The Source for a Stellar Roadtrip Playlist

Music is among the most defining elements of a personality, and of a moment. We remember the soundtrack to an experience and we remember it vividly.

People ask what kind of music you like as a way to connect, and it happens to be one of the questions I hate the most, because I don’t know the names of any of the artists I listen to! One of the woes, I suppose, of an MP3 player vs CDs. Music just plays and I don’t know who it’s by… But for the record (pun), anything with a hint of a twang or a bit of the blues.

Dancing in the Streets

Well, Glory Be, there are music museums across this country and I just visited two of the finest. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland OH and the Motown Museum in Detroit MI.

These places will have you smiling like a goober for the duration of your visit (which is hours upon happy hours), singing and dancing with complete strangers, running home to download music you forgot about, and to research bands and eras you just discovered. Hello playlist!

A Pause for Insight about Paula

I want to be a backup dancer like those in the Temptations. I can’t help myself.* It’s been a fantasy for YEARS and I realize it’ll never come true, but being at these museums was the closest I’ll likely ever get and it was awesome. Dancing is encouraged there. And I took up the challenge.

*Yes, I know this was a Four Tops song, not the Temptations. Work with me here.

The Surreptitious Meaning of “Rock & Roll”

It’s not much of a surprise, is it, to find out that “rock and roll” meant “sex” in the Blues tunes of the 19-teens? The first time the phrase was used in print was on Trixie Smith’s record, “My Daddy Rocks Me with a Steady Roll.” All right then.

Can You Be Nostalgic if You Weren’t Born Yet?

Whether or not you technically can, I was. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (Rock Hall), is rich with videos and memorabilia, costumes and props, and they take you to another time. This “classic” music is so ubiquitous and a part of American culture that it bypasses what’s cool today and everyone can relate and sing along. Think of the teen boys who were dancing it up to “YMCA” at the Hollerin’ Contest earlier this summer. Not their era, but still their experience.

The Makings of an Exhibit

Hat’s off to the curators for a clean museum at Rock Hall. The volume (pun) of artifacts to display could be teen-girl-bulletin-board messy and they kept it neat, spacious, and still rich and thorough. You get what you want: Michael Jackson’s sequin glove; and what you don’t expect: Jim Morrison (Doors) was a boy scout and you can see his uniform!

Plus there’s the tactile and historic beauty of browned paper from 45s; dresses and men’s shoes–both glittery; programs and posters; guitars galore; sheet music and playlists; handwritten lyrics; the flight case for a roadie, Chevon Magee, who worked with the Rolling Stones for 30 years.

Each era of music gets a display: from country to rap. All with respect, and all with reference to how they informed the next generation and the next style. Everything old is new again.

Video Killed the Radio Star

In addition to an exhibit on just that topic, there are video and concert props throughout the museum. I only recognize the ZZ Top car. Do you know what the others are?

Video props at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Photos courtesy of Flickr

Becoming a Music Mecca

The migration of black people in America is central to the creation of music scenes, specifically in Memphis and Detroit. Sharecropping along the Mississippi Delta was a misguided promise of financial independence. Enter the Blues. Car manufacturing in Detroit offered consistent wages in temperature-controlled facilities, and the potential for happier times. The Motor Town brought about Motown, music that was fun and full of hope. And serendipitously, the top stars grew up with each other, went to school together, were neighbors.

Berry Gordy, who started Motown Records, was friends with Smokey Robinson. Smokey lived six doors down from Diana Ross. She sang with the Temptations at some point before they were the Temptations. They knew the Contours, who knew Marvin Gaye. Someone went to kindergarten with Aretha Franklin. Instead of having awesome games of capture the flag in their neighborhood, they sang. A lot.

It’s a Family Affair

The whole roster was under 21–for quite a while. So chaperones were needed. And so was finishing school. Berry Gordy wanted his artists to be presentable to kings and queens, and to enter any room, command it, and be respected in it. So they learned how to eat, how to sit, how to hold themselves. Plus there was staging, choreography, and voice training.

And with family, comes family meetings. Every Friday the artists and staff gathered to vote for which new songs they considered to be hits–and therefore would get promotion. If folks wavered on a song, the question was posed: if you had to choose whether to spend your last dollar on this song or on a hot dog, which would you buy? If they took too long to answer, the artist had to go back and work on the song again.

Bringing Home the Bacon

Motown had 13 labels. Why? Because radio guidelines only allowed three artists per hour from the same label. So with multiple labels “Motown” could dominate programming. And they did.

They also recycled songs. One artist would do well with a song, but as it petered out, they’d give it to another artist who would then sell even more records. And over and over again until it became associated with whoever sold the most. For example: Gladys Knight and the Pips were successful with “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” But there was still more itch to scratch, even though it was first recorded by Smokey Robinson, so it was given to Marvin Gaye and The Temptations. And that’s just one example.

They were very honest about this practice, though. Think of the lyrics to “It’s the Same Old Song.”

Building the Motown Empire

Motown operated out of eight houses on the same street, bought one at a time. Why houses? Because in the 1960’s, African Americans couldn’t buy commercial property.

With an $800 loan from his family, Berry Gordy bought the first house. In 10 years Motown records had made $20 million. Each additional house served a basic function: recording, sales, accounting, etc. And finally, in addition to the house, he was successful enough for prejudice to look aside and let him buy an office building. But he still kept the houses.

Motown Historical Museum.

Photo Courtesy of the Motown Museum

Creating the Motown Sound

It’s about two key factors: an echo bounced off of the attic; and folks snapping, clapping, and tapping toes. Oh, and talent, too. The reverb from the roof made voices sound bigger and gave a quality not yet on the scene. The snapping and tapping made it a party and got everyone dancing – in the studio and in life. People were literally brought in to a recording just to tap their toes!

And let’s not forget the Funk Brothers band. These studio musicians were a jazz band, so they improvised riffs that became the famous licks we know and love. Together, they have more number one songs than the Beatles, Elvis, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones…combined.

Garage Band

Remember that Motown started in a house. The control room was a converted kitchen and the studio a converted garage. The microphones were wired up to the echo chamber in the attic and the sound sent back to the booth – genius that I don’t understand.

I love this picture – look at the worn floor. It’s from the producers’ heels digging in as they counted, 1,2…1, 2, 3, 4!

Floor in the Producers Booth at the Motown Musuem

Photo Courtesy of the Motown Museum

Planning Your Visits

I had over three hours at Rock Hall and it was generally leisurely, but toward the end I felt rushed, as the museum was closing. I didn’t stop at all of the stations, and if you’re a real music aficionado, you will. So seriously, plan for the whole day, and then be delighted if you “only” take five hours.

The Motown Museum will look disappointing from the outside–it’s a house? I just want you to be forewarned. It’s spectacular on the inside-so fret not, my friends. You’ll laugh, you’ll sing, you’ll dance. I think even my father would dance. That’s how groovy it is.

***

Disclosure: Thank you to Visit Detroit and the Motown Museum for the complimentary ticket.

And now for the dreaded question: what kind of music do you like? Does it change when you’re on the road?

 

3 Responses

09.15.12

Looks great! Are you making it to my hometown of Memphis too?

Debbie – I will make it to Memphis, but on the route back to Atlanta – so in many months! I’ll reach out before then for ideas!

09.15.12

Wonderful post! And I so enjoyed reading, remembering, and listening to the musical links. Fascinating history lesson. Marvin Gaye’s “Heard it Through the Grapevine” was a favorite. Had no idea it was a multi-time recording. A wonderful walk….er, movement…down memory lane. Thank you!

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