NEW YORK - It’s a plain little room. The size of a small garage, maybe.
For Detroit, this is a very important 150 square feet. Housed here, on the fifth floor of an office building 500 miles from West Grand Boulevard, are the most valuable raw materials in the city’s cultural history.
This is Universal Music’s Motown vault, and these are Motown’s original session tapes: the reels that rolled in the studio at West Grand, capturing what would become some of the most beloved sounds in popular music. These tapes are the sacred texts of Detroit music, and this is their sanctuary.
The little room is concealed behind secured doors deep in Universal’s glossy Broadway headquarters. It’s not a romantic-looking nook. Fluorescent lights, white walls, metal shelving.
But the contents are pure gold, and worth that much, too. Lining the shelves are hundreds of thin square boxes, many with crinkled, typewritten labels itemizing the songs inside. These reels have been on a lengthy journey - from Detroit in the ‘60s to Los Angeles in the ‘70s to New Jersey in the ‘90s to Pennsylvania in the ‘00s to this little room in Manhattan today.
This vault is a way station for the tapes as Universal staffers do their work, creating digital archives, performing restoration work and - most importantly - extracting songs for an ever-churning array of Motown projects. When the reels aren’t here, they’re in heavily guarded, climate-controlled facilities in Pennsylvania and New Jersey with Motown’s full archive of 30,000 reels.
Half a century after Motown’s inception, the music’s staying power is unquestioned. Put it in perspective: Fifty years before 1959, America’s leading popular music was ragtime. America wasn’t still grooving to ragtime in 1959.
But America and the world are still grooving to Motown. Songs by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, the Four Tops continue to rack up radio play that rivals today’s young hit-makers.
Founder Berry Gordy Jr. says Motown’s 50th anniversary is “really about celebrating the unsung heroes as well as the ones everybody knows.” Years ago, those unsung heroes were fearless salesmen, patient artist trainers and other offstage personnel. Today they’re the core team of six people in this office, along with staffers across the country, doing the work that keeps Motown’s music thriving.
“Universal is the caretaker of the legacy, and we take that role very seriously,” says Harry Weinger, vice president of Universal’s catalog division. “Motown is still alive. It’s not some creaky museum piece. It’s real.”
Down the hall from Universal’s New York vault is the mastering room, a mood-lit space with a pair of leather couches and a stately console at the center. Studio A, they call it, in a tribute to Hitsville back in Detroit. Two vintage tape machines, the size of card tables, sit against a wall. They’re rare, expensive and meticulously maintained. The last thing anybody wants is to see a stream of Motown tape go twisting and shredding into a real piece of history.
This is where staffers take the work of Motown’s greats, transferring the old tapes into computer files for mixing and mastering. When you buy a Motown reissue, a boxed set, even a karaoke disc, this is where it came from.
Scrutinizing the tape boxes brings little thrills. Each contains a track sheet from the original recording session, meticulously listing song titles, dates, personnel and the placement of instruments. Motown often cut several sessions on one reel. Pull a box off the shelf, and you might see “The Tears of a Clown” and “Standing in the Shadows of Love” side by side.
Today we view Motown’s songs as timeless, as larger than life. The old hand-typed sheets pull them down to Earth. It hits you that this was somebody’s afternoon task some random weekday: Somebody pecked out the letters “M-y G-i-r-l” before they achieved immortal status.
“We’re following in someone’s footsteps, and they’ve done beautiful work,” says Weinger. “So sometimes you just want to touch the tape. You get the vibe of the session, the feel for it.”
Motown Records, sold by Gordy 20 years ago, remains an active label - people elsewhere in this building work with contemporary acts such as Erykah Badu. But nostalgia has been big business for the company since the 1980s, when oldies radio took off and Hollywood began to tap the catalog.
“I always knew it would become valuable,” Gordy says. “We were locked into the baby boomers early, and they followed us right down to where we are now. And now their kids, their grandkids, are getting a taste of something they loved so much.”
In a Los Angeles coffee bar on a winter morning, a frisky beat kicks up on the overhead sound system, soon joined by a voice. “You just keep me hanging on ...”
It’s not the Supremes. Hot English producer Mark Ronson, whose work helped turn Amy Winehouse into last year’s Grammy champ, is a Motown fanatic. This recent cut, “Stop Me,” is like much of Ronson’s work, bowing affectionately to the Detroit sound. Motown’s influence is still everywhere, including this homage to the Supremes classic “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”
It’s a fitting prelude for a visit later that morning with the song’s writers, Holland-Dozier-Holland. The famed production trio has agreed to assemble at an L.A. studio, coaxed into spending time with copies of their original multitracks, which have been transported from Universal in New York.
They haven’t sat together like this at a studio board, digging through their Hitsville creations, in more than 40 years.
These three - Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland - cooked up many of Motown’s biggest smashes, including hits for the Supremes, the Four Tops and the Temptations. Recently, for the first time since the ‘70s, they began writing together, composing songs for an upcoming Broadway production of “The First Wives Club.”
All are in their late 60s, still radiating the sort of easy cool that comes from knowing you’ve been really, really good at something. The Hollands sport tinted glasses, Eddie with a trademark ponytail. Dozier is in all black, going at his chewing gum. They amble into the studio wisecracking and nudging elbows, and settle in for a round of listening.
Watching them at the studio board dissecting the Four Tops’ “Bernadette” is a music nut’s fantasy. Glimmers of recognition sweep across the aged faces as the song unfolds. They still hear this stuff in a way nobody else ever will, the sonic elements processed in their brains the way a painter discerns his own strokes.
