife, Aretha Hood. Hood was a former Wayne County Community College business law instructor and bought the building from the city of Detroit and reopened it.
- 2008: It's not totally clear when Roger Hood stopped recording at United. Some reports have the studio still functioning on a limited basis as late as 2008.
- 2009: According to Why Don't We Own This, the 7000+ square foot building was sold to Ms. Scott in May of 2009 for $20,000.
Why is the building endangered?
The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) has detailed plans to demolish United Sound Systems to make way for an expansion to the I-94 expressway. The funding for the MDOT plan, which was first proposed as early as 1989, has not yet been green lit.
A series of MDOT memos predicts United Sound's eventual demise. Original documents and links to MDOT's website are linked in the sources section below.
The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the I-94 project from MDOT details the historic significance of United Sound:
6.2.3 United Sound Systems Recording Studios The building housing the United Sound Systems Recording Studios has been determined eligible for the NRHP and is located northeast of the I-94/M-10 interchange in the southeast corner of the intersection of Second Street and Antoinette (I-94 westbound service drive). This building is a two-story brick building originally built as a residence with a two-story addition on the rear, and later converted to a recording studio. United Sound Systems Recording Studios, Detroit’s first major recording studio, was founded in 1933 and moved to this location in the 1940s. The studio is significant for the musical contributions made there by some of the most influential, African-American artists of the jazz and Motown eras. Miles Davis (with Charlie Parker), and John Lee Hooker recorded there in the late 1940s. Berry Gordy produced records by Jackie Wilson and Smoky Robinson and the Miracles in the 1950s. Success continued into the 1960s and 1970s when such artists as Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin recorded there. The studio is eligible for the National Register because it is associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad pattern of our history (Criterion A), and it is associated with the lives of persons significant in our past (Criterion B). A complete description of United Sound Systems Recording Studios is found in the DEIS and FEIS Section 5.11.
In Section 5.11, United's future is sealed:
5.11.5 United Sound Systems Recording Studio The United Sound Systems Recording Studio was founded in 1933 and moved to the building at the corner of Second Street and the I-94 service drive. It was Detroit’s first major recording studio and produced recordings by Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, John Lee Hooker, Jackie Wilson, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. The redesign of the I-94/M-10 interchange, using current standards, results in a shift of the mainline of the freeway to the north causing the off-ramp from westbound I-94 to M-10 to traverse the area currently occupied by the United Sound Systems Recording Studio building. In order to construct the ramp at this location, the United Sound Systems Recording Studios building would have to be acquired and removed. The removal of the building would be an adverse effect.
Still in section 5.11, MDOT says it is prepared to do a number of things in return:
United Sound Systems Recording Studios Building will be recorded to SHPO standards to create a permanent record of its existence before the building is adversely affected. The MDOT will fund a survey of music-related sites in the Detroit area and prepare a dissemination and publication plan with the SHPO (FEIS Section 6). The MDOT will also fund the research and production of a documentary film, in cooperation with the SHPO, which will document the history of United Sound Studios. Prior to the initiation of any demolition, the building at 5840 Second Street, which housed the United Sound Systems Recording Studios, will be recorded to SHPO standards. The documentation would be provided by the MDOT to the SHPO and any appropriate archives as designated by the SHPO. The history of the United Sound Systems Recording Studios is important for its role as one of the first major recording studios in Detroit, production of recordings by prominent African-American musicians of the last century, and role in the evolution of American music. Copies of the resulting history will be provided to the SHPO and any appropriate archives as designated by the SHPO.
What is being done to preserve USS?
- 2012: The Metro Detroit Area Guitar Players have cut a video to express their desire to see the building saved.
- On May 2, 2013, the Detroit Sound Conservancy held a meeting about the USS and other related endangered sound-related landmarks in the city at Cass Cafe in Detroit's Cass Corridor. The result was the formation of the Detroit Sound Historical Landmarks Committee.
