Music: A ghost town called Motown

In tune with the Christmas Motown re-release of the classic Chartbuster s albums of the Sixties, Nigel Williamson takes a tour of Hitsville USA - but finds that they're hardly dancing in the streets in Detroit today.
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The Independent Online
If the average American were lying on the couch and the shrink said "Detroit", the men in the white coats would be swiftly summoned if "cars" were not the instant response. The next thing to come to mind would almost certainly be Tamla Motown, and the patient's right foot would be tapping out that four-four beat before he or she could even get the words out.

Detroit is the Motor City but it's other name used to be Hitsville USA, musical home to Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Jackson Five and countless others who ensured that the hits just kept on coming.

Yet how swiftly the icons of our youth fade and die. We walked into the arrivals hall at Detroit's Wayne County airport to find that instead of "Dancing In The Street" they were playing the latest Spice Girls single. Then, when we collected our hire car from Alamo, instead of a Cadillac we were offered a Nissan streamlined metal box.

You wonder why modern Detroit exists. Downtown is neutron-bomb dead, eerily deserted in the evening and like a ghost town at weekends. Sitting in a bar later in Birmingham, one of the anonymous but surprisingly leafy outlying suburbs that have replaced the once throbbing heart of the city, Mark Laval, a large and amiable type who would not be out of place in Cheers, heard our English accents and asked: "What in hell brought you here?" He was incredulous that anyone would want to visit the city where he has worked as a car dealer for the past 20 years. "They've tried everything here and nothing works," he said mournfully.

Even the locals say Detroit is a city that has lost its soul. There are abandoned, decaying buildings everywhere, yet the dank shells have more character than the attempts that have been made at redevelopment. On the river front looking across to Ontario (by a geographical quirk, Detroit faces south into Canada), the vast Renaissance Center, with its four circular towers of reflective glass, is spectacular from the outside, yet inside the shops and restaurants are sad and desolate. One former mayor complained that after 6pm you could fire a cannon down the main boulevard of Woodward Avenue and no one would even notice.

Detroit still manufactures motors - one third of those produced in the US - but the romance has gone. The great names of Pontiac, Lincoln, Plymouth and Cadillac live on (and are all preserved for posterity on the map of Detroit and its environs) but the new models with their smooth, aerodynamic designs all look indistinguishable from my Japanese-styled metal box.

There is still music being made in Detroit, too, but the city no longer provides the beat for the nation. Motown moved its operations to Los Angeles in 1972 and the music was never the same again. Nor was the city, which in the Thirties and Forties was alive with jazz and blues, full of after- hours drinking and dancing establishments - known for some obscure reason as "blind pigs" - and inter-racial clubs, called "black and tans". It was that spirit which Berry Gordy Jr tapped when, almost 40 years ago, he started a record label that was to change the face of modern music.

Today the plain, weatherboarded house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard would look as anonymous as any other middle-America post-war consumerist home, were it not for the "Hitsville USA" sign on the front lawn. Gordy moved here in 1959, confining his family to the first-floor apartment so that he could realise his dream by building a recording studio downstairs.

And what dreams were manufactured in that tiny studio. I had assumed that Gordy had merely cut his first records here, and that when the Supremes made the big time in 1964, the label had moved into more spacious premises. But no, every single great Motown record you can think of was cut in this one room in this nondescript house until the move to the West Coast - from the Four Tops' thrilling "Reach Out (I'll Be There)" to Stevie Wonder's thundering anthem "Uptight"; from the Temptations' funky "Get Ready" to the Jackson Five's storming debut "I Want You Back".

The studio was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, such was the prolific output. The original recording schedule from a day in November 1966, still preserved on the wall, conveys the magic: "3.00 Supremes. 5.00 Temptations".

All of the original recording equipment is still here, more rudimentary than what many a modern teenager has in his bedroom. Yet for any music lover the thrill is indescribable. Three microphones descend from the ceiling and the thought of Diana, Mary and Florence standing there way back in 1964 singing those breathy "ooh-ooh-oohs" is irresistible. During our visit, three elderly black women on vacation from New York were equally taken with the image, and stood there harmonising their very own Supremes tribute. You can sit at the piano played by Stevie Wonder, and close your eyes to hear the late Marvin Gaye hitting those high notes on "I Heard it Thru the Grapevine". If you don't believe in ghosts, this is the sort or room that just might change your mind. Forget Graceland; this is quite simply the most important musical shrine in America.

In the control room, which is the size of a broom cupboard, there is a hole in the floor by the mixing desk, where Barry Gordy sat for 13 years tapping his foot until he had worn right through both the carpet and the linoleum. Upstairs, his apartment is preserved as a perfect time- capsule of Sixties black American style, with tables of strange geometrical shape, purples and greens and lava lamps. Elsewhere are the Sixties cigarette and sweet machines used by Gordy's artists between sessions. He ran a tight ship, charging the teenage Stevie Wonder and the 10-year-old Michael Jackson 10 cents for a candy bar. Another room contains gold discs, sequined costumes worn by the Supremes, and items from the stage wardrobe of Jackson, who pays his dues with a large stipend that keeps the museum going.

Elsewhere in Detroit, the Motown trail runs cold. Attempts to find the house where Diana Ross was born, at 5736 St Antoine, reveal only parking lots and wasteland. A search for Smokey Robinson's old house on Belmont Street is similarly frustrating. Yet it matters not. The soul of Detroit is preserved for ever in all its glory in the Motown Historical Museum.

The Motown Historical Museum opens daily from 10am to 5pm, admission $6.

Making for Motown

Northwest flies daily from Gatwick to Detroit, and British Airways from Heathrow. For travel in January, Bon Voyage (01703 330332) quotes pounds 349 on Northwest, or pounds 273 on United if you are prepared to change planes in Chicago or Washington DC. If you want to combine it with Miami, then American offers a fare including the Florida city with Detroit for around pounds 350, through discount agents.