Some of my favorite moments in my travels have been when I was allowed to participate in some act that helped convey the sense of the historical place I was visiting. One beautiful example was when I visited Colonial Williamsburg in 1995. Another happened yesterday when I visited the site of the original Motown Record recording studio on 2648 West Grand Boulevard in downtown Detroit.
I had just finished a morning visit at the Edsel and Clara Ford mansion located at Grosse Point Shores (Michigan’s equivalent of the Hamptons for New Yorkers). Now I was venturing into downtown Detroit, into a world diametrically opposite of that Grosse Pointe.
The Motown Museum (it has been converted into such) is situated next to a funeral parlor. The house itself is quite small and yet from that small house containing one recording studio, Berry Gordy, Jr. and the rest of the Gordy family altered not only the face of music but also the entire world as well. How much of the world’s culture since 1958 has been influenced or changed by Motown music? The Motown sound is a cultural icon on par with Elvis, the Beatles, or the Rolling Stones; the Motown forming at least a healthy portion of the carapace of world music.
I was part of a tour group as we were ushered into the various rooms containing artifacts from the various artists who were discovered by Motown: Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, etc. Our tour guide gave us a lovely demonstration. She told us that Berry Gordy used a hole in the ceiling that exposed the attic as an echo chamber. The tour guide stood underneath the hole and clapped her hands loudly and what we heard was the same echoing handclaps that start the Supreme’s classic Baby Love.
But the best was saved for last. The final stop was inside Studio A proper. For me this was a first for me. I have never set foot inside an actual recording studio. I came close twice. Once in New Orleans in 1993 when I visited the late Allen Toussaint’s Sea Saint Studios and the other time was a few years ago when I visited RCA Studios where Elvis and many other Country and Western legends recorded their music. I saw the outside of the studio but never got to go into the studio. Now, at Motown, I (along with the others in the tour group) was going to do just that.
For starters, the studio was very small and cramped. The mikes hung from the ceiling and when you added the studio musicians along with the recording artists proper it makes for a very tight squeeze. (The tour guide also mentioned that there was no air conditioning when they were recording there from 1958 to 1972 so add intense heat and cigarette smoke to the atmospherics of the place and what you got—as the tour guide put it—was what the Motown artists called the “Snake Pit”).
We stood inside the studio and what followed took us all by surprise. The tour guide asked all the men to stand on one side of the studio and the women on the other side. There were six or seven guys in the group—counting myself. The tour guide then asked us to watch her every move. The tour guide proceeded to teach us the famous dance steps used by the Temptations and asked us to sing the chorus to their classic hit My Girl. And so picture yours truly who cannot dance a bloody dance step at all, moving his hips and hands and singing that famed chorus, “My Girl, My Girl, My Girl, talking about My Girl. My Girl!”
Luckily I survived and drew a round of hysterical laughter from the ladies in the group but then the joke was on them. Now the tour guide asked all the women to switch sides with the men and they were then taught the famous dance steps of the Supremes and had them do Stop! In the name of Love.
And the ladies did it. Quite lovely, I must say.
And with that the tour guide proudly told us that now each of us could truthfully proclaim that we had performed live in Motown Studios!
And with that the tour was over.
I will treasure (and savor) that moment for the rest of my life. I still have one question though. I wonder if they let you do that the famed Abbey Road studios in London, England?????
It’s nice to see a fantasy come true.
If you ever visit Detroit, please visit the Motown Museum. It’s a true American Experience.