Paige Pfleger: Motown Museum in Detroit captures spirit of Hitsville U.S.A.

By Paige Pfleger, Detroit Arts Columnist
Published February 23, 2014

Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Temptations, Diana Ross, The Jackson 5 — all of these renowned artists came together to create one of Detroit’s namesakes: The Motown Sound. Motown Records was founded by Barry Gordy in 1959, in the midst of racial tumult in the city of Detroit. Falling between the race riots of 1943 and the riots of 1967, the creation of Motown infiltrated the white-dominated music industry with a soulful pop sound.

Berry Gordy started off opening a record shop dedicated to jazz music in 1953, and it soon closed due to lack of a market. After opening Motown Records, he hired unemployed jazz musicians from the area to form his in-house band, the Funk Brothers. Gordy’s business model was made to replicate the assembly line process Ford had adopted for making cars, but Gordy used it to crank out hits. His idea was that an African American kid off the streets could walk into the Hitsville U.S.A. offices as an unknown, and emerge from the other side a star.

In the early days, the beauty of Motown music wasn’t being seen — it was merely being listened to. As Gordy developed the Motown sound, he purposefully shielded the race of the performers from radio disc jockeys and other potential markets for the music to prevent racism holding the music back. Gordy carried this out was by hiding the identity of the artists on the record’s album cover art, as most of Motown’s earlier albums displayed a variation of geometric patterns as opposed to the faces of the performers. It wasn’t until the musicians gained popularity among a young white audience that Gordy allowed the artists to be revealed as African Americans, and the Motown sound grew into a dynasty — one of the most successful African American owned and run businesses of the time.

Today, the immense history of the evolution of Motown can be seen in full in one place: Hitsville U.S.A., Motown’s first headquarters on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit. The white building sits back on a grassy lawn with a massive sign stuck in it that reads “Motown Museum.” Its window frames and doors are painted blue, and a sign spans the length of the house says Hitsville U.S.A. in cursive letters. Upstairs are Barry Gordy’s old living quarters, and downstairs is the infamous Studio A. Right next to the studio is a candy machine that still holds Stevie Wonder’s favorite candy bar, a Baby Ruth, in it’s customary spot fourth from the right so Wonder always knew where to find it.

The house was converted into a museum in 1985 after Motown had moved to Los Angeles. Esther Gordy, Berry’s sister woke up one morning, looked out the window and saw people lined up on her lawn, snapping pictures of the place where Motown began. She called up her husband in L.A. and told him, “I think we made history, and we didn’t even know it.” The conversion from house to museum was easy — leave everything exactly as it was, including a Kool-Aid mug on the kitchen counter and Wonder’s favorite candy bar. It’s joined to a brick house next door, formerly the publishing office, which is now home to hundreds of Motown artifacts, among them photos, records, one of Michael Jackson’s fedoras and his white studded right hand glove that he wore the first time he performed the moonwalk.

For Detroit native Antonio Dandridge, the Motown dynasty has shaped the entirety of his life. When he was three years old, Dandridge told his mom he wanted to sing, and not only that — he wanted to sing Motown music.

“The way the Motown singers made me feel was the way that I wanted to make my audience feel when I performed,” Dandridge said. “It’s a great story to tell, because they didn’t have anything, and they made something out of nothing.”

Dandridge began visiting the museum when he was seven and has gone consistently ever since. He followed through on his word and traveled around the globe singing Motown music. When he returned three years ago, Dandridge became a museum docent and changed the style of the tours through the Motown Museum — he began singing Motown songs and dancing Motown dances, turning the tour into a full out performance that became one of the many things that draw people from around the world to the West Grand Boulevard location.

“I really love working there. I love Motown,” Dandridge said. “To see people come out and some cry, some laugh, some thank you for taking them down memory lane. All of the members that work there, all of the staff, all have a passion for Motown and really have a passion for the music. That’s what makes it really enjoyable to work there. We dance, and we sing, and we have a lot of fun.”

A world map in the front hall of the museum boasts an immense number of pins, placed by visitors from all over — France, England, Egypt, and more. Tens of thousands of people flock to the museum each year, and in the summer months the line wraps around the block with people waiting to see the home of The Motown sound.

Though Dandridge is moving on from Detroit, he isn’t leaving Motown behind; he’ll be performing in a Motown show on Carnival Cruise ships touring around the Caribbean islands. Motown has been the catalyst that has directed his life, and the impact is reciprocal — the Museum has been impacted by his presence and the time he has given back to it can be seen through the songs sung by tour guides into the echo chamber upstairs or when people dance to The Temptations in Studio A.

“It’s a part of American Culture. It’s a part of the songs of Motown; it’s the soundtrack of the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and even now. It really shaped people. Music is a universal language, and that’s what Motown really gave. A lot of people go back to Motown music because it makes them laugh. It makes them cry. It had a lot of emotion. People should come to learn about it.”