For the 50th anniversary of the founding of Motown Records, The Associated Press over a period of months invited stars from the fields of music, politics and film to visit Studio A to talk about how the Detroit musical movement has affected them and the larger world.
Some were able to make it to the Motown Historical Museum, which houses the studio. Others shared their thoughts over the telephone or in interviews at various Detroit-area locations.
These are their stories:
Clinton recalled the moment he was summoned to the stage — a make-or-break opportunity where the then-governor of Arkansas could join the big boys and show off his talents to a wider audience.
No, it wasn’t the 1988 Democratic National Convention, where he delivered a big speech. This was a governors’ conference in northern Michigan the year before. The command performance was to be delivered on his saxophone — during a show featuring Motown stars The Four Tops, Martha Reeves and The Vandellas and Junior Walker.
“At the end of the concert, this guy came up to me and says, ‘They want you to come play with them.’ And I said, ‘You have a horn?’ They said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘What are we going to play?’ They said, “Dancing in the Street.’ You know it?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah,”’ Clinton said.
“I said, ‘What key is it in?’ He says, ‘I don’t have a clue.’ And I said, ‘Can I warm up the horn for 30 seconds?’ They said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’
The man who would be elected president five years later said he was handed a sax and “they put one of those damn microphones in the bell of the horn so that everybody would be able to hear me play, no matter how loud everybody else is playing.”
Once he got over the initial shock of playing with musicians he had idolized for more than two decades, Clinton told himself he’d “never have another night like this” and went for it.
Clinton, 62, went on to form close friendships with The Four Tops, who played for him — and he with them — at the governor’s mansion and later at the White House. He also golfs with Motown Records founder Berry Gordy Jr. But each time, Clinton isn’t as much a global political leader as he is a star-struck fan with a horn and a dream.
“I happened to have been president, but mostly ... I think about being in high school and college, and I think about having an unforgettable opportunity to do three gigs with The Four Tops and listening to Junior Walker play his horn an octave higher than I ever could.”
Clinton says he never tires of the Motown sound — going so far as to order one of the label’s 50th anniversary compilation albums after seeing a television commercial for it one night.
“And you know, they dutifully sent it in the mail. I got it a few days later,” Clinton said. “I probably got a dozen different CDs of Motown albums. And I’ve got lots of songs on my iPod, Motown songs.”
Nugent and the Jonas Brothers.
Two musical acts not often seen written or spoken about in the same sentence. But the “Motor City Madman” made the connection during his visit to the museum.
The 60-year-old outspoken guitarist and hunter — clad in a triply camouflage shirt, hat and sunglasses — was in his element on the sunny Saturday, telling several passers-by that he was “Standing in the Shadows of Love!”
But how do those kings of teen/tween rock, the Jonas Brothers, come into play?
Nugent was discussing the legacy of Motown Records and its famous sound, arguing its influence can be heard in many a contemporary artist — everyone from Alicia Keys and Christina Aguilera to yep, you guessed it, the JoBros.
“I stand rather certain that they (the Jonas Brothers) have been touched by Motown,” Nugent said. “They’re playing with a sense of groove, a sense of tightness and cohesiveness that comes from that level of musicality.
“So I’d like to think that even what is considered to be in the most transparent pop music — and I’m not trying to sound a death knell for the Jonas Brothers — I betcha they’ve been touched by the spirit of this Hitsville, U.S.A.”
LaBelle almost married into the Motown family, but it might have come at the expense of her successful singing career.
“We were almost getting married, and we didn’t,” she said of her brief engagement to Otis Williams of The Temptations. “And I’m happy because he went on to his life and I went on to mine. I think he wanted me to stop singing if we got married, so that wouldn’t have been good.”
The engagement was just one of several Motown memories she shared before a gig in Detroit with her reunited 1970s trio LaBelle.
She recalled losing a singer to The Supremes. LaBelle said the night before a Patti LaBelle and The Bluebelles show, she learned Cindy Birdsong was on a flight to Detroit to replace The Supremes’ Florence Ballard.
It was heartbreaking to lose Birdsong, LaBelle said, but she eventually made peace with her former backup singer.
In recent years, she said, she’s reconnected with Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. She recalled him telling her, “I should have signed you.”
“It made me feel so good,” she said.
The good feelings have even extended to Diana Ross, The Supremes’ one-time lead singer. LaBelle said she and Ross became close while participating in “Oprah Winfrey’s Legends Ball” on ABC-TV in 2006.
“It seemed as though we were always competing, and I wasn’t. And she realized that I wasn’t, and I realized that she wasn’t. It’s just that we hadn’t connected,” LaBelle said of Ross, with whom she exchanged phone numbers and now says is her “calling buddy.”
