Page last updated at 08:05 GMT, Monday, 12 January 2009

Tears of a town with no music around


Motown is marking 50 years of musical memories

By Jamie Coomarasamy
BBC News, Detroit

If you didn't know it was the 50th anniversary of Motown, you would find it hard to tell from a casual drive around Detroit, the city which gave the pioneering record label its name.

There are no signs indicating that this is a year of celebration.

But Detroit has not been Motown's headquarters since 1972, when founder Berry Gordy's ambitions to break into Hollywood led him to relocate to Los Angeles.

Abdul "Duke" Fakir, of The Four Tops
Best thing we ever did was say 'yes' to him the second time around. It was the jackpot

Abdul "Duke" Fakir, of The Four Tops, on Berry Gordy

He had success there, but it was nothing compared to the label's 1960s heyday when it produced a string of hits.

Its spiritual home has remained at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, the house where the Gordy family lived and where Mr Gordy - as most Motown artists still call him - built one of the most successful empires in musical history, kickstarted by an $800 loan from his father.

Gordy decided to call the label after a nickname for Detroit. Motown - or motor town - reflected the city's then flourishing motor industry.

"The day he started, he asked us to join him - we casually said no," reflects Abdul "Duke" Fakir, the last surviving original member of one of Motown's most popular bands, The Four Tops.

"We knew him, but we didn't think a black man could have a chance in the music industry in Detroit."

Mixed emotions

Mary Wilson (left) and Diana Ross, of The Supremes
Mary Wilson, pictured with fellow Supreme Diana Ross, was a keen cook
A youthful 73-year-old, with a spring in his step and a twinkle in his eye, Fakir is still touring.

He is looking forward - albeit with mixed emotions - to picking up a lifetime Grammy for the Four Tops in Los Angeles next month. The honour will be awarded just three months after the death of legendary lead singer Levi Stubbs.

Fakir smiles as he remembers the band's growing realisation that, contrary to expectations, Berry Gordy was succeeding.

"Best thing we ever did was say 'yes' to him the second time around. It was the jackpot."

The Four Tops were part of the crowd of young, neighbourhood groups who - with the help of session musicians the Funk Brothers - rehearsed and recorded in the converted garage under the Gordy home, known as Studio A.

The Motown Records headquarters, which became known as Hitsville USA, was a kind of pop music finishing school.

Acts were were trained, not just how to sing, but how to dress, how to communicate and how to develop as artists.

Among those groomed for success were two former Motown secretaries, Martha Reeves and Diana Ross.

Motown's former Hitsville USA home is now a museum

The studio doors were open 24 hours a day and, says Fakir, it wasn't unusual to find Marvin Gaye tweaking the lyrics to his latest hit or a Four Top standing in for a Temptation during a recording session.

He says there was competition, but a high level of camaraderie.

"After recording, we'd all go off to basketball together, then head over to Mary Wilson's [of The Supremes] house, where she'd cook some food and we'd stay up till three o'clock in the morning. It was a life of joy."

People 'betrayed'

Studio A is still here, the centrepiece of what is now the Motown Historical Museum.

It is a collection of artefacts, frozen in time - instruments and reel-to-reel tape players, coffee cups and candy machines used by the stars.

The museum's chief operating officer, Audley Smith, demonstrates how Stevie Wonder's favourite Baby Ruth bars were always kept in the same slot in the candy dispenser so as not to confuse the blind singer.

1. I Just Called To Say I Love You - Stevie Wonder
2. Hello - Lionel Richie
3. One Day In Your Life - Michael Jackson
4. Three Times A Lady - Commodores
5. Being With You - Smokey Robinson
6. All Night Long (All Night) - Lionel Richie
7. I Heard It Through The Grapevine - Marvin Gaye
8. Baby Love - Supremes
9. I Want You Back - Jackson Five
10. Happy Birthday - Stevie Wonder
Source: Official Charts Company

There is something bittersweet about this anniversary for the people of Detroit as they struggle to cope with the collapse of the car industry that dominates the economy.

"I really do believe that if Motown had stayed in Detroit, the fortunes of the city would have been better," says local music journalist Gary Graff.

"People still feel betrayed all these years later."

One thing people of the city should feel proud of is the part Motown artists played in breaking down racial barriers all those years ago.

Although a small percentage of the label's songs were overtly political, black groups making songs that white people liked - pure pop, rather than what was known as "race music" - played an important role in ending segregation.

Moving towards that could be hard going though as Joe Billingsley, of vocal group The Contours - who had a 1962 hit with Do You Love Me - remembers.

Joe Billingsly of The Contours on performing to segregated audiences

He can recall shots being fired at the band's coach after a concert in Macon, Georgia.

"In Memphis once, we played to a room that was one half black and one half white," he said.

"We had to sing each song to the white crowd, then turn around and sing it again to the black crowd."

Fakir, meanwhile, is brimming with pride at helping to break down barriers.

"We were softly getting into people's houses, their living rooms, their kitchens - places we hadn't been.

"And they were accepting us and looking at us in a different way."

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