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Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Jackson Five, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder: these are only a handful of the names that became world famous with Motown. In 1959, Berry Gordy founded his record label Motown in 2 simple houses on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit. Above the door he hung a sign saying ‘Hitsville USA’. Arrogant? Perhaps, but he certainly proved himself right.
Gordy borrowed $800 from his family, transformed the garage into a studio and his kitchen into a control room, and the Motown record label was born. The world-famous name is a combination of ‘motor’ and ‘town’: Detroit, the centre of the car industry, was also known as the Motorcity, and Gordy preferred the term ‘town’ to ‘city’. The 2 houses where Gordy founded the label now accommodate the Motown Museum.
Shortly after founding his record label, Gordy achieved his first hit. ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’ by Barrett Strong made the music charts in 1960 and reached second place in the Billboard R&B Chart. In the following years, more hits followed, including ‘My Girl’ by The Temptations, and in 1968 5 of the top 10 records in the Billboard Hot 100 were by Motown artists. The label also radically changed white Americans’ view of black music. The new sound fascinated both white and black youth. Soon, Motown, which represented artists who mostly came from the Detroit ghettos, had become the most successful African-American company in the United States.
“Maybe I could create a place where a kid could walk in one door, an unknown, and come out another door, a star – Berry Gordy, founder of Motown”
Hitsville USA was also lovingly called ‘Motown U’ because the record label resembled a university campus. Artists not only recorded their albums, they also rehearsed their choreographies and were taught etiquette by Mrs Maxine Powell. If the musicians were not working, they hung around on the porch or played baseball and table tennis. Hitsville USA was open 24 hours a day. For many it was a ‘home away from home’. After many hits, the label was bursting at the seams and in 1968, Motown moved into a bigger office downtown.
The Motown Museum still exudes the atmosphere of the record label’s glory days. Visit the original recording studio (Studio A) and control room where many great artists recorded their albums. Imagine you are a big star and sing a few bars of your favourite Motown hit. Note the linoleum that has been worn down by many feet-tapping artists. The museum is decorated with photos and albums. There are also displays of the original costumes worn by famous artists, including one of Michael Jackson’s hats. A visit will make you realize how amazing it is that such a small house generated so many huge hits.