Hitsville USA

I’ve got another long drive of about 280 miles to Chicago later today and then after dropping off the car at an airport rental return, it’s onto the L train and into the centre of Chicago to my hotel. But first, I am here in Detroit to visit a house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard that is home to (another) Studio A and goes by the name of Hitsville USA, better known today as the Motown Museum, the original house where Berry Gordy created Motown. Yes, the house he lived in upstairs whilst running the studio below is still standing. A miracle, as Smokey might say. 🙂

The museum website states that “No other record company in history has exerted such an enormous influence on both the style and substance of popular music and culture.” Now whether you think that is true or would argue for another label (Sun, perhaps?) what is undeniable is that Motown – or Tamla-Motown as it was known outside the US – certainly made a mark not just on the music scene but on society as a whole, and definitely African American society in the US, “with a sound that has become one of the most significant musical accomplishments and stunning success stories of the 20th century” (website again).

I knew to visit the museum would mean a detour from Hwy 61 but my research indicated that north of St Louis Highway 61 did not seem to have much to recommend it, certainly not on a par with the Delta and Memphis. Maybe I’ll travel it one day and be proven wrong but even the guide book I used in planning my trip seemed to struggle to find many things of significance – the scenery’s fine I think but major places of interest appear thin on the ground. My guess is that during the Great Migration once the African American musicians from the South reached St Louis they either stayed put or got to Chicago as quickly as possible, thus not leaving much historical musical legacy between those two cities. So being a great fan of 60s Motown music and realising it wasn’t too far a detour off Hwy 61 (maybe in miles, but not in time) – albeit for a museum visit that might last a couple of hours at most – I decided to go for it. Well, you only live once. And when the Colts vs. Broncos game and Indy Speedway came to light, the deal was sealed.

“Wow, Detroit, just like I pictured it…” *

So here we are. Well, not just yet. I check-out of the hotel and thankfully the weather has cleared up and it’s nice and sunny again but it has also turned very cold. I have directions from the museum website but it turns out I’m a bit further away than I thought, although at least it’s Interstates from the airport towards the museum and the traffic is moving freely. Off at the exit I’m supposed to and immediately the directions go haywire. Suddenly, I’m in the middle of a ghetto. Well, what’s left of it. The area is mostly a wasteland, the few buildings standing are derelict – broken windows, burnt out, vandalised, boarded up, you name it. There are tramps lying on the pavement and others walking aimlessly in the middle of the road, there’s no traffic and it immediately hits me that this is not a neighbourhood to linger in at all.

I generally have a good sense of direction, often being able to sense when I’m going the wrong way and if lost I usually instinctively know which is the right way to turn. But I’m lost now and don’t know which way to turn. I need to stop and find out where I am (the GPS positioning in my Nexus 4 has proven brilliant over the past weeks) to work out how to get out of this place – but where to stop? Everywhere I drive there are groups of African American men on the pavements or wastelands, all dressed in rags, often swigging out of brown-bagged bottles, huddled around blazing braziers or heaps of flaming wood trying to keep warm – and they all eye me up in the car as I drive by whilst trying to figure where I went wrong and how to rectify it. I keep moving.

“Panic in Detroit” **

This place looks like a war zone. I’m lost in a black ghetto in one of the most dangerous cities in America. There are no white people anywhere in sight. I had read beforehand that the city is about 87% black and that white people are not welcome in many neighbourhoods – and the locals are apparently not afraid to let you know it. Oh God, I’m now stopped at a red traffic light! Doors all locked, the lights thankfully change quickly. This area is one of the most deprived I have ever seen, certainly in a modern ‘civilised’ country. What is said about Detroit appears to be true, and the community and infrastructure around here needs some serious help and investment.

I drive a while longer in the direction I think I should be going and the ‘scenery’ improves a little in that the wastelands get smaller and I now see there are occupied houses with windows intact and cars out front with tyres on the wheels. I’m not joking. Any car not obviously capable of moving in the previous area was a burnt out wreck in the middle of a wasteland. I cannot see any of the groups of men I saw a few minutes ago so I pull over. I just need to get out of here fast so I decide to leave the post-mortem for what went amiss until later. Google Maps shows me where I am and it’s clear I’ve gone the wrong direction somehow, but I punch the museum address in and the miracle of directions shows me the way to go. Not good practice I know but I have to look at the phone and drive at the same time. I pass through more neighbourhoods with less desolation than before but even so I can tell these are all economically poor and run-down areas. I’m sure the people are proud and trying to better themselves, but it’s sad to see such an environment.

