West Grand Blog


A Visit to the Museum



More than a half-century ago, an English teenager could not possibly imagine the inner workings of 2648 West Grand Boulevard. It was difficult enough to make sense of “Heat Wave,” the first piece of Motown alchemy to affect this particular 15-year-old, let alone to picture where and how it was created.

      By the time I visited the Motown Museum as an adult, I knew so much more. Or thought I did. Yet there was nothing – there is nothing – to fully prepare a Motown pilgrim for stepping inside for the first time, for entering the temple.

House of the hits, home of the sound

House of the hits, home of the sound

      Even arriving outside gave me pause. How much was this building really like its workaday original, decades earlier? What was preserved, what was real? Granted, there was no prospect of seeing any of its hitmakers strolling in or out. And the vehicles parked on the boulevard certainly were not the same, beyond having four wheels and an engine. No, this was not the Motor City of yesteryear.

      But inside, time had stopped…

      On this day, the entrance to the Motown Museum is next door at 2646 West Grand, where sales sultan Barney Ales and his marketing team were once billeted. We are led to a room at the back, with perhaps 20 seats, where a video introduction to Motown marks the start of the excursion. All tours are guided, it seems. Oh, and the ticket price? $8.

      There are five other visitors. A young woman in her twenties is our guide. These first few minutes take us upstairs to a wall of photographs, offering images from the early life of the Gordy clan: a large photo of Berry’s parents, a fabulous sepia shot of the family around a piano, Berry – an earnest young man with glasses – at the keys. There are framed business cards for his mother’s insurance company, for the 3D Record Mart, and for the Gordy grocery store. The last of these is also displayed in another photo, almost widescreen, with customers and staff crowded together.

      Other photographs show Smokey Robinson, Barney Ales, Larry Maxwell, Robert and George Gordy. Also, Berry in boxing gear, next to a 1948 fight card which displays his name, with a handwritten “winner” next to it, on the same programme as his hero, champion Joe Louis. Another image has Berry in his army uniform in Korea, circa 1951.


      The only three-dimensional artefacts in this section of the museum are in a large glass cabinet containing five Temptations costumes – red, with Superman-like silver flashes on shoulders and sleeves – and a small glass case with Michael Jackson’s crystal-beaded glove and black trilby from the Motown 25 TV special. We learn from our guide that there was a six-foot height requirement for membership of the Temptations, and that David Ruffin stood six feet, three inches.

      We are also told that the Jackson glove was once stolen by a miscreant who signed the visitors’ book. Rapper M.C. Hammer offered a $50,000 reward for the item’s return, which reportedly incentivised the thief. The tour guide gives his name, Bruce Hays, and says that the reward was not handed over, but neither were charges pressed.

A visit to the Snakepit (photo: Motown Museum)

A visit to the Snakepit (photo: Motown Museum)

      (In fact, Hays was charged, having been caught by the police on October 3, 1991, two days after the theft. He was convicted of larceny, but earned two years’ probation rather than a jail sentence. Also, Hays told the judge that police had posed for photographs with the glove while in the process of arresting him.)

      Where we are now, one wall is covered with album sleeves. Here, the guide points out the two Martin Luther King LPs released by Motown in 1963, mentions the artist roster of Black Forum, and refers to Chisa and V.I.P. as “jazz” labels. (I wonder if any nit-pickers have challenged the V.I.P. error.)

      Soon our group is shown a ceiling hole – by now, we have passed from the 2646 building into 2648 – which was said to have been the echo chamber for recordings made below in Studio A, otherwise known as the “Snakepit.” The sound was fed upstairs – although how is not explained – because the studio lacked this technical facility at the time. Today, visitors are encouraged to stand beneath the aperture, to sing and clap as music makers once did. (A few minutes later, on my own, I clap. Unequivocally, the sound echoes.)


      Now we’re in the second-floor apartment, the living quarters for the boss and his family – “above the shop,” to use a British expression – overlooking the boulevard. The dining room has a table topped with boxes of an early Motown 45 as well as white paper record sleeves, and several faded copies of Billboard. Next to the dining space is a living room with what appears to be 1950s furniture and, on one wall, a couple of pieces of African-American art. There is a children’s playpen and, in the back, a bedroom.