Brian Holland’s fingers begin to toy at the faders, old instincts kicking in. Midway through the song’s second chorus, the instruments are muted, and all pause in awe as Levi Stubbs’ vocal roars alone through the room, droplets of fire dripping from his voice. H-D-H created a lot of magic, but this force of nature isn’t theirs.
“Yeah.” Brian Holland nods. “Mmm-hmm.”
Eddie Holland pipes up. He’s the one who pushed Stubbs to sing so high. “See how he is? He’s up at the peak. A lot of singers, when they hit their peak, they fade, they falter. He does not. He maintains, sustains, and the emotions just come pouring through. That’s not just a good singer - that’s a great singer.”
Another song is up: the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”
The multitrack starts rolling, and the decades again vanish. A young girl - Flo? Mary? - clears her throat at the microphone. Brian Holland’s count-in rings out: “One, two, one-two-three-FOUR!”
As the Funk Brothers swing into the flashy groove, the Hollands and Dozier recap the standard H-D-H process: Lamont and Brian conceived the music at a piano, often with unorthodox chording that puzzled Motown’s band (and still prompts strangers to pester the trio for answers).
Eddie then crafted lyrics, seeking to capture “whatever that melody and track was saying.” Lamont and Brian worked with Motown’s band to flesh out arrangements, keying in on drummer Benny Benjamin and bassist James Jamerson and building from there.
“Did we know exactly what we were doing? I can’t say,” says Eddie. “But we knew exactly what we wanted.”
“You Keep Me Hangin’ On” was a relatively complex production. Diana Ross’s vocals are double-tracked to create a crisp sizzle. A piano and organ are tucked subtly into the mix. The song’s signature dee-dee-dee lick mimics a teletype machine.
“We didn’t have synthesizers then,” says Dozier. “So we had to be really on our toes in coming up with innovative stuff. Fun stuff.”
The track finishes with an unfamiliar flourish: Ross croons a closing coda, and a strum of 12-string guitar brings it to a wrap.
Brian Holland lights up in recognition at the original finale. “I kind of liked that better,” he says. “But you had Berry going, ‘Nah, you gotta fade the thing out.’”
At a music industry function a few years back, Brian Holland spotted Harry Weinger and approached the Universal exec. The Motown legend dropped to one knee.
“I love what you’re doing, man,” Weinger recalls Holland saying. “I just want to thank you for keeping it alive.”
At the New York office, Weinger’s colleagues are an upbeat bunch of Motown devotees, each with key specialties: song mixers, vintage-gear technicians, walking Supremes encyclopedias. Stylish old Motown posters, gold records and framed album covers lend the department a bright but classy vibe.
“This is the single most important part of the organization,” says Andy Skurow, Universal’s Motown vault scholar. “These are the assets, the part that lasts forever.”
He’s not just hyping. Amid all the Internet-age turmoil, back catalog has remained the record industry’s steadiest seller, comprising an ever-bigger slice of the pie as overall album sales sag. Catalog sales represented 55.2 percent of total U.S. album sales in 2008, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Skurow describes his job as treasure hunting: As he sifts through the tape reels, he keeps an ear out for deeper material. Motown recorded day and night during its Detroit years. Motown’s 30,000 reels feature about 500,000 tracks, says Skurow, half of them recorded in Detroit. That includes songs never released and alternates of familiar classics. There are still thousands to be explored.
“The A-plus music is what got out there,” says Weinger. “There’s still a lot of A and A-minus waiting to be mined.”
Bit by bit it’s finding the light of day, issued as bonus tracks on CD reissues or on deluxe sets. The material helps “keep Motown going,” says Weinger, by offering “something different that helps tell the story, or brings out a different element.”
Longtime soul savant David Nathan runs SoulMusicStore.com, a leading outlet for vintage R&B. He applauds Universal’s work, noting that the audio quality has vastly improved since the first Motown reissue CDs in the ‘80s.
In 2008, Motown products were 54 percent of his store’s total sales - “and we had a really good year,” he says. Among Motown’s hardcore fans, the release of Supremes obscurities, in particular, can incite a virtual stampede.
The diehards still hunger for more stuff deep from the vaults, and interest in Motown far exceeds that for R&B labels such as Stax and Philly International.
“It ranks up there in the same way there are ardent followers for the Beatles and Elvis,” says Nathan. “In its own way, Motown has that.”
Keeping the music alive feels like part duty, part blessing, says Weinger.
“I feel good about what we’re doing. When I hear Motown on the radio, I know that, hey, Smokey did it, the Tempts did it, Diana did it, Stevie did it,” he says. “Of course, they did it. But to keep it rolling is a wonderful gift.”
THE GREATEST HITS OF HOLLAND-DOZIER-HOLLAND
Many of the greatest songs from Motown’s Detroit era were composed by the legendary production team of Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland. Here are their most-played hits, based on the number of spins on U.S. radio.
“Baby, I Need Your Loving,” 10.2 million
“You Can’t Hurry Love,” 8.7 million
“How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You,” 8.2 million
“I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” 6.3 million
“Reach Out I’ll Be There,” 6.1 million
“This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You),” 6 million
“You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” 5.7 million
“Where Did Our Love Go,” 5.6 million
“Baby Love,” 4.9 million
“It’s the Same Old Song,” 4.9 million
“Stop! In the Name of Love,” 4.9 million
“I Hear a Symphony,” 4.4 million
“(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave,” 4.2 million
“Roll With It,” 4.2 million
(Source: Broadcast Music Inc.)
Note: Many of these songs were recorded by multiple artists, which is why no specific performer is listed.