Detroit: Motown Provides Support for Blank Canvas Theory

My last visit to Detroit ended with a glimpse of a beautiful, arching rainbow over the downtown area – the ultimate symbol of hope – and ever since I have been interested in exploring the concept of the Motor City as a blank canvas.

The collapse of the corporate car companies and the housing market has led the world to view Detroit as a city of nothing more than run-down infrastructure, one offering very little of in terms of cultural value and artistic inspiration.

Those attending that school of thought are clearly leaving out history classes – they seem to have forgotten the story of Hitsville USA, when a man’s talent and vision impacted the entire world. Detroit gave birth to a new style of music in 1959 that would become a worldwide success, bridging the gap between the races and producing hundreds of easy-listening classic sing-a-longs.

This weekend I visited the Motown Museum and was truly inspired by the story behind the music. At first I was admittedly stuck in a pose, my head cocked to the side. Standing on the sidewalk and looking at the building, I thought it resembled a place more in line with the current Detroit stereotype than it did a site of significance.

The museum is not a big production – a short film, a room or two of display cases – yet the stories from our tour guide changed my perception of the house (there’s no photography allowed inside, so I unfortunately cannot show it to you).

In 1959, Berry Gordy Jr borrowed $800 from his family that he promptly turned into a fortune – Motown Records would gross $20 million of income by year’s end in 1966. Yet as with most success stories, it began very modestly. Berry bought a house on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit and converted the downstairs into a recording studio, living upstairs with his family.

The house where it all began.

As the company progressed, the house became a hang out for artists, which in turn attracted fans to the front lawn. Neighbors would often complain about the noise from recording sessions, and Motown responded by purchasing an additional seven houses in the neighborhood and converting them into offices for the company’s different departments.

As Berry’s reputation as a songwriter and musical genius grew, so did the list of singers who wanted to work with him. It wasn’t only about attracting the top talent in the area, it was about molding them into public icons. Artists who joined Motown records were immediately put through their artist development program. Vocal lessons and dance choreography were a big part of this, however Berry also saw the need to train his singers to be performers and icons.

He saw the artists as ambassadors for the African American community, and he taught them how to act like royalty – everything from walking to talking – as well as the specifics of the time period’s etiquette (dining, for example).  At a time of great divide between the races, Motown was able to overcome the unflattering perception that were often placed on black musicians at the time due to their poor upbringings and lack of social skills.

Berry was also a firm believer in the idea of practice leading to perfection. While preparing for a show, he would tape the outline of the stage on the floor of the studio. It is said that when performers such as Levi Stubbs (Four Tops) took the stage, they knew how many steps it was to the front of the venue.

At the end of the tour I stood in the recording studio, the guide preparing to show us a few dance moves. I looked around at the walls and the floor, the simplicity of the room jumping out at me. I thought of all the nights I spent in my small bedroom in California, writing at a desk I collected from the side of the curb, getting up early and staying up late revising stories, wearing sweatpants and living off frozen chicken but loving every word that I put on the page. The lack of flair that originally confused me about the place began to make perfect sense.

Success stories may end up on the penthouse floor of a New York skyscraper, but they start in a dusty garage or a hole-in-the-wall apartment. The unassuming appearance I originally thought to be a point of criticism is now what I deem worthy of a standing applause. No sensationalism, dramatization, or glorification – just four walls, a piano, and people pouring their souls into a musical score.

Berry’s story certainly gives hope to the people of Detroit that a phoenix can once again be born from the ashes, however it should not only be locals who are inspired by this tale.

There’s a blank canvas in all of our lives – we only need to pick up our brush.

The house where it all began.
Motown Museum in Detroit.

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