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Who could have predicted a modest 1950s bungalow on a residential street in a Detroit inner-city neighborhood would become the epicenter of a musical movement that rocked the world? Starting with an $800 family loan, Berry Gordy Jr. launched Motown Records in 1959 at the tender age of 27. To chase his dream of making music for all people, the young but fearless Gordy boldly quit his assembly-line job at the Ford Motor Co. plant and purchased 2648 W. Grand Blvd. He moved into the upstairs flat, converted the downstairs rooms into a control center, transformed the garage into a recording studio (the celebrated Studio A) — and the rest is musical history. His gutsy entrepreneurial gamble not only brought us soul music now revered the world over, it also launched a cultural revolution.
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Step inside the Motown Museum, housed in that white bungalow with blue trim that was once known as Hitsville U.S.A., and you'll immediately be humming along with the soulful, oh-so-familiar Motown tunes playing throughout this former hit-making and artist-development factory.
Docent-led tours (about an hour long) begin in the upstairs apartment. In the living room decorated with midcentury furniture, you'll be standing where Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and other members of the Motown family often hung out after long recording sessions. The table in the dining room doubled as the headquarters for shipping and decision-making as Gordy grew his empire. Using a quality-control approach inspired by his assembly-line days, Gordy held weekly “product evaluation” meetings in this modest room to determine what was working and what required improvement. By balancing this approach with an environment promoting creativity, he gave a voice to local Detroit talent — many from the neighborhood — as he transformed young and musically gifted Black artists into superstar recording artists.
Plan Your Trip
Location: 2648 W. Grand Blvd., about 3-1/2 miles west of downtown
Getting there: If you drive, there is free street parking but no lot. Taxis, car-hire services, Lyft and Uber are available throughout the city. You can also take the Dexter or Fenkell bus lines, exiting at the Rosa Parks and West Grand Boulevard stop, two blocks away.
Visit: Thursday-Sunday (closed for all major holidays), 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Admission: Adults $15; $10 for adults 62 and older.
Best time to visit: Weekdays, to avoid crowds
Accessibility: Wheelchair ramps, wheelchair-accessible restrooms and an elevator give the mobility-challenged access to all parts of the museum. But bring your own wheelchair, walker or scooter because the museum has none to loan out.
The thrills continue downstairs in Studio A — the very room where Marvin Gaye gave life to “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You),” where the Marvelettes pleaded “Please Mr. Postman,” and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles warned you'd better “Shop Around.” Stars often drop in, surprising guests and adding to the excitement. During my visit, Martha Reeves of Martha & the Vandellas showed up and shared anecdotes about her Motown days and led our group in an unforgettable verse of “Dancing in the Street” in this studio — a spectacular experience.
On your own, wander through the Gallery in the attached house next door, added when Motown hits climbed the charts and the money started rolling in. Gold and platinum records line the walls, alongside the sequined gowns and high-style suits worn by Diana Ross & the Supremes, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder and other Motown legends while performing for adoring crowds of all backgrounds on stages around the world. Photos and newspaper clippings tell the musical success stories and, more importantly, the cultural impact brought about by the signature Motown sound that appealed to audiences of all backgrounds. Under Gordy, Motown became a model of Black capitalism, pride and self-expression, giving hope to future generations.
"It's important that we attract [visitors] with the music,” says Robin Terry, the museum's CEO and Gordy's grand-niece, “but equally important that we tell the entrepreneurial story of Berry Gordy Jr.”