Tuesday, November 20, 2018

From Motown to Hollywood: I Heard It on the Grapevine . . .

 Detroit doesn’t seem like a go-to place for movie connections. But I’m just back from the Motor City, where I spent a joyful hour touring the Motown Museum, also known as Hitsville, U.S.A. “Hitsville” was the nickname given by Berry Gordy to the first headquarters of his recording empire. The two-story house, a former photography studio, was purchased by Berry in 1959. He and his young family lived in a modest apartment on the second floor, and on the tour you can still see their mid-century modern furnishings, featuring pointy area lamps and bright orange trim. Downstairs is the recording studio is where early Motown hits were born: indelible songs like “Please, Mr. Postman” and “My Girl.” The studio’s most prominent feature is a large piano , an 1877 Steinway Model D grand, that has been beautifully restored thanks to the generosity of a museum visitor, Sir Paul McCartney.

The museum is on West Grand Boulevard, in an area that features a busy funeral home, a large hospital complex, and some residences that are on the shabby side. (Not far away is the once- glorious Fisher Theater, a landmark art deco skyscraper from 1928: this is where Fiddler on the Roof had its first out-of-town tryouts almost 40 years later. But I digress.)  Once Motown Records was up and running, Gordy controlled the entire block, with various of the neighboring houses dedicated to different aspects of the company’s needs. One house, for instance, served as the financial hub of Motown, with another providing rehearsal space for the stable of singers under contract. Most of them, in the early days, had been Gordy’s childhood neighbors and pals. And he was indebted to Detroit, as well, for a job that started him on his path to fame and fortune.

At a young age, Gordy accepted a blue-collar job at a Ford assembly plant. While helping to put together automobiles, one piece at a time, he kept his mind busy by making up songs to the steady throb of the assembly line. Nor was it only a sense of rhythm that he took away from Ford. The job gave him the idea that he could manufacture, piece by piece, a cadre of recording artists. So when the Temptations, the Supremes, the Jackson Five, and Martha and the Vandellas came under his purview, he took it upon himself to mold them into superstars. Vocal coaching and choreography were part of their bootcamp. There was also a deportment coach who schooled them in manners, giving them a social polish that—as inner city kids—they hadn’t previously enjoyed. 

As always, fame presented new temptations—and new opportunities. In 1972 Gordy moved Motown’s headquarters to Los Angeles, perhaps losing the company’s soul in the process. But for him it was a logical move, one that allowed him to experiment with motion picture production. He became the executive producer of several much ballyhooed films, notably including Lady Sings the Blues. This tribute to the life of jazz legend Billie Holliday marked the Oscar-nominated film debut of Diana Ross, with whom Gordy had long had both a professional and a personal relationship. Ross was his star when he tried his hand at directing with 1975’s Mahogany, and she also played an unlikely Dorothy in The Wiz, for which he played a behind-the-scenes role.

Though Gordy left Detroit in his rearview mirror, his sister Esther Gordy Edwards insisted on staying put. I heard it on the grapevine: she’s the one who made the museum happen. I for one am very grateful.

The Motown Museum Today

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