Paul Wilson: Hitsville U.S.A. – this Detroit shrine's so fine

Once a week, Motown rules in downtown Hamilton. The twenty-somethings love it, but probably don't know the history. Maybe one day they'll trek to the old house in Detroit where the music was born.
Glen, one of the Hitsville tour guides, is only 22. But he knows every Motown story, finger snap and song. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

Club Absinthe in downtown Hamilton has held Motown Wednesdays for years. If you’ve seen the line-ups, you know the people heading in for long and sweaty nights powered by the Miracles, the Marvelettes, Martha & The Vandellas are nowhere near my age.

McMaster TV’s Hammertime show stopped by there a couple of years ago and their YouTube clip asks the twenty-somethings what they like about that long-ago Motor City music:

"It’s pretty much old school," says one guy. "It’s good music, something you can dance to... it’s groovy."

These Motown fans in downtown Hamilton know nothing's so danceable as those old Detroit tunes. (McMaster TV on YouTube)

It is good and it is groovy that these kids love that music from the Sixties. I was lucky enough to get it fresh from the factory. I lived in Sarnia for the first half of my teenage years and listened to CKLW, the Big 8, out of Windsor.

They say it had the largest audience of any station in Canada, but most of those listeners were over the border in Detroit. Berry Gordy’s Motown was cranking out hit after hit and the Big 8 played them all.

Shop Around, by the Miracles, vocals by Smokey Robinson, scored the company’s first million seller in 1960 and then the music would not stop.

Biggest girl group

There was Little Stevie Wonder, just 13 when he did Fingertips Pt. 2, my first 45. And the Temptations, the Spinners, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mary Wells.

And the biggest girl group of them all, The Supremes. Diana Ross has nothing on my wife Marnie when it comes to doing that hands-out choreography to Stop! In the Name of Love.

Six years ago they honoured Motown founder Berry Gordy by renaming the street in front of Hitsville. He's flanked by Smokey Robinson and Martha Reeves. (Carlos Osorio/ Associated Press)

That’s the background. The news is that Marnie and I have just returned from the house where Motown was born. It’s called Hitsville and it’s on West Grand Boulevard.

That would be Detroit, the city that’s an inch away from bankruptcy. It has $14 billion in long-term liabilities.

In the Sixties, Detroit was America’s fifth-largest city. Now it’s 18th. From a high of two million residents, Detroit today is 700,000. The plants closed, the people left.

We know rust belt

Somebody from Hamilton isn’t going to knock a city like Detroit. Our struggles are far smaller, but we know all about rust-belt economies and trying to find new life.

Still, it’s a shock. Just around the corner from the Motown Museum, there are blocks of abandoned homes. If there was the money, the city would probably tear them down. Instead, they rot.

Just around the corner from the Motown Museum, decay takes over a block. Detroit used to have two million people. Now there are 700,000. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

But Hitsville U.S.A. is on a fine wide boulevard. On the front lawn, a florid-faced senior approaches. He’s from up-state Michigan. "I’m taking my life in my hands today," he says. "We haven’t come into Detroit in five years. Not for sports, not for theatre, not for anything." He seems proud of his stand.

But he has friends visiting from New Zealand and they love Motown. They want to see the museum. Bless them, phooey on him.

It’s $10 to get in and worth every dime. It’s a guided tour that lasts nearly an hour and a half.

I’m guessing all the guides are good, but visitors are really lucky to get Glen. He’s only 22, but the kid knows Motown – the people, the stories, the steps, the finger snaps and all the words. Yes, he sings.

Low-tech echo

The tour starts with a great video for the uninitiated. But everyone in our group – from Europe, California, Kathmandu – clearly knows the story.

Then Glen takes us around that old house. Two houses actually, side by side. We see the big hole Berry Gordy carved in the ceiling. Sing under there and you’ve got a low-tech echo chamber. Glen shows us how.

John Sheridan owns the Macassa Bay cruise boat. She runs out of Windsor, but the captain always acknowledges her Hamilton roots. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

See the orange couch where Marvin Gaye stretched out between long sessions. They recorded here 24 hours a day.

See the desk, old phone, Smith-Corona typewriter, where Martha Reeves sat, a secretary until she was tapped to be a star. Heat Wave was her instant summer classic in 1963.

The candy machine is still there, Baby Ruths 40 years old. Cigarette machine too, 35 cents a pack.

Sir Paul likes the Steinway

The tour ends in Studio A, a converted garage. They call it the snake pit, all those mike cords hanging from the ceiling. There’s a big Steinway there, which Paul McCartney borrowed recently. (The Beatles borrowed much from Motown. Stones too.)

The hits were made right there in that room. You look at the big black-and-whites, you hear the songs, you feel the chill.

On a trip past Detroit on the Macassa Bay, you'll see new development and old decay. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

One more thing to do. Back on the Windsor side, right in front of the casino, catch a cruise of the Detroit River aboard the Macassa Bay. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because the big boat was built in Hamilton by a guy named Ernie Kablau nearly 30 years ago.

He tried to run cruises back then on Hamilton Harbour, but the business wasn’t there. Owner of the boat today, Captain John Sheridan, 78, mentions Ernie at the beginning of every voyage’s spiel.

The Macassa Bay lets you see Detroit from the water’s edge, the beauty and the decay. The city has lost so much, but the music born there does not die.

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.