Turning Bad into Good, Motown Michael Sends Some Concert Cash Back to His Musical Roots

updated 11/07/1988 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/07/1988 01:00AM

By Michael Jackson's standards it was an oration—three whole sentences spoken in a single verbal burst. "It's great to be here," he began, peeking from behind his sunglasses at the crowd lining a Detroit street last week. Thousands of Jackson fans had braved a frigid downpour in hopes of catching a glimpse of him. But Michael wasn't there just to hear their screams—he's getting enough of those on his sold-out Bad tour. Jackson was delivering a $125,000 check for the modest museum dedicated to the Motown sound originated by Berry Gordy. "I'm happy and proud to give back to the soil from which I came," Jackson said. "Berry Gordy made it all possible for me, and I want to say I love you, Berry, and thank you."

With that, Jackson and his entourage hustled inside the rambling brick house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard. From the street, it doesn't look like much—just another aging building in Detroit's midtown. But between 1959 and 1972, the house was the home of Hitsville, USA, headquarters of Gordy's Motown record label. Some of the greatest black rock and soul artists of the last 30 years—the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and a group of fresh-faced Gary, Ind., kids called the Jackson Five—got their start in the back-room recording studio there.

Of course, it's been years now since Detroit was the music capital. Gordy moved the Motown operation to Los Angeles 15 years ago and sold the label last summer. Yet thanks to the pack-rat tendencies of Gordy's sister, Esther G. Edwards, the memories of Hitsville have been lovingly collected in the Motown Historical Museum, which opened in 1980. "Yesterday I noticed some sheet music on top of the piano," said Gordy recently. "It was an original copy of a medley for the Supremes. 'Baby Love.' I Hear a Symphony.' 'Where Did Our Love Go?' It's been there for over 20 years. Everything is intact."

If Edwards' mother lode is to be saved, professionals will have to catalog and maintain the hundreds of boxes that she obsessively stashed away, containing, among other things, music scores, posters and photographs. "We need what every museum needs, staffing and money," says Edwards. "A curator and a director are our first priorities. I know nothing about museums, but I know I want these things preserved." In fact, the museum needs help soon, since many of its prized possessions, including a spangled glove that Jackson donated last week, are merely stuck to the wall with pushpins. Michael's $125,000 check—the proceeds from one of his Detroit concerts—will help foot some of the bills.

In many ways the Motown Museum is a repository for Berry Gordy's personal history. "I get strong déjà vu feelings when I go back to that building," he says. "I see myself walking there 25 years ago. Diana Ross tapping me on the back. Marvin Gaye playing football on the grass when he was supposed to be recording. And Stevie Wonder. Whenever I'd go down to the studio, there was this little blind kid on the drums. I'd say, 'What is that noise? Get him out of there.' "

Gordy also has powerful memories of the first time he met Jackson. "He was a cute kid," he says. "He could sing well and he danced like James Brown." If Michael's talent was evident, so was his drive. "He stared at me all the time," says Gordy. "The other kids would play around, hit each other. But Michael would sit there and pay attention. He had nothing on his mind but learning."

Gordy had what it took to teach him plenty. Before starting Motown in 1959, he had pulled down $85 a week working on a Lincoln-Mercury assembly line. He borrowed the $800 down payment for the house on West Grand Boulevard and installed a secondhand two-track recording studio. He lived upstairs and made records downstairs, and what records they were. The Motown sound helped define a generation—and put the little house on the map. Even after the company left Detroit, people still showed up looking for Hitsville. "They stopped at all hours," says Edwards. "We'd tell them that the headquarters was in L.A., but they'd still say, 'Isn't this where