Judd fancies herself a bit of a musical historian.
She grew up listening to everything from soul/gospel stars Al Green and Aretha Franklin to bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley and country standout Emmylou Harris.
“I have musical ADD (attention deficit disorder) because of it,” she said. “My records are nuts.”
Her teenage son, Elijah, knows the great singers of the past, but many don’t “and it bothers me,” Judd said.
Judd used the moment to put her son’s musical knowledge to the test.
“For 10 bucks, what song is this?” she asked Elijah and his friend.
When no answer came immediately, Judd jokingly expressed her disappointment.
“I’m gonna have to take you behind the woodshed,” she said.
The boys may not have come away with the $10 prize, but they did get Motown T-shirts.
She also asked for a list of the clerk’s names, and her tour manager returned to the gift shop several minutes later with signed CDs.
Judd, 45, sang with her mother, Naomi, as The Judds before launching a successful solo career. Her solo hits include “No One Else on Earth” and “I Saw the Light.”
By his own admission, world-renowned conductor Slatkin cannot dance. And being Jewish, he hasn’t spent much time worshipping in churches, though he loves gospel music.
But hearing the Motown sound for the first time nearly five decades ago got him imagining the collision of both to create something different — a divine groove.
“The first exposure wasn’t so much about the songs as it was about being able to dance to them. It was a new kind of rhythm,” said Slatkin, music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and whose baton has led most major international orchestras in his 40-year career.
“I heard things that captured my imagination, whether it was Smokey Robinson ... whoever it happened to be. The parallel that I heard when I was a youngster and it was first starting was with gospel music.
“Those two things: The influence of going to parties where people danced to it and the relationship of a kind of music I already loved. So it seemed like a natural outgrowth rather than an explosion of something new,” Slatkin said during a visit to the Motown museum.
It was the 65-year-old Grammy winner’s first visit to Studio A but it immediately felt familiar — having logged many hours in recording studios since he was a child. He’s the son of Los Angeles studio musicians, and his father was a film score conductor.
“It’s like walking into the (20th Century) Fox soundstage. Fox is the only studio left that kept the original soundstage. And you walk in there and all of a sudden it’s just, ahhh,” he said. “That’s a little bit like what this is. ... You’re walking in and you can see these ghosts are there. The ghosts of ‘A’ are here.”
Slatkin lamented the loss of rooms such as these — whose distinctive design and acoustics were incorporated into the recordings — as more musicians opt for software to “make” their sound.
“Any room is the instrument for the whole group,” he said. “Just like our hall is the instrument for the orchestra. ... When you listen, especially the early ones before they started messing around with the balances, you can hear the room.”
DeGraw got into Motown as a kid, hearing songs on Time Life compilation albums.
“I remember hearing The Temptations and The Four Tops. ... It was really a great study for me as a singer,” he said.
DeGraw is watching as Wonder’s band starts playing at the Songwriters Hall of Fame event.
“I know this track, but something important is missing,” DeGraw said.
He then sees Wonder reaching under the piano bench and raking the ground looking for his harmonica, which he had dropped.
DeGraw runs up on stage, reaches under the bench and puts the instrument in Wonder’s hand. Wonder starts playing, and DeGraw remembers thinking, “‘I’ve never been so proud to be a stagehand.’ ... That would have been an honor to anybody to give Stevie Wonder his harmonica to play that essential, essential riff.”
DeGraw also recalled sitting backstage and asking Wonder if he could record the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer on his cell phone.
Wonder agreed, and DeGraw was thrilled, capturing some video of Wonder playing the harmonica in the intimate setting. DeGraw called it “the ultimate campfire hang.”
The 32-year-old singer-songwriter is known for his hits “I Don’t Want To Be” and “In Love With a Girl.”
Baker makes no bones about her love for Motown Records and the sound it spawned in her hometown.
While her jazzy R&B is more smooth and contemporary, she says the music made from the late 1950s to the early ’70s in Detroit comes to her “every time I get ready to do a project, every time I pick up a microphone.”
Still, the 51-year-old singer knows the evidence that Motown’s legacy is good for at least another 50 years rests not with her but with her sons, Eddie and Walt Bridgeforth Jr. Eddie, 15, is a guitarist; Walt, 16, is a drummer.
Baker said letting her sons find their own sound has given them the freedom to discover Motown on their own terms — and broaden their musical palette in the process.
She said Eddie actually discovered James Jamerson, Motown’s bass-playing phenom, before Jimi Hendrix.
That her boys should develop a brand-new sound fits entirely with Baker’s take on the town she still calls home.
“When I think of Detroit, I think of creativity, of creating. We made things and built things that the rest of the world came to us to get.”