- May 2, 2013: The DSC contacted MDOT's Metro Detroit Communications Representative Rob Mororsi: http://www.michigan.gov/mdot/0,4616,7-151-9623---,00.html / @rmorosi
- May 13, 2013: The "Senior Project Manager" for the I-94 project is Terry A. Stepanski, P.E. Senior Project Manager. In an email from Mr. Stepanski on May 13, 2013: "[T]he current plan for the project calls for the demolition of the studio, however please note that the plans are still conceptual in nature and may change. MDOT is currently studying the scope of the project to ensure that when constructed, it will meet the transportation needs of local residents as well as state and interstate commerce. MDOT is also considering the feasibility of moving the structure instead of demolishing it. We are in the process of contacting the owner to discuss the options available.... Although the I-94 project is a high priority for MDOT, it is not fully funded and ready to commence. MDOT has appropriated funds for the construction of the VanDyke and Gratiot Bridges, but the remainder of the project is unfunded. However, MDOT is actively seeking sources of funding to move the project forward as soon as possible, while we also study innovative options to deliver the project better, faster, safer, cheaper and smarter."
- On June 6th, the DSC made contact with members and management of the group DEATH who recorded their legendary demos at United in 1975 with Don Davis. DEATH have expressed their support and desire to help, and the DSC is working with the band and their management to work out the details.
- Summer 2013: The DSC, MDOT and the Michigan Historic Preservation Network made contact with the current owner. The building was closed and not currently in use, but was nicely secured and maintained on the outside. A new front porch was installed in late August of 2013 and reports of small scale maintenance by contractors inside the building were ongoing.
- Fall 2013: Work was completed on the inside of the building. Details began to emerge about the future of the USS from its current owners.
- Winter 2013: There was an invite-only party on December 14th, 2013 to celebrate the building by the current ownership.
- 2014: January 30: The DSC submits a letter on January 30th requesting historical designation from the Detroit City Council.
- 2014: Winter: Tours of the studios begin.
2014: According to Whitall (March 11, 2014): M-DOT spokesman Rob Morosi said they [MDOT] met with Scott last summer, and had “a good conversation” about various options on the table. One of those options, he confirms, would be moving the studio from its location on Second at Antoinette. “We’re waiting to hear back from them,” Morosi said Monday. (Scott says she’s exploring her options, but moving the large house and back studio is not what she favors.)
- From The Detroit News: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20140311/ENT04/303110012#ixzz2vn0npNBI
- 2014: March 17: AP reports that City Council "will refer the United Sound Systems Recording Studio matter to a historic designation advisory board for study."
- AP March 17, 2004: http://www.freep.com/article/20140317/NEWS05/303170171/1001/news
- Billboard links for "United Sound Systems"
- Billboard links on Siracuse:
- Don Davis: http://HourDetroit.com/Hour-Detroit/March-2009/Right-on-the-Money
- Don Davis: http://DonDavisTheMan.com/dev
- United Sound Systems: http://www.retrokimmer.com/2011/02/behind-legendary-recording-studio.html
- Interior Photo, 2008, proves the studio was still in use at that time http://www.BfasBlondeau.com/exhibitions/31/works/14
- United Selected Discography: http://Discogs.com/label/United+Sound+Studios
- Final Environmental Impact Report Page at MDOT: http://Michigan.gov/mdot/0,4616,7-151-9621_11058_53088_53115-112105--,00.html
- MDOT_I-94_Rehabilitation_ROD_292072_7.pdf (Document detailing the I-94 expansion that will see United's demolition)
- MDOT_I-94_FEIS_Chapter_6_118005_7.pdf (Relevant FEIS Chapter which details United's eligability for NRHP status)
- Detroit Free Press Article, July 2013 http://www.freep.com/article/20130703/NEWS01/307030043/motown-sound-United-Sound-Systems-detroit-sound-conservancy-demolition-freeway-expansion-MDOT-barry-gordy-aretha-franklin-eminem
- Detroit Sound Conservancy: , http://detroitsoundconservancy.org/unitedsound/
- Michigan Department of Transportation, Final Environmental Impact Statement, 2004. http://www.michigan.gov/mdot/0,4616,7-151-9621_11058_53088_53115-112105--,00.html
- Whitall, Susan. "Saving United Sound: Legendary Detroit Studio set stave for Motown." Detroit News. 11 March 2014. <http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20140311/ENT04/303110012/0/ENT04/Saving-United-Sound-Legendary-Detroit-studio-set-stage-Motown>. (Accessed 11 March 2014).
- William Clark and Jim Cogan. Temples of Sound: Inside the Great Recording Studios. 2003.
- World News Article, December 2013. http://article.wn.com/view/2013/12/14/Musical_landmark_United_Sound_Systems_rebuilding_itself_to_w/
- Maki and Cady. Detroit Country Music: Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies (2013)