Motown left Detroit in 1972, but its spirit hangs on

by Brian McCollum

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

16 January 2009

Motown's headquarters once stood on this empty lot next to I-75 near Woodward in Detroit, Michigan. Today, it's sometimes used for parking. (Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press/MCT) 

DETROIT - The dried ferns that blow across the vacant lot at Woodward and the Fisher Freeway are like little rolling cliches, bits of tumbleweed emphasizing where life used to happen.

Motown Records’ headquarters once stood here, a 10-story office splashed with the label’s familiar blue-and-white scheme. After decades sitting empty, deserted by Motown in 1972 in favor of Los Angeles, the building was razed in 2006.

Mounds of hardened dirt remain from the demolition, flanking the flattened space that’s occasionally used for parking. From this dead block you can spot the Fox Theatre, site of Motown’s early high-energy shows. Down the road is the company’s original home office, now the museum where the label’s history is showcased.

This lot was Motown’s departure point, but it’s not Motown’s graveyard. You can still find Motown in Motown. Sometimes you just have to know where to look.

Visitors to Detroit, especially musical tourists here for events such as the annual techno fest, often say they’re surprised by the lack of visible Motown evidence. Many carve time for a trip to the Motown Historical Museum, armed with cameras and ready for a round of goose bumps.

Motown still lives in every American city - on the airwaves, in bar bands, on jukeboxes. But it doesn’t live anywhere quite like it lives in Detroit. The city’s relationship with Motown Records has been a complicated one, a swirl of pride, affection, abandonment, even jealousy.

It’s a story of trust eroded and rebuilt. Longtime residents remember the jilted feelings after the label’s departure, just as Motown was evolving into the world’s biggest black-owned company.

“Folks were very resentful. People felt like they’d missed out on something,” recalls Hank Cook, 59, a lifelong Detroiter and Baptist deacon. “It felt like another blow for Detroit.”

Many Motowners, including most behind-the-scenes personnel, stayed in Michigan. The big stars left, although some reluctantly - including Smokey Robinson, who plied founder Berry Gordy Jr. with books about earthquakes in a futile attempt to change his friend’s mind.

Gordy’s motivation was simple: He wanted to make movies. When “Lady Sings the Blues” grabbed five Oscar nominations in 1973, he got his vindication.

“After the dust cleared, people started to understand,” says Cook. “They made peace once they saw where Berry Gordy was going with this. They began to see what was necessary for taking it to that next level.”

Gordy says he “never felt bad” about his decision.

“When I’d come back, people would ask me about that,” he says. “And I’d tell them, ‘I’m a Detroiter. Wherever I go, I take Detroit with me.’”

Still, for locals, time would bring more stings: the long-promised Motown entertainment complex that never materialized. The choice of Pittsburgh for a Temptations movie shoot. The emerging tales of unpaid royalties.

But Detroit is stuck to Motown, and Motown to Detroit. The relationship is built into the very name, the one Gordy coined because “Motor City Records” seemed too cold. Detroiters, he says, “were more like town folks, so warm and loving.”

Detroit’s working musicians, young and old, use words such as “integrity” and “reverence” to describe their emotional bond to Motown. It’s not just the R&B cats: Kid Rock has name-checked the label in his hit songs, and garage-rockers such as the Detroit Cobras keep a repertoire of Motown tunes.

The city’s musical roll call includes people such as Tony Womack, a tenor who linked up five years ago with Sylvester Potts’ Contours. The old Motown group is a living endurance feat, having survived the decades with a revolving cast of singers. At gigs in Detroit and across the country - state fairs, oldies shows, corporate shindigs - the quartet plays a 90-minute revue of Hitsville fare, including Contours chestnuts such as “Do You Love Me.”

Stepping into such a role comes with a sense of duty, Womack says.

“The real pressure is to not let the integrity of the group and the sound go down,” he says. “The important thing is to keep the music where it’s supposed to be.”

