Sources: Daily Mail – By Ted Thornhill | All Things Michael
Studio A. Some would argue that what happened right where I’m standing changed the world.
To look at, it’s not much. There’s a grand piano, a couple of music stands, some rudimentary-looking sound-proofing, some black-and-white photographs, microphones, a drum kit and an old synthesizer.
But the roll call of who played the piano and synthesizer, and sung into those microphones, is enough to hush the tour group I’m with to a reverential silence.
The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Marvelettes, The Four Tops… Their careers all took off after they’d recorded tracks here in Studio A, in Hitsville, Detroit. The home of Motown.
Sacred spot: Ted at the hallowed ground of Studio A, where the likes of The Jackson 5 and Marvin Gaye recorded hits
A certain famous Liverpudlian once made a pilgrimage to this hallowed spot. We learn that he stood in the studio in awe, simply wanting to pay homage to the talent that was incubated here.
Then he noticed that the grand piano was in poor condition, so he offered to pay for its restoration as a way of thanking the Motown record company for the music it had bestowed on the world’s ear drums.
His name was Paul McCartney.
I’m on a music-themed road trip, exploring the rich musical heritage of Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit.
From blues to jazz, rock and roll to Motown, I’m paying homage to some of the genres that developed in these cities and helped these cities develop, tracing some of them to their source and plugging into the buzz at bars and cafes that champion them.
The visit to Hitsville, which isn’t a town, by the way, but a house on West Grand Boulevard, is quite extraordinary.
Pondering its sheer musical fertility is enough to make you dizzy. And though the studio isn’t used any more, there is still a star at work there – tour guide Peggy Adams.
Her inside knowledge, charisma and enthusiasm is something to behold – on a couple of occasions she even stirs our tour group into singing Motown hits My Girl by The Temptations and Heard It Through The Grapevine by Marvin Gaye.
Hitsville has been left undisturbed since records were made here between 1959 and 1972. You can gaze upon the sofa Marvin Gaye slept on inbetween his warbling sessions and eye the floorboards worn down by foot-tapping in the edit suite overlooking Studio A.
Rather astonishingly, we bump into Motown’s former head of PR, Miller London, during a pitstop at Bert’s Market Place – an event-venue-cum-jazz café that happens to excel at down-home bbq fodder.
Mr Miller lends Bert’s his marketing nous – something he possesses in spades. After all, this is the man who helped propel Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye to superstardom.
He’s a friendly, chatty soul and obligingly poses for photographs next to some of the gold Motown discs that he’s had put up at Bert’s.
‘Working at Motown was wonderful,’ he tells me. ‘I wouldn’t change a single day. Apart from the day Motown was sold.’
The next stop on our musical pilgrimage is United Sound Systems Recording Studios. Founded in 1933, it was the first major independent recording studio in the U.S – and another studio that wears a disguise.
United Sound Systems Recording Studios
Like Hitsville, it was originally a residential property. Screw your eyes up and it almost looks abandoned – but the huge hangar-style extension gives the game away.
This is where the biggest studio can be found.
And inside, it’s a classy affair. Floors formed from rich, burnished wood run between walls adorned with gold and silver discs celebrating the label’s artists.
Here we’re talking about legendary funk musicians such as George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, plus, the likes of Whitney Houston, R-Kelly and John Lee Hooker have warbled into its mics.
It’s also where Aretha Franklin and The Rolling Stones recorded the song and video for Jumpin’ Jack Flash.
USSRS is still doing business today and we’re taken on a guided tour around its three hi-tech recording studios, mesmerised yet again to be standing where so many stars have cut tracks.
Detroit is rightly proud of its musical heritage – and equally proud of the vibrant music-making in its bars and clubs.
Bert’s is a pillar of the scene, with two other venues crucial parts of the architecture.
Cliff Bell’s – established in 1935, closed between 1985 and 2005, then renovated – is a jazz club of some note. Generous quantities of mahogany and brass adorn its lavish art-deco speak-easy-style interior, immediately making us wish we’d donned suits and trilbies.
Had I been wearing one I would have tipped it to the manager for fixing semi-circular tables to the bar – both thoughtful and stylish.
This is an establishment dedicated to top-end crooning, with the likes of Chicago’s jazz vocalist Sam Fazio gracing the stage regularly.
Baker’s Keyboard Lounge is similarly memorable, thought it won’t be if you have too many of the generously alcoholic gin and tonics.
You’ll find it a few miles from downtown Detroit, but it’s well worth a cab fare. It’s the city’s oldest jazz club – and a historically significant one – with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davies and Nat ‘King’ Cole all having played there.
The bar is shaped like a grand piano, with a black-and-white key-style bar top. Very groovy.
Bands play next door in a dimly lit lounge area.
The night we visit it’s populated with some very friendly locals who even introduce us to the star of the upcoming performance – vocalist Armond.
It has a brilliant house party atmosphere – and it’s all from the heart.
Cleveland is the next stop on our pilgrimage – or, as one local described it to me by email before I flew the pond, ‘the mistake on the lake’.
Don’t be put off, though. Okay, it’s not Manhattan, and yes, this industrial, gritty city (there’s a concrete and stone works adjacent to the downtown area, for starters) seems more at home with its sleeves rolled up than with evening finery – but there’s a feast of fun and intrigue awaiting tourists. Especially music-loving ones.
The main draw is The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame by the lakefront.
From the outside it looks like a Swiss bank from the 22nd century, but inside it’s rock’n’ roll to the core, with a bewildering array of rock-themed treasures and information.
The volume of memorabilia on show is just astonishing. John Lennon’s upright piano? Check. Michael Jackson’s fedora? Check. Kurt Cobain’s cardigan? Check.
My journalist antenna takes me quickly to the Rolling Stone magazine exhibit, which features letters written to the founding editor from John Lennon and Mick Jagger and an internal memo from the then sports editor Raoul Duke to the staff complaining that the head office had become a ‘dude ranch’.
It’s fascinating. And what the museum does so utterly brilliantly is that not only does it wow you with the personal effects of global superstars, but it tells you the story of rock and roll – and of several other major music movements – using immersive video exhibits and interactive technology, including jukeboxes with Beats by Dr Dre headphones.
Michael Jackson exhibit at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
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