Issue Date: January 11, 2009
Motown Turns 50
Music icon Smokey Robinson takes USA WEEKEND readers onan exclusive tour of Hitsville USA.
By Reyhaneh Fathieh
"When you hear about the Motown family, it really existed."
Motown has so deeply penetrated American culture that to define it simply as a "record label" is to commit a grave error of omission. At the very least, it's a "sound," and at most, it's a full-blown social movement.
A half-century after its start on Jan. 12, 1959, Motown's success and influence remain unmatched. The hit factory churned out countless classics (Baby Love, My Girl, Papa Was a Rolling Stone) and mass-produced legends (Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross).
This small, black-owned record label, which began with a measly $800 start-up family loan, somehow managed to change the face of music. And proof of the label's surprising humility is on display at Motown's original Detroit headquarters, known as Hitsville USA.
Here I was, on a private tour with Smokey Robinson, the music giant and Motown's former vice president, and the place is so shabby, the floor creaks with our every step. It seems a physical impossibility that the bottom floor of this single-family home -- basically two rooms and a garage -- at one time was a hangout for the Temptations, the Four Tops and the Supremes.
It only takes a few steps for Robinson and me to navigate the premises. As we move from room to room, Robinson, 68, explains how Motown's founder, Berry Gordy Jr., transformed a humdrum home on West Grand Boulevard into an American landmark. The living room became the company's reception area, where Martha Reeves and Diana Ross once answered phones. The kitchen was converted into a control room; the hallway, a makeshift sound booth; and the garage, a recording studio.
The cramped quarters forged a sort of camaraderie, a familial warmth. "When you hear about the Motown family, it really existed. We are all brothers and sisters," Robinson says. "You came here because this was the hanging spot. Everybody was going to be at Hitsville. In the studio, we had a ping pong table where guys would play. We even had chess tournaments."
You get a sense that Robinson is not exaggerating. In fact, on the day of my visit, Motown alumni Kim Weston and Four Tops' Abdul "Duke" Fakir are in the house. "It was like our own fraternity," says Fakir, moments before he runs over to Robinson for a brotherly hug. Watching them joke around, one would never suspect they were once rivals.
In its heyday, Hitsville was a notoriously competitive record label. And with the likes of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder pitted against each other, it was quite a fight. "As much as we liked the Miracles and the Temptations, when it came to recording, we would try to outdo them," Fakir says. "We'd say, 'Man, we have to get a No. 1 song because the Temptations got a No. 1.' Then, we'd make bets on who could get to No. 1 first."
Maybe that sort of drive was necessary, given Motown's lofty goal of integrating the pop charts. "On the very first day of Motown," Robinson says, "Berry sat us down and said, 'We are not going to make black music. We are going to make music for the world.' It was the company mission."
In 1961, just two years after that first meeting, the Marvelettes' Please Mr. Postman topped the Billboard Hot 100 -- a feat that was to be repeated over and over again by Motown artists. Robinson remembers being on tour and looking out into the crowd, where he could see firsthand the label's cultural impact. He says that, at first, "the audience wouldn't be mingling. White people would be on one side and black people on the other. But after they started digging on the music, we'd go back [to the same venue], and they would be dancing and hanging together. The music bridged a lot of gaps. It brought people together. I'm proud of that."