I turn a few corners and then that sign on the lawn outside the museum comes into view. Found it! I pull into a car park next door to Motown and there’s a couple of tall and well-dressed black guys in a parking attendant’s cabin, so I drive up and ask where I can park. Turns out it’s a funeral parlour and the car park is for that, not for Motown. He says however that he doesn’t have any customers – a funeral – for a couple of hours, but he has to be on duty to keep the car park clear for mourners at all times. So without me asking, he then very kindly says I can park there, if I go right up again the wall next to the museum. He obviously knows I’ll only be in the museum for a couple of hours max, so I won’t be a problem for his future customers. I thank him profusely and go park.

I realise later that the car park belongs to Cole’s, which has its own place in Motown folk lore. It’s the place where the Funk Brothers, Motown’s house band, used to hide out to escape the studio’s tough workload. Every now and again the band would have had enough and wanted a break, so they hid next door in the funeral parlour where the chief undertaker would ply them with booze whilst denying they were there when the Motown bosses came searching for them. Sadly this drinking culture ended up curtailing the lives of a couple of the band.

Inside Motown At Last

There are no photos allowed inside the museum but their website has a few images. There’s no option other than to take a guided tour and it’s generally good, my only criticism being that it’s a little rushed and I would have preferred more time at all the exhibits to browse longer. I guess the fact they have timed tours means they’ve got to get everyone round within a certain time. Overall the museum is excellent, they’ve even restored Berry Gordy’s apartment upstairs where he used to live ‘above the shop’. The only bit of OTT Americana was that in Studio A right at the end of the tour – before ushering us into the inevitable shop – the tour guide lines us all up on one side of the room and announces that it’s time for everyone to “Join in and sing along to My Girl” (The Temptations song) – the lyrics of which have been very conveniently placed on music stands in front of us.

At which point the guide (a very enthusiastic and bubbly young African American lady) starts clapping the rhythm and singing the song whilst enthusing us all to join in, which, embarrassed into compliance, we all do. I’m sure some tour groups embrace this wonderfully but I think my group were on the poor side of ‘bad’. As the song comes to close the guide starts whooping orgasmically to encourage us even more, and to bring the house down at the finish. Marvellous stuff. But as she then says, from now on “You can all say you have sung in the famous Studio A at Motown.” And indeed I have. 🙂

Like Sun, Motown’s original Studio A is just as it was in ‘back in the day’ but this studio is no longer used. The guide told us that when Paul McCartney visited a couple of years back he asked to play the Steinway & Sons Grand Piano in the studio, as it was the original one seen here, with Holland, Dozier & Holland penning a hot tune on it, but he was told it had fallen into disrepair. He subsequently agreed to support its restoration financially and, on completion, played it with Berry Gordy at a charity event in New York before the instrument was shipped back to Motown. The plan was to use the newly restored piano in future performance and educational events in the studio.

All in all, the place is a hugely historical monument to modern music. And, yes, it was worth all the time and effort to divert and go and see it. Just make sure you know where you’re going…

The Motown Museum, Hitsville USA, DetroitThe Motown Museum, Hitsville USATrail marker outside the Motown MuseumTrail marker outside the Motown Museum

Off To The Windy City

Sitting in Cole’s car park before setting off again, I re-read the directions to Motown. The problem after getting off I-94 was that I came up the exit ramp to a traffic light junction but there were no road name signs in view: the directions said turn left onto Linwood, so I turned left at these lights, assuming this was Linwood. It wasn’t. What I should have done was go straight over the junction for another few hundred years as Linwood was the next turning after the lights. I think the directions should have said go through the lights, then take the next left, but they didn’t. After I’d incorrectly turned left I eventually saw a road name, realised I was on the wrong road, turned round and then – because I was in unfamiliar territory (all wastelands look the same, don’t they?) – I didn’t recognise the original traffic light junction (and there were no road names I could see to help me, all were ‘missing’, stolen for scrap metal I reckon). So I carried on further than I should and suddenly found I was lost. You live and learn.

I figure speed on the road is of the essence today, especially as I have the car drop-off to do, so it’s Interstate all the way to the Windy City. Interstate roads are common throughout the Detroit metro area and it’s not more than a few minutes since leaving Motown – after driving through some more exceptionally run-down areas – before I get back on the Interstate and look for signs to Chicago: of which there are none. I know the Interstate number that will get me to Chicago (I-94) but I also think it loops a long way south so I follow my nose and cut across more directly west. It’s a more direct route – and I know I’m going west – but to cut a long story short, whilst not getting lost, it probably ends up taking me as long as the other route would have done. I do however pass under exit signs for the Detroit Mile Road System, including the legendary 8 Mile Road itself made famous by the song and film by Eminem. I finally get on I-94 W at Ann Arbor and an hour or so later I stop at a petrol station for lunch and to fill up. I’m seeing loads of police cars on the road, many parked up in the central reservation, probably with speed guns, so I keep an eye on my speed. It starts pouring with rain in the afternoon and the traffic gets really heavy in places, and I come to an actual stop a few times; it’s become a really miserable drive. I can see from the car’s computer that it’s also getting colder than it was in Detroit. Nearing Chicago I leave Michigan and go back into Indiana whereupon the time zone changes, losing an hour this time, and then a bit further on I enter Illinois again.

