What It Is, What It Is: When Motown Left Detroit

Legend has it that Motown boarded up its studio in Detroit and left for Los Angeles in 1972. As Douglas Wolk writes, though, the truth isn’t quite that simple

When Motown Records shut down its operations in Detroit at the end of June, 1972, it was a shock – or at least it seems so, in retrospect. The story goes that the company’s founder Berry Gordy whisked the label’s operations off to Los Angeles on a whim, leaving most of his “family” of musicians and support staff stranded, and that hitmakers showed up for work to find the doors of Hitsville U.S.A. boarded shut; Studio A, the upstairs room at 2648 West Grand Boulevard that had been open nearly around the clock for 13 years, spawning innumerable hits, was abruptly closed.

Except that’s not quite how it happened. The end wasn’t all that abrupt, and the signs that Gordy was moving the operation to California had been coming for a while. (The company’s first L.A. office had actually opened in the Sunset & Vine Tower as early as 1963.) The Supremes’ Mary Wilson suggests in her memoir Supreme Faith that part of the initial impetus for Motown’s big move were the July 1967 riots in Detroit – five years before Hitsville announced it was closing.

When the Supremes’ name officially changed to Diana Ross & the Supremes at the beginning of August 1967, Berry made the announcement from L.A.’s Central Plaza Hotel. Not long afterward, he bought a house in the area, and by the fall of 1968 he was asking his assistant to find a Los Angeles school for his children. The family moved into their new Californian home in October (and Gordy rented a house for Diana Ross nearby).

Still, Gordy continued to pour money back into Detroit. He’d set up the charitable Gordy Foundation there in 1967, and in September 1968 he threw a lavish golden anniversary party for his parents, including a “reaffirmation of vows” ceremony at Bethel AME Church, followed by a four-hour reception for around 2,000 people. The following May, when BMI presented Gordy with a “Citation of Excellence,” Detroit’s mayor Jerome Cavanagh got in on the photo opportunity.

Tom Clay - What the World Needs Now

But it was obvious that Gordy’s heart and ears were increasingly in Los Angeles. In 1969, Motown took over distribution of Chisa Records, a label that had been founded by trumpeter Hugh Masekela and Stewart Levine a few years earlier. It focused on South African music, but it was very much a Californian concern, and the local Jazz Crusaders were as much its house band as the Funk Brothers were to Motown’s Detroit arm. By December, 1970, Motown’s general manager Barney Ales was “emphatically” telling Jet magazine that the company was staying in Detroit: “Berry is looking for new worlds to conquer, and the movie and TV industry just happen to be located on the West Coast.”

A few weeks later, the L.A. office revealed the next wave of its plan: $15 million budgeted for TV and theatrical projects under the aegis of Motown Productions, Inc., beginning with Diana Ross’s April, 1971, TV special Diana! (That was a big gamble: Motown’s gross revenues in 1970 had been $39 million.) Ross married press agent Robert Silberstein in January, while pregnant with Gordy’s child; Gordy, meanwhile, continued to make the Hollywood machine work for her, putting the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues into production with Ross in the starring role.

Motown also launched a sub-label designed to spotlight West Coast acts, MoWest – at least on paper. Its first release, and only substantial hit, was 1971’s “What the World Needs Now / Abraham, Martin and John,” a topical sound collage/spoken-word piece by L.A. DJ Tom Clay. MoWest staggered along for two years, scheduling and cancelling roughly as many records as it actually released; by the time it shut down, the idea of an L.A.-based Motown subsidiary was redundant.

Marvin Gaye - Trouble Man

By the fall of 1971, it was obvious enough that Motown was becoming a West Coast concern that when Amos Wilder was promoted from director of production services to VP of manufacturing, Billboard noted that “he will remain in Detroit.” In June, 1972, Wilder was promoted again, this time to Barney Ales’ former general manager job, and got the unwelcome task of announcing that Motown was “phasing out” its activities in Detroit: “It’s just simply a matter of sound business judgment, economics and logistics which dictate this development,” he told Jet. (Wilder resigned from the company the following January, although he stuck around as a consultant for the rest of 1973.)

In 2013, Marlene Barrow-Tate of the Andantes, a durable group of Motown backup singers, recalled in a Detroit Metro Times article that “Jan. 16, 1972” had been the day that “one of the Funk Brothers” called her and told her to pick up her final paycheck: “‘You better get over to the boulevard quick, because it’s all over.’“ The film Standing in the Shadows of Motown includes an interview with the Funk Brothers’ guitarist Eddie Willis, in which he claims that “one day, we went to the studio... and there was a big sign on the door saying ‘there won’t be any work here today – Motown is moving to Los Angeles.’“

Those are dramatic anecdotes, but in fact Motown’s Detroit operations continued for a while after the declaration that they were ending. Marvin Gaye (one of the final ‘60s Motown stars to make the move to L.A.) recorded his hit “Trouble Man” at Studio A in September, and the legendary “Snakepit” stayed open for more than a year after that: the final Motown session in 2648 West Grand’s log books is instrumental tracks for Art & Honey’s unissued “Always Together” and “What Have I Done,” on August 30, 1973, featuring several of the Funk Brothers. Studio B, the former Golden World Records space that Gordy had bought in 1968, was open even longer – Motown artists were still recording there as late as September 1974.

The Four Tops - Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got)

The company’s big move had been easy to see coming, and it happened slowly, but it was no less a blow. Gerald Posner’s Motown: Music, Money, Sex and Power claims that “between 200 and 300 Detroit employees were out of work, with most given no chance to transfer.” Some of those were former marquee names. The Four Tops didn’t want to move west, and were promptly fired by the recording division’s new president Ewart Abner. (They bounced back, releasing the hit “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got)” on ABC-Dunhill in 1973.) The Marvelettes – by this point just Wanda Young Rogers backed up on recordings by the Andantes – called it quits. Martha Reeves recorded her lead vocal for a final Vandellas single, “Tear It On Down,” in L.A., then held the group’s farewell concert at Cobo Hall in Detroit at the end of 1972.

Mary Wilson recalls in Supreme Faith that even after she moved to Los Angeles in 1968, Motown’s artists and staff would get together whenever they were in Detroit, “like a family reunion.” But the news that the label was closing down its original location reached her as secondhand gossip; “without any emotions involved, it did make sense,” she writes.

The Donovan Building in downtown Detroit, where Motown had moved its business offices in 1968, was abandoned, with mountains of the label’s paperwork still inside. It was demolished in 2006 and became a parking lot for Super Bowl XL. Berry Gordy’s older sister Esther Gordy Edwards, the source of the $800 loan with which he’d started Motown, stayed behind in Detroit, preserving Hitsville and its Studio A, and converted the building into the Motown Museum in the mid-’80s. It’s still there now: the machines that made the old sound of Young America, until Young America went west.

By Douglas Wolk on May 23, 2016

On a different note