Singer-songwriter Kem Owens, 39, is the city’s best embodiment of modern Motown. A self-described “Diana Ross junkie,” he spent his days in high-school algebra class pestering Ross’ nephew for insights. Kem was signed to Motown Records in 2001; today he’s one of two Detroiters on the roster, the other being R&B singer Suai, who just joined the label.

Kem went gold with his Motown albums in ‘02 and ‘05. He’s finishing work on a third record, due for release this summer. Sessions take place at Masterpiece Studio on Detroit’s northwest side, a handsome room once operated by Sylvia Moy, the Hitsville songwriter whose credits include Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour.”

A Motown production has different trimmings now. The clunky tape reels have been replaced by sleek digital gear, and e-mail keeps Kem in touch with label staffers on the coasts. But as he arrives at Masterpiece each morning, trotting down a set of steps into the basement studio, Kem gets his own version of Hitsville’s Studio A.

Kem’s smooth love songs come with a modern polish and an old-school class. Unlike his music peers in football jerseys and scruffy jeans, Kem takes cues from acts such as the Tempts and the Miracles, sporting custom suits and Salvatore Ferragamo cuff links: “I’m one of the folks trying to preserve that.”

As a child watching Ross’ television specials, he soaked up some fundamental Motown lessons.

“She comes from the back of the house with a fur coat on,” he recalls with a laugh. “She walks into the room and she’s a star. That’s what Motown was and is: making people feel like they’re watching and experiencing something special.

“That’s the standard to live up to. I’m carrying on in that tradition, and I’m very grateful and humbled when I really think about that.”

Because Detroit was a town made for cars, Detroit was a town made for radio.

Motown music has been a fixture of Dick Purtan’s career since his earliest days. The Four Tops’ “Baby I Need Your Loving” was among the first songs he spun at Detroit’s WKNR-AM when he debuted as a disc jockey there in ‘65.

WKNR billed itself then as “your home for the Detroit sound!” Today that title belongs to WOMC-FM, a station perennially ranked in the market’s Top 10. Inside the station’s glossy digs, veteran jocks such as Purtan and Ted (the Bear) Richards say spinning Motown in its hometown is a special role.

The traits that made Motown singles attractive to programmers long ago - “upbeat, positive, easy to dance to,” Purtan says - are the same ones that keep them on the air. In 2008, songs by Motown’s six biggest classic artists were played nearly 1 million times on American radio, according to Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems, mostly on oldies stations like WOMC.

Today Purtan is one of the market’s most recognizable morning voices, a member of the National Radio Hall of Fame. He gets paid to talk, but if anything vies for equal billing, it’s Motown music - usually two or three tunes each shift.

“There’s probably more of that category than any other artist or group of artists,” he says of WOMC’s playlist. “Even the Beatles.”

Elected to Detroit City Council in 2005, the veteran Motown performer Martha Reeves now leads a two-pronged life - politician by day, “dancing in the street on weekends.” She has already used her council seat to muscle Motown into the picture, passing proclamations that she presents at funerals and other gatherings.

In 2007, with Gordy at her side, she led a ceremony renaming a stretch of West Grand to Berry Gordy Jr. Boulevard, though drivers today won’t necessarily know it: Two of the street signs have already been wrestled down and presumably sit in some fan’s personal collection.

Reeves would like to see the city limits adorned with plaques: WELCOME TO HITSVILLE USA. And she’s got statues in her sights. In her charmingly cluttered office sit colorful miniature models devised by an Alabama sculptor, including mockups of the Supremes, Stevie Wonder and Reeves herself.

Despite the economic hurdles, Reeves is aiming to secure $3 million in private funds to erect the statues across Detroit.

“It would be nice if we could have more than Joe Louis’ arm,” she says.

Residents in the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects aren’t thinking too much about Motown these days.