I head towards Midway Airport to drop the car off and as I approach the outskirts of Chicago I end up taking the I-90 toll road, but I think there are tolls in a few places so there’s not a lot of choice. And then I see absolutely horrendous rush hour traffic on the outskirts of Chicago – at 4 pm! Driving into town and it’s clear for me at present but the queues leaving town are bad – and then when I turn onto I-55 on my way to Midway, as I’m now going out of town, I hit the queues too. I’m sitting there not moving, the rain is pouring down, and I think it’s inevitable I’m going to get delayed dropping the car off. Luckily I set my drop-off time for 9 pm so hopefully I’ll be OK. The traffic starts moving again, very slowly, and the exit for the airport finally comes into view. Unbelievable traffic at only 5 pm! I fill up with petrol again – full tank at pick-up, full tank at drop-off – and find the rental return. I then figure out where to get the L train from, discovering I have to go into a terminal building – which is useful because I find an information desk which has loads of tourist leaflets – but it’s really bizarre to drive to an airport and then not get on a plane, but to use a train to leave the place. As I pulled up in the rental return, the trip meter in the car read 1878 miles – an epic journey.

Food, Beer – and Music!

I have to change lines on the L from Orange to Red at Roosevelt but everything is well signposted so I don’t have any problems. I get off at Chicago station and it’s a five minute walk to the Hotel Felix, in Near North Side, where I arrive at 6.30 pm, so not too bad after all. The room is small – more on this later – but I feel OK after such a long (and in places stressful) drive, enough so that I decide to go out later in search of food and music. Before that though, as there is no food service in the hotel at all, I go back out and up a block to the 7-11 I passed on my way from the L station to buy tomorrow’s breakfast. On the way I notice a door into the Underground Wonder Bar, so on the way back from the 7-11 I go in to ask if there’s anything happening later – and it’s jam night! I shall be back later I say… In my room I scan the leaflets I picked up at the airport but find nothing about music (tours or clubs), however there is some useful info on other tours around town. So I turn to Google and find a Chicago blues website that lists clubs in town, one of which is just down the street. Promising, I hope, and worth a look after dinner.

So with half a plan I venture out and strike lucky with the Kerryman Irish Bar & Restaurant, just a block down across the street. I get some good food then go in search of the blues club.

“To my sweet home Chicago” ***

Laretha Weathersby with the Charlie Love Band

Laretha Weathersby with the Charlie Love Band

Blue Chicago pictured at night

Blue Chicago at night

I now strike gold. I find out afterwards that Blue Chicago at 536 N Clark Street, two blocks down from the Kerryman, is one of the best blues clubs in Chicago. Tonight, Charlie Love & His Silky Smooth Band are playing along with a great female vocalist, Laretha Weathersby.

Absolutely superb blues band and a supreme vocalist and entertainer in Laretha. She doesn’t sing for the whole set, Charlie takes vocals for some numbers, but he keeps everything going nicely. Brilliant! Interestingly the audience are a real mixture of ages, race and sex, which is good to see. Really superb blues music with the audience dancing and singing along all night long.

But around midnight, and I can’t actually remember why now (my guess is the band took a break, and as brilliant as they were and to continue my quest for new musical experiences, I thought I’d try the other place I discovered), I leave Blue Chicago and walk back up N Clark – all of three blocks – to the Underground Wonder Bar, just across from the hotel. The All-Pro Jam night is when any aspiring musician can get up and play with some pros (the Lorna Boston Quartet tonight) to prove themselves. It’s good stuff for the most part and I don’t really want to leave but around 1 am I decide I have to because I’m knackered. I need some sleep! Outside, it’s damn cold and, literally, freezing but at least the rain has stopped.
Lorna Boston Quartet flyerWoke up in Detroit. Visited Motown. Long drive. Two great but different music clubs. Music has the ability to uplift the soul. And it certainly did that today.

What. A. Day.

* A little poetic licence for one of the spoken sections in Steve Wonder’s Living for the City (should be New York, not Detroit)

** Panic in Detroit by David Bowie

*** Sweet Home Chicago by Robert Johnson, sung on the night by Laretha

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