Detroit’s Music Museum: Hitsville: USA

Motown - Ted Eytan

photo: Ted Eytan, creative commons license

If the button for your car radio’s Oldies’ station is shiny from use, there’s a travel stop for you in Detroit.  The Motown Museum’s headquarters and studio, Hitsville, USA, contained in two connected American Foursquares at 2648 West Grand Boulevard.

Once success arrived, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr., had offices and operations departments in seven houses he owned on both sides of the street, later expanding into a ten-story office building, and eventually moving his whole operation to Los Angeles in 1972. But these buildings are the original home of the Gordy family, as well as the enterprise that created the soundtrack of the 1960s and 19970s: Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Supremes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson, The Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, and so many more.

Gordie’s sister Esther Gordy Edwards recognized the importance of this original spot and founded the museum in 1985. When Gordy lived there, local kids who had a musical idea were welcome day or night, under the theory that “you can’t put a time limit on creativity.”

Gordie recruited a backup band from Detroit jazz clubs, that became legendary as the Funk Brothers (fantastic documentary about them: Standing in the Shadow of Motown). Likewise one of his girl groups, the Andantes, served as backup singers on dozens of iconic records, from “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” to “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” Gordy wanted music and lyrics that were upbeat. “Part storefront church gospel, part jazz joint on a Saturday night, part street corner symphony,” that was the Motown Sound.

Though many Motown performers became major stars, they started as neighborhood kids. They knew each other from living down the block or around the corner, and many of them weren’t out of high school yet. Gordy set up an “artist personal development” program for them, headed by talent agent Maxine Powell, who taught grooming, poise, and social graces, to give these young people the polish that would support their success.

Museum visits are conducted by tour leaders in small groups and include a brief film plus an opportunity to sing in the legendary Studio A, where so much great music was created. The costume display, sample records, and photographs of those early days are amazing, though your tour group will move ahead before you can begin to read all the captions!


Selma, Martin Luther King, civil rights

David Oyelowo as Rev. Martin Luther King

The movie Selma (trailer), directed by Ava DuVernay is a beautifully realized reminder of the struggle for black voting rights half a century ago. Casting was so perfect that viewers who know the real-life characters can easily identify Andy Young (André Holland), John Lewis (Stephan James), and other era heroes. (As a Detroit native, I’m glad the movie remembered murdered Viola Liuzzo.)

Some commenters have quibbled with the movie’s historical accuracy—especially the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson—but it isn’t a documentary, after all, and the presentation is probably more accurate than not. In a personal conversation, a White House insider at the time told me he heard Johnson said to King, “You have to force me to do what I want to do.” The political risks were too great (and chances of success too small) for Johnson to act unilaterally on voting rights, but if the pressure and public outrage became strong enough—as it did become after Bloody Sunday—he would act and did.

David Oyelowo is perfect as Rev. Martin Luther King—thoughtful but fiery when he needed to be, and he has King’s oratorical cadences down perfectly. Tom Wilkinson is always good, but I missed Lyndon’s Texas accent. Oprah, awesome. And Wendell Pierce could just stand anywhere, and I’d be with him a hundred percent. The whole cast, sincere and convincing.

My biggest frustration about the movie is the reaction to it. I hope leaders (black and white) use the triumphal feeling it engenders to remind people how important the courage and sacrifices of the Movement were. (And those of the Suffragettes before them.) But what’s happening now? People—black and white, men and women—don’t even bother to use their vote. They may vote for President every four years, but the person at the pinnacle has a lot less influence over our daily lives than the people in the state house, the mayor’s office, the township committee, the school board. The candidates are all lousy, you say? Crackpot idealogues? Those people get picked in the primary elections which have even lower voter turnout, except among extremists. When people don’t vote in primaries, every extremist’s vote counts more.

Further, the justifiable pride being expressed regarding the accomplishments of the heroes of Selma should be turned into anger at the way the Voting Rights Act is now being chipped away in state legislatures. New restrictions on voters are transparently intended to limit the votes of minority and young people. Perhaps the movie will be popular in these groups and be an educational and motivational tool, so that effective campaigns can be mounted against these voting restrictions.

What’s the point of feeling good about this struggle of 50 years ago if we let it lapse into meaninglessness through apathy today? Rev. King believed the power of the vote was the key to changing people’s future, and I believe it would break his heart to see how that right has been degraded.