This neighborhood, off the Chrysler Freeway just east of John R, is where Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard became friends and, eventually, the Supremes. Today it’s a registered Michigan Historic Site, noted by a graffiti-streaked marker near St. Antoine Street, the site of Ross’ teenage home.

That dwelling is long gone, razed in 1991 with the rest of the Brewster’s row houses. They were replaced by 250 federally funded town homes.

On the horizon loom four long-deserted apartment high-rises, their windows hollow, the fixtures stripped for scrap metal. The buildings are occupied by elderly vagrants - “old, sick, hungry and half-dead,” as one Brewster resident describes them.

With the setting sun gleaming off the distant GM Renaissance Center, neighbors cast wary eyes at a writer and photographer walking Brewster’s streets. A UPS driver issues a be-careful warning. Residents flinch at requests to be photographed.

“People automatically think y’all are the police,” notes one by way of apology.

In the projects, there are more pressing concerns than Supremes nostalgia, and talk of Ross elicits mixed reactions. Teens and their younger siblings certainly know the name and the songs, but appear to feel little emotional link. At best, it seems, this is mama’s music.

Bernice Wilkerson, a spry 74-year-old out for her daily walk, isn’t surprised.

“This particular generation is ... hmm. It’s rare. They possibly don’t even know much about her life,” she says.

Still, “this neighborhood takes pride in her,” Wilkerson says of Ross. “It gives people, especially children, something to look forward to: ‘Well, if they can do it, I can do it too.’ “

But some neighbors are less charitable, accusing the globetrotting superstar of abandoning her roots. Ross’ high-profile fund-raising efforts for Manhattan’s Central Park, 500 miles away, were salt in the wound.

Kathy Dyer, a 58-year-old helping raise her grandchildren, issues a plea: “Diana, the Brewsters need you. We need help. We need financial support for our youngsters.”

Brewster residents talk of the night a few years back when a limousine rolled through the neighborhood. Nobody knows for sure, but it’s widely believed that Ross, in town for a concert, was here for a glimpse of her past.

“She didn’t throw no money out the window,” says one middle-aged male neighbor, who declined to be named. “I ain’t saying she’s a bad woman. But you’ve gotta spread your blessings. That’s what God says: If you get blessings, give blessings.”

The prospects for Motown redux seem bleak.

“There might be a new Diana Ross down here - a young, up-and-coming Diana Ross,” says the man. “But we’ll never know.”

On an anonymous autumn weeknight on Detroit’s east side, the Motown sound spills out onto Harper Avenue.

Inside the Mugshot Bar & Grill, Impact 7 is the evening’s entertainment. The cover band has been playing its lively, horn-drenched Motown sets around town for more than a decade. Lead singer George Anderson, 54, is a hefty fellow with the voice to match.

“I want you to see me, but feel David Ruffin. I want you to see me, but feel Marvin Gaye,” he says. “When you hear Impact 7, you’re going to hear a conglomeration of all these guys in one big guy - me.”

Mugshot is a scruffy spot with a warm, lived-in vibe. Draft beer and cigarettes line the tables of several dozen patrons. Men don big smiles as they ask for a woman’s hand; the ladies smile back and get up to dance.

The Motown Museum may have the memorabilia, but it’s places like this where Motown truly endures in Detroit. On a typical evening the jukebox shimmies with a blend of country, rock ‘n’ roll and Hitsville classics; above it, the animated chatter of black, white and Hispanic voices.

“The atmosphere - it’s like you’re in heaven,” says a spunky, 57-year-old regular by the name of Mona Lisa (“just like the portrait”), who has mingled with many of these folks for years.

She’s not being melodramatic when she says Motown and Mugshot are the culmination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.‘s dream.

“You can play this music all day long, seven days a week, and it’s gonna touch somebody,” she says. “It’s gonna touch old, young, it doesn’t matter. You can be black, white, Chicano - it’s gonna bring them all together. Because that music has meaning. It’s always been the kind of music that pulls people together.”

Topics: motown
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