Humming in Motown

CTALK - Cito Beltran - The Philippine Star

DETROIT, Michigan — This trip has been so awe inspiring that I even came up with a piece depicting the effects of our visit to the Motor City of America:

“Seven Filipinos sitting in a van/ all of them humming songs from Motown/ Half of them were born when that music was being sung/ the other half’s been singing the music of their time/ I never realized Motown stands for Motor Town/and it’s all here/ in Detroit, Michigan!”

Yes we’re all suffering from the last song syndrome, humming the different songs that are memorable for each of us. Remember the songs “I heard it through the grapevine” – “My Girl” – “Just Losing You” – “A Place in the Sun.” Right now I’m bobbing to the song “September” of Earth, Wind and Fire. Many of today’s generation have heard or are familiar with the songs but not the original label and even fewer know the history of “Motown,” so I’ll share what we picked up from our visit to the Motown Museum.

To begin with the Museum is actually two adjoining houses where the company and the label did all their business until they became big and moved to California. Because of this and the way the tour is structured you feel like your going back in time, going through the very “offices,” seeing the typewriters, time cards, sofas and tables of the ’60s, a teletext machine that came before the fax machine, a flip type appointments calendar that was a precursor to the Rolodex. Typical of museums and historical displays, the walls feature documentaries, posters, photos and the actual 45 rpm vinyl records of many award winning songs. At one point our tour guide asked us; where in the whole house is the best place to sing and makes you sound good? The crowd responds: “in the bathroom.” Standing under an opening in the ceiling, our guide begins to sing and shows us the echo effect of singing “into” the ceiling. That ladies and gentlemen is what Motown engineers have injected into the technical production of Motown music, getting the echo effect of the bathroom and incorporating it to their recordings.

As we continued on we found in one room a cigarette vending machine while in another stood a candy vending machine where one specific slot was historically loaded with “Babyruth” chocolate bars to make sure that an 11-year-old boy by the name of Stevie Wonder had easy access to his favorite chocolate bar. ( being equally addicted to Babyruth, I searched high and low in Detroit but the much desired treat was as evasive as Garden Gnomes). On the second floor you walk through a room that even has a crib which tells you that the people behind Motown practically made the place their home. Our guide shared that the house was open 24 hours because Barry Gordy believed that creativity inspiration does not follow a 9 to 5 schedule. Because of this, artists would walk in in the middle of the night and hammer away at the piano as they composed new hit after hit. During one such session the theme for the movie “Shaft” was assembled in record time.

Part of the tour gives a brief history of the Gordy family, specifically Barry Gordy who before starting Motown had been a soldier in the Korean War, sold pots and pans, sold Jazz records in a place where people wanted blues music, resulting in financial loss, was a professional boxer, and worked on the production line in one of the Ford plants. It was there where Barry Gordy got his rhythm and thought up the idea of “producing” records independently. Back then, Barry’s family was the micro equivalent of a “family corporation” where everyone contributed to the family finances and if they had a need or a business plan they could borrow money as if they were borrowing money from a bank; the children actually had to sign a loan agreement in contract form and a promissory note to wit stating that profits arising from said loan and investment would prioritize servicing of the loan.

 It was from such a family loan that “Motown” got a start up capital of $800 borrowed at 6% interest. Barry Gordy subsequently rented a garage that served as a recording studio while an adjacent tiny kitchen was gutted and converted into the engineering room. The Philosophy of Motown was to give young, unpolished musicians an opportunity to show their singing and song writing talents and develop them into trained professionals. To do this the group hired the best and the brightest African American mentors for dance choreography, personality development which evolved into genuine talent management. The two youngest recruits of Motown records were first Stevie Wonder who started at 11 years old (and is the only remaining original artist under the new “Universal Motown” company) then came Michael Jackson with the Jackson 5. If the group sounds ideal, they also had their secrets one of which according to our guide was that Diana Ross had an affair with Barry Gordy resulting in a “Lovechild” who now has a son of her own and was visiting the museum the day we were there.

Unlike the predominantly safe, romantic and polite white music, Motown brought out African American language, culture and realities. They went from love songs and dance numbers to song representations of America at war in Vietnam, America torn by racial conflict and civil disobedience, and the African American’s reality concerning violence, drugs, and rebellion. Motown music also caught the respect and the attention of global artists particularly the Beatles and specifically Paul McCartney who paid a visit to the Motown Museum and found himself awestruck as many do by simply standing inside “Studio A” where the original Steinway Grand Concert piano hold center stage, where microphone cables dangle from the ceiling the same way you see them in original session photos.

Yes, Detroit is to American cars and soul music what Bethlehem is to Christianity. If you grew up around American cars like the Chevy Bel-Air, Cutlass, Camaro, Cadillac, Pontiac’s, Buick’s, Thunderbirds and if you ever bought vinyl records of The Temptations, Diana Ross & the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight & the Pips, you have to try making a pilgrimage to this city that rises and falls but never says die. Thanks to Atty. Albert Arcilla and Lynn Buena of Chevrolet Philippines for this unforgettable experience.

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