Motown Museum Reopens for In-Person Tours
Clothes worn by Motown artists, Motown Museum, Detroit MI. Photo by Keana Freeman
After breaking ground for its multi-million dollar expansion, the Motown Museum reopened on Feb. 22 for in-person docent-led tours.
Esther Gordy Edwards founded the Motown Museum in 1985. The Motown Museum became a federally protected historic landmark in 1987.
In the 1960s, Esther Gordy Edwards was vice president and chief executive officer of Motown Records, the company started by her younger brother, Berry Gordy. Monet Heath, who has been a Motown Museum tour guide since 2021, stated that Esther told her younger brother, Berry, “You know, I think we thought we were making music for our time, but we were making history and we did not know it.”
At first Berry Gordy was going to name his record company “Tammy” after the hit Debbie Reynolds title song from the film, “Tammy and the Bachelor,” but “Tammy” was already copyrighted, so one of Gordy’s first record labels was “Tamla,” which Gordy started in 1959. In 1960, Gordy would start Motown Records. According to Heath, Motown was a play on the words Motor City.
To start his company, Gordy went to his family for a business loan of one thousand dollars and they agreed to eight hundred.
According to Heath, Gordy had three main rules during the closed-door meetings when everyone involved with the company would vote on which records to release. One, no producer could vote on his own record. Two, only Gordy could overrule a majority vote. And, three, anyone over five minutes late would be locked out. The make or break question to determine if a song was released, according to Heath, was ”Would you use your last dollar to buy this record or buy a sandwich?”
When Motown Records began, radio stations were only allowed three songs from a record label to play during a music set. So, Gordy created multiple labels: Tamla, Gordy, VIP, Soul, Chisa, Rare Earth, Ecology, and Motown.
Gordy believed all voices should be heard and it did not matter under what medium. So, he created the Black Forum label to record spoken word, so the worldwide struggle of Black people could be heard. The Black Forum label recorded Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Langston Hughes reading his poetry, Black Panther leaders Stokely Carmichael and Elaine Brown, and author and activist Imamu Amiri Baraka.
Gordy also produced, directed, and acted in films. Some Hollywood films that Gordy produced were “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Mahogany,” “The Wiz,” and “The Last Dragon.”
I have been a Detroiter all my life and never had the opportunity to visit the museum, so I was amazed when joining me on the tour were people from Miami, Atlanta, and Chicago.
When walking up to the museum, you can hear some of Motown’s classic songs playing. Once you first step into the building you are greeted with a beautiful wall that features young and old pictures of some renowned Motown artists. During the tour, you can see small replicas of the homes Gordy acquired over the years to house his record company. The models are hung on a wall to create a timeline of when he purchased each house, showing the growth of the company. Heath talked about how Gordy created an empire on West Grand Boulevard with the seven houses he purchased.
Next on the tour was a viewing of highlights from the film “Hitsville: The Making of Motown.” I could feel the energy of the people around me who were dancing in their seats to some of the classic songs being played during the documentary.
After the film, we went upstairs to the next part of the tour. During this part Heath talked about how Gordy started Motown Records, showed us an enlarged image of the contract he made with his family to get the loan he needed to start his company. Heath continued by explaining how though he hated working the assembly line, “his job at the Ford Motor Company was a blessing in disguise.”
Before founding Motown Records, Berry Gordy worked for Ford Motor Company as an assembly worker. The legend is that one day Gordy looked at how a bare metal frame would come down the assembly line and come out as a brand-new car. So, he thought that he could do the same thing with young talented artists.
Gordy produced a successful training program to create world famous artists. Heath mentioned how the training was required for all artists, even Michael Jackson. All the artists helped each other grow their talents.
During the tour, guests were told to look up at a hole in the ceiling. The unique sound of Motown was the echo chamber that was created by cutting an opening in the ceiling that leads to the attic. “The first echo chamber was the shower in the bath because everyone sounds good singing in the shower,” Heath said.
As we paused to examine several of the artifacts in the museum, I was extremely excited to get the chance to see Michael Jackson’s glove and hat, which is engraved with his name in gold, made famous in the music video for “Billie Jean.” Jackson donated his hat and glove to the museum in 1988 along with $125,000.
I was also amazed to see all the famous albums that were created over time and how the cover art had evolved. One wall has a large picture of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, who had marched with over a hundred thousand civil rights and labor activists on Woodward Avenue in Detroit to give his famous “I Have a Dream” speech months before giving the historic speech in Washington, D.C.
Part of the tour involves seeing a recreation of the apartment where Gordy lived during the early days of his company. There is a sign that says “Welcome to Hitsville USA” before walking through the door to Gordy’s apartment. The museum has some of the original furniture on display. From the apartment, guests can take an elevator or go down the steep stairs that lead to the original headquarters of Motown Records.
Once you reach the first floor, you are in the lobby of Hitsville U.S.A. You can see the original entrance from the street. On the reception desk, there is a sign-in book/calendar that is flipped to where the Jackson 5 first came to Hitsville. We also see a switchboard area that was originally Gordy’s office. On the wall across from it, we got to see some of the original Gold records. Then to reach Gold record status, an album had to have sold one million units. Today, an album only needs to sell half a million to reach Gold record status.
As you walk to the back of the lobby, you get the chance to see the classic coin-operated candy machine where Stevie Wonder would get his favorite candy, Baby Ruth. Heath informed us how the staff would make sure the candy bar was always in the same spot.
The last stop in the tour is Studio A, where some of the most famous Motown songs were recorded. Heath explained how Gordy and his father worked together to create the space. All the instruments that are on display were actually used in the studio. There is the piano that Stevie Wonder and many other artists used. There are the drums Marvin Gaye used in “Please Mr. Postman.” Marvin Gaye started at Motown Records as a drummer before becoming one of the label’s most iconic singers.
To cap off the tour, Heath showed us how to do The Temptations’s famous dance moves from their song, “My Girl.” Even though the guests and I were definitely not going to pass the Berry Gordy sandwich test, we all could not help but dance and have a good time.
The Motown Museum is located at 2648 W. Grand Blvd, Detroit, MI 48208. Tours cost $20.00 per person and must be booked on the museum website. For tickets, museum hours and upcoming events, visit: motownmuseum.org.