      And if this is truly where Berry, Raynoma and children Hazel Joy, Berry IV and Terry lived, it seems cramped. And probably noisy, too, if the studio downstairs was in use after the kids’ bedtime. Then again, the proximity probably suited Gordy. When he telephoned Smokey Robinson in the middle of the night to have the Miracles come in immediately and re-record “Shop Around,” he only had to walk downstairs; the group and the musicians had further to travel.

Working, not dining (photo: Motown Museum)

Working, not dining (photo: Motown Museum)

      The studio is to be our next stop. En route, we are downstairs once more, passing a small front office, equipped with three black rotary phones – no call-waiting in those days, our guide points out – a typewriter, a telex machine and a black filing cabinet. To the left is a separated, glass-fronted telephone exchange, with internal paperwork posted on a wall. One memo notes that gambling is forbidden during working hours. (I strain to read more, but we are moved on.)

      Finally, the Snakepit.

      This has its own entrance, of course, prefaced by a small lobby in which sits a loaded candy machine. Our guide advises that Berry Gordy used to insist that the Baby Ruth chocolate bars be kept in the same middle slot, so that Stevie Wonder could always find them. Also in the lobby area is a clocking-in machine with some 20 employee cards, including those for James Nyx and Georgia Ward. (I imagine the bustle of a typical 1960s day, the sound of cards being clocked in and out.)

      Four steps lead down to the studio, but first, to the left, is the control room. There glows a mixing desk, with an additional row of VU meters suspended above the glass which separates the room from the studio. The floor is worn because, we’re told, the record producers constantly tapped or stamped their feet. Visitors can lean in, but not enter – a rope is strung across the door space – nor is photography permitted. There is a long, horizontal speaker cabinet by the desk; at the back of the room are reel-to-reel tape machines and similar equipment. Like so many other parts of this building, the control room seems small.


      By comparison, Studio A appears spacious. Beneath the high ceiling runs the original wooden floor, augmented with a carpet strip where we stand. Near our point of entry is a Steinway grand piano, an organ and what looks like a Leslie amplifier. “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” is the sheet music on the grand; the piano keys are protected by transparent plastic.

West Grand in future? (graphic: Motown Museum)

West Grand in future? (graphic: Motown Museum)

      In this corner, on the wall, there is a large, familiar photo of Mary Wilson, standing in the space which we now occupy; she is speaking to an assembly of Motown employees. At the other end of the studio is a drum kit – donated by Stevie, according to our guide – and baffle boards. Microphones hang from above, as if from heaven. (Ghosts are present, too.)

      The sound in this space is flat, as studios are. Back in the day, there was no air conditioning, because of the noise it made. People smoked. And when jam-packed with musicians? The room was cramped, and must have been at times claustrophobic – although when only singers were present, adding their voices to prerecorded tracks, the space must have seemed ample. This is suggested by another picture on the wall: the Temptations, singing their souls out, with the voice of David Ruffin reaching for the mike, and the world.

      For a few seconds, I stand beneath one of those microphones, quietly imagining that this was where Levi Stubbs, too, arrested the notes which took the Four Tops around the globe – including my small corner of it – with “Baby I Need Your Loving.” Then I peer at the control room, conjuring up images of an impossibly-young Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier inside, as they roll tape and direct the group, making music for the moment – and for a future where visitors to this modest building can be reminded of the Sound of Young America, forever.

      And yet…

      Was there music playing when I walked the halls? Why can’t I remember? Why isn’t there a note of this in the diary? Then again, who could possibly agree about a Motown playlist to accompany each tour of the museum? There is too much choice, from the obvious to the obscure, from the innovative to the predictable. Mind you, a verse or two from the company song would work, as performed by those who built and shaped Hitsville U.S.A. in the beginning.

      A recording from back in the day exists, doesn’t it, Mr. Gordy? So, all together now: “Oh, we have a very swinging company/Working hard from day to day…”


2648 notes: there has never been more publicity for the Motown Museum in its 32-year existence than now, sustained by the fundraising campaign for future expansion, and by Motown’s 60th anniversary. In September, the museum is celebrating those six decades with a weekend of events in Detroit, including, er, a “Soul In One Celebrity Golf Classic” (which means that Smokey should be there, at least). Looking further ahead, how will this hallowed site look and feel when the $50 million expansion is completed? The illustration above offers one vision. Whatever the reality, let the soul of 2648 West Grand be preserved and protected.

Adam White6 Comments