‘Beer and Back Again’ – Motown

[contd from ‘Prologue‘]

I was up and on the road early to make the hour-long journey East to Detroit.  I have always heard a lot about the city from my friends that once lived there or had been there and I have to say that it has not always been that complimentary.  On this trip I would not have a chance explore the city fully myself but driving through, all around, you can see evidence of how great this place once was.  Now, not much of that bustling metropolis, driven by the car industry still remains.  Large abandoned warehouses, boarded up shop fronts and ramshackle housing populate much of the urban landscape.  However, the people I spoke to who had lived there all their lives had were among some of the friendliest I have met on any of my travels.

I had barely set foot outside of my car when a gentleman, who it turns out worked at the Motown Museum, approached me and asked me how I was doing.  He was standing around talking with a friend of his and they immediately invited me into their conversation.  I regret to say that i cannot remember their names but they were telling me how they grew up just a stone’s throw from the studios and as boys remember playing in the streets with David Ruffin of the temptations and can remember seeing Little Stevie Wonder sitting outside on the curb playing his harmonica, and even the time one of them drove all the way across town to pick up Diana Ross’ sister from a dance.

I got the impression that they could have spoken all day and they certainly look back on those days when the Studios, (which, at various times have occupied half a dozen buildings on West Grand Boulevard) were running 24 hours a day putting out some of the greatest music ever made.  I would love to have listened to them but the studios were just opening and I wanted to go inside and and see what all the fuss was about.

The studio tour and the studio itself, the Snake Pit, was truly inspiring.  I was in a group that  was made up of almost exclusively people from the UK, but the giant map of the world which hangs in the lobby with pins indicating the home of all the visitors over the years indicates that Motown’s appeal reaches far and wide.  There have been visitors from every continent and some of the farthest flung countries.

Our guide, Bobbi, was a delightful young woman who clearly shared the same passion for the music as all of us who were visiting.  She got us all singing underneath the hole in the ceiling which leads to the roof space that Motown engineers used to create the iconic reverb that is heard on their tracks. We were doing the Temptations’ dance and even singing My Girl in the very studio in which it was recorded.  I had goosebumps for pretty much the entire time that I was there.

I have visited museums and historical sites like the Motown studios before and often I find myself feeling quite disconnected from what I am seeing, as if I know that some cool stuff took place there at some point but there is no connection between that and the frosted glass plaques and the framed glossy photographs.  This was not the case here.  Right from the start, you are greeted by people who actually lived on the same street as the studios, or used to work there, or knew some of the artists when they were just kids.  The studio and Berry Gordy’s apartment above it remain untouched with the original furniture.  They have the same candy machine, the one in which they never changed the position of the bars so that Stevie Wonder would always know where they are.  I could almost see Martha Reeves sitting at the reception desk answering the phones.  In this building you truly feel the weight of the history it contains.  It was far and away one of the most enjoyable musical experiences I have ever had.

I left the studios and stood outside for a while just watching the people arriving after me.  There were people of all races, ages and nationalities going in or hanging out outside taking photos.  Motown’s appeal was and still is universal. Not only did they produce timeless songs from some amazingly talented writers and performers but, in doing so, had to over come such adversity in a racially tense social climate.  It is something that my generation will never really appreciate, but I am so grateful that those guys did it and I now get to reap the rewards by listening to their songs.

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