Motown as social history
(Provided / Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors)
Studio A, where many classic American hits were recorded, is preserved at Motown Historical Museum.
Provided / Motown Historical Museum
By Michael Schuman • Enquirer contributor
• November 23, 2008
While taking the
guided tour of the Motown Historical Museum in Detroit, one quickly
learns that the predominantly African-American Motown label was as much
a barometer of American social history of the 1960s and early 1970s as
a record company.
When 29-year-old Ford Motor Co. assembly line worker Berry Gordy
quit his job to make records in 1959, Jim Crow still ruled much of the
United States. Take a look at several early Motown album covers on
display and notice something intriguing. More accurately, notice the
lack of something.
Tour guide Peter Williams explained that the
recording artists’ photographs are missing from many early 1960s album
covers. He added, "Some disc jockeys felt that white kids wouldn’t want
to listen to music by black artists. The Marvelettes (album, ‘Please
Mr. Postman’) had only a drawing of a mailbox. The first two Isley
Brothers albums had white people on the covers."
It was only after the artists became established that their images graced Motown covers.
Motown performers and their staffs toured the nation by buses sans air
conditioning, sans bathrooms, sans reclining seats. They attracted
attacks in the South from the Ku Klux Klan who mistakenly believed the
integrated band personnel were freedom riders. Standing by a photo of
the marquee from Detroit’s Greystone Ballroom announcing the appearance
of Martha and the Vandellas, Mary Wells and the Contours, Williams
explained that the Greystone had a whites-only policy.
So how did Gordy get his acts to play there?
He bought the theater.
Change of themes
Through much of the 1960s, Motown songs were about every
songwriter’s staple, boy-meets-girl and boy-loses-girl romance,
including: "Stop In The Name of Love" by the Supremes; "Tears of a
Clown" by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles; "My Girl" by the
Temptations; "My Guy" by Wells. Motown artists were regulars on "The Ed
Sullivan Show," said Williams, because they were clean-cut. As he
pointed to the Temptations’ red and silver suits, Williams added that
the artists’ outfits were called uniforms, not costumes.
late 1960s, many Motown recordings were less about love and more about
social consciousness. Marvin Gaye’s brother was a soldier in Vietnam,
and Gaye was concerned that he would die in the war. Gaye questioned
what he saw and wrote the classic "What’s Going On?" The Temptations
went from singing about their ideal girl to reflecting on the breakdown
of the nuclear family in "Papa Was a Rolling Stone." Stevie Wonder sang
about urban strife in "Living for the City."
Standing by a wall
filled with photos of Motown’s best, we were let in on a little secret.
Despite the oft-repeated legend, the Jackson 5 were discovered not by
Supremes’ front woman Diana Ross but by Bobby Taylor of the
little-known Motown band Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. (Trivia note:
One member of the Vancouvers was Tommy Chong, who later went on to fame
as one half of the comedy duo Cheech and Chong).
Jackson 5 lead
singer and solo superstar Michael Jackson is represented by the fedora
and single glove he wore in his iconic performance of "Billie Jean" on
Motown’s 25th anniversary television special in 1983. Williams said
that Jackson donated $125,000 to the museum in its earliest days and
continued, "that donation speaks for itself. It was the biggest donation anyone
had given up until that time."
Simple tech, Supreme result
Yet in addition to telling the story of a record empire, the tour
also takes visitors back to the Mesozoic Age of music technology. The
control room, formerly a bedroom, is dominated by relics such as a
three-track console and rows of square boxes that would have contained
reel-to-reel recording tapes. In the former reception area, where
Martha Reeves, later leader of the Vandellas, once worked as a
receptionist, is a Teletype machine and a trio of rotary telephones.
Walk through Gordy’s apartment and one sees, aside from ’60s hallmarks
such as a box of Breeze dishwashing soap and a Kool-Aid pitcher, piles
of 45 rpm records and vintage copies of trade journals Downbeat and
In the age of computerized museum technology, the
Motown Historical Museum is low-key and low-tech. There is one chance
to be interactive, however.
In the studio, our second tour guide,
Jackson Barlett, asked for volunteers. A quartet of women stepped to
the front of the tour and were transformed into the Supremes plus one,
singing "Stop in the Name of Love," complete with choreographed hand
gestures and diva dip. A quartet of men then became the Temptations
minus one, singing and re-creating the patented Temptations walk.