Day 16 North America Tour- Thursday 26th July 2007
After last night’s ordeal in the hotel, we woke up at 11am feeling reasonably refreshed. We decided that since we were in the home of Motown, we’d go and visit the place where it all began - Hitsville USA, 2648 West Grand Boulevard - the address is where Berry Gordy started the first Motown record label with his boxing friend, Jackie Wilson and encouragement from Smokey Robinson.
Tippi, Frank and myself went along to have a look at the actual studio where The Supremes, The Temptations, The Miracles, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye recorded all the famous Motown hits that we still know and love today.
It was fascinating to be looking round the control room of the studio and seeing the broken tiles on the floor where the engineers had once stamped their feet in time to the music being performed in front of them. I stood in the live room itself beside the grand piano that was used in every single Tamla record you’ll have heard.
Right next to that was Stevie Wonder’s Ludwig drum kit and vibraphone. I was desperate for a picture but sadly there was no photography allowed. We even saw Michael Jackson’s white glove and black hat! He donated it to the museum along with a cheque for $125 000 even though he was on the Sony label at the time. He just wanted to show his appreciation to the label that introduced him to great music that came to influence his career.
The flat where Berry Gordy and his wife had lived, above the actual studio, was still there and partly restored. The couch that Marvin Gaye himself slept on after recording at 2 and 3 in the morning was still there. I just couldn’t believe that one of my favourite records, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, had been recorded in that very studio.
The foyer of the studio where all the artists could come and go at any time of day or night to record was fascinating too. The reception desk with 3 old fashioned dial phones was still there and Diana Ross was in fact an employee at one time, answering those phones when she worked as a backing singer. There was a vending machine with sweets in it, sweets that had been there since 1970 and we were told that there was one sweet in particular, a Babe Ruth, that was put in the same section every time the machine was re-stocked in order that Stevie Wonder would know where to get it need assistance to get one whenever he had a craving!
We learned that the studio itself, the garage of the house that had been converted, was affectionately known as the snake pit amongst all the artists since it was always filled with cigarette smoke and sweaty musicians laying down number one hits in a non-air conditioned room. It got so hot in the room that they would try and get the tracks done in one take so they could get out for fresh air as soon as possible. It seemed to be a really homely place with the musicians welcome to come and go at any time since at Tamla they knew inspiration and ideas for great songs can come at night and easily be gone by the morning. As a result there was always someone there to let you in the door and use the recording facilities.
When Berry Gordy and his wife had to move out to a bigger house, the living room and kitchen was opened up for the musicians to hang out. Berry Gordy employed a cook, knowing that wherever there’s free food, musicians will hang around! The cook was on hand to make sure Stevie Wonder and his cronies got a square meal. Apparently the chilli was a favourite.
There was no fancy technology in those days with everything recorded on reel to reel tape. That studio was in fact the first in the world to get an 8 track recorder installed. As far as vocal effects went, there was one effect commonly used. They wanted to make the records sound as though they’d been taped at a live performance on a big stage. Obviously there was no computer software to emulate this but a 17 year old boy came up with an idea. He cut a square shape in the ceiling that led to the attic. When you stand under the hole in the ceiling and sing, you can hear the echo. So they’d put a speaker and a microphone right up into the hole in the ceiling and sample the vocals and then take the recording of that down to the studio where they’d mix it into the track. The fact that a 17 year old boy could come up with that was brilliant. It was the ethos of the label to employ young creative people, to let them run with ideas and see what happened. The average age of an employee there was 23 so it was a very young, hip company.
The whole tour was an amazing experience and I’m so glad we took the time to go and see it before we left for Indianapolis. We’re on the road for there now and thankfully we have a night off as we’re quite tired. If the Motown artists could hear me say that now they would say we have no stamina since we had a look at one of Tamla Records’ tour itineraries We thought we had travelling to do! These people were never off tour, spending days on end on a bus with no air con, no reclining seats and no toilet. Given that most the artists were black and the times that they were living in, doing gigs and travelling made it pretty tough. It’s ridiculous to think this happened looking back but when those musicians were travelling in that bus across America, they couldn’t stop at toilets, eat in cafes or stay in some hotels. As they were black, they weren’t allowed. They would mostly sleep on the bus, eat there and have to hold their bladders for a whole day. The bus was once attacked by Klu Klux Klan who thought that as there were white people on the bus too, that they were some kind of freedom demonstrators. They smashed the windows with stones and boulders causing panic. The most famous venue in Detroit, The Greystone Ballroom would not allow black musicians to play, so once Gordy Berry made his millions, he bought the theatre over, allowing him to showcase his artists there whenever he wanted.
I never expected that we’d see so much history in such a small, modest looking house that was smack bang in the middle of a really rough party of town. The houses round about the studio were mostly in a bad way, with windows boarded up and gardens like forests. Even the KFC along the road had bullet proof glass across the tills to protect the staff. It’s not the kind of place you’d want to be walking around looking lost!
Even though the museum was incredibly interesting, I still felt a slight sadness on stepping outside and seeing the state the area is in now. It’s hard to imagine that the most amazing singers and musicians in the world once walked those streets and lived in those houses. Some were within walking distance of the studio and were pupils of the local high school. It must’ve been amazing to grow up there at that time being a musician. At least I can appreciate the work they did today.
Well, I didn’t expect to be returning to the blog again today since not a lot happens when we don’t have a show! We’re currently an hour away from Indianapolis and have just pulled in at a gas station. I was just guzzling a diet coke (definitely addicted) when we completely froze on hearing the sound of an air raid siren. We asked in the gas station what it was for and we were told that it’s a tornado warning. Our eyes were out on stalks! Rosie couldn’t text home quick enough and I couldn’t get my computer booted up fast enough! The guy behind the counter looked at us as if we were country bumpkins and said sarcastically; “well it’s not called Tornado Alley for nothing‘”. Well duh. Pardon my ignorance but the closet a wee lassie fae Gourock gets to a tornado is a gale force wind howling up the Clyde taking a few slates and dogs with it.
Right now there is loads of thunder and lightening. The heavens have just opened and there are massive lumps of rain! The sky is has turned black and the birds are flying about mad not knowing where to go. It’s so exciting! We’ve just turned off the freeway towards Indianapolis and towards the storm! There’s no place like home! There’s no place like home! We can see a dark funnel shape away in the distance but we are now heading away from the drama. Damn.
Well we made it to Indianapolis in one piece. After sitting in the bus all day, I’m having to go out and explore since my legs feel like they don’t work anymore. Frank and Gill and I are going to head out to see what’s nearby. So over and out until tomorrow’s update.