It’s just a house, though it was once his home. But despite the memories and the millions made inside, Berry Gordy had neither time nor interest for the two-family flat at 2648 W. Grand Blvd. in the spring of 1985.
Gordy had moved on, taking his entire Motown Records empire — lock, stock, and baritone sax — to Los Angeles more than a decade earlier. At that time, it was the biggest black-owned business in America. By 1985, however, Motown was losing money for the first time in its history and MCA Records (which now controlled its distribution) was making overtures to buy the company, a suggestion Gordy would have found unthinkable even months earlier.
He had more pressing matters on his mind than the goings-on at “Hitsville, U.S.A.”
Esther Gordy Edwards, his oldest sister, had no intentions of forsaking her plush high-rise on Detroit’s riverfront for the glitter of the Golden Coast. One of the few people Gordy truly trusted, Edwards remained behind to handle Motown’s greatly diminished local business and public relations affairs. As he wrote in his 1994 autobiography To Be Loved, “Esther, now the family matriarch, one of my staunchest supporters, understood me and my business motives better than anybody.”
Edwards took over “Hitsville” and its adjoining house — one of seven Gordy eventually owned on the block — as her base of operations. Increasingly, though, she found it harder and harder to get any work done.
A constant stream of curious fans and tourists would stroll onto the front lawn to take photos of the fabled blue-and-white building. Many would be emboldened to bang on the front door. “Excuse me, ma’am,” they would say to Edwards, “sorry to bother you, but we’ve come from (fill in city or country) and we’re huge Motown fans. May we come inside, and maybe take a picture of Studio A?”
Edwards and her secretary, Doris Holland, attempted to accommodate their visitors, giving impromptu tours and going so far as to thumbtack publicity pictures and posters of the label’s stars along the walls. But the epiphany came one afternoon when a long tour bus pulled up in front of the house and dozens of uniformed men piled out.
“Her famous quote, and it’s on a wall in the museum, is the day that she looked out and said, ‘It looked like the entire British Navy was on the front lawn of ‘Hitsville,’ ” relates Robin Terry, Edwards’ granddaughter, who this year assumed the title of Motown Museum CEO. “That was the day she called her brother and said, ‘Berry, I think we made history and didn’t even know it.’”
Edwards died in 2011 at the age of 91, but her inspiration and extensive collection of Motown memorabilia continue to define the museum, which officially marks its 30th anniversary April 15.
It was the very definition of a “soft opening” in 1985. You’d be hard-pressed to find any mention of its first day in the local papers. Just two years later, the Motown Museum was declared a Michigan State Historic Site — and today, it’s better than ever.
A string of significant early contributions — including a black fedora, single sequined glove, and $125,000 check from Michael Jackson — gave the nonprofit institution credibility and publicity. A major renovation in 1995 added a gallery space and restored the early Motown offices as well as the upper-level flat where a young Gordy and his family lived (including the orange sofa Marvin Gaye crashed on after all-night recording sessions).
Heard it Through the Headphones: Motown’s hottest acts recorded in the famed Studio A, launching the careers of everyone from the Supremes, Temptations, and Four Tops to Little Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, and the Jackson 5. At right, a Steinway restored by Paul McCartney came back to the museum in 2013.
Now the museum — which for many years had little to show besides the legendary, timeworn Studio A and Edwards’ pin-up posters — features a small video theater, walls covered with framed photos and artifacts, new display areas, and a well-appointed store (where, of course, you’d better shop around).
The museum also got a boost when the studio’s 9-foot 1877 Steinway grand piano came back home in 2013 — refurbished courtesy of Sir Paul McCartney.
“We’ve still got a long way to go, but we’re getting there,” says Terry, who worked as a docent at the museum while still in high school. “I’ve been around this place as long as it’s been in existence,” she says. “My sisters and I became my grandmother’s tour guides. People came in and were interested, and we would walk them through. That was just our world.”
After leaving the museum to establish herself in the non-musical business world, including PR and marketing positions at CCS and Focus: HOPE, Terry returned as deputy director in 2002 partly because of Edwards’ faltering health.
“I think that 30 years ago, my grandmother’s vision was to protect this place,” she reflects. “What was important to her was documenting in American history what took place in ‘Hitsville,’ what these people did, because somehow in her great wisdom she knew it was going to be important for generations to see it and to know it.
“My vision is about building upon what she put in place and really returning this space to the community, because that’s what Motown was all about. It was the epicenter for creativity. If you were in music anywhere in this city, you knew if you could make your way to that blue ‘Hitsville’ door — and they let you in — you suddenly had an opportunity to transform your life.”
The museum’s 30th anniversary promotions underscore Terry’s goal:
• “Motown Mic: The Spoken Word 2015,” a four-week poetry slam competition at “Hitsville” in April. “Talented young Detroit poets come out,” Terry explains. “That’s one way we’re re-engaging the community.” The finale will be held in June.
• A first-ever Motown membership card, dubbed “$30-for-30,” expected to not only unite the label’s global fandom but also entice the majority of Detroiters who have driven past the museum for years but never ventured inside. (Terry estimates that, unlike such museums as the DIA, more than 75 percent of Motown’s visitors are tourists.)
“It’s part of a campaign called ‘I Am Motown,’ a fairly inexpensive card that gives the owner all kinds of benefits, including free admission for the holder and a guest,” says Terry.
Add its annual entrepreneurship summer camp for young performing arts students and its current exhibit, “Boulevard to Broadway,” tracing Gordy’s ambitious strategy to expand the Motown sound to film and stage, and it appears the museum is determined to find new ways for people to come and get these memories.
The Motown Museum may have faced its sternest test last October when the touring production of Motown the Musical premiered at the Fisher Theatre. The event lured such label legends as Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder — and yes, even Gordy himself — back to Detroit, and the museum hosted the gala reception.
“There was a lot going on,” recalls Detroit native and bass guitarist Nicholas Mancuso, who came on board as museum executive assistant and project coordinator two months before the big event. “I was just acclimated right away into the music, into the culture. And it just works. Because it’s ‘Hitsville,’ it just works. I couldn’t be happier being here.”
Yet the subtle pressure to get all the details right remains constant. When the tour guide points out the “original desk where Martha Reeves worked as a secretary before signing her recording contract,” you never know who might be listening.
“Yes, it’s the original desk, but it’s been moved,” says Reeves, who frequently escorts groups through the facility and was instrumental in getting a portion of West Grand renamed “Berry Gordy Boulevard” during her time as a Detroit city councilwoman. “It was in the A&R department, which has been altered for the museum. I’m especially proud to take people where I know how the company began. I know the inside and I’m able to share that. Sometimes I feel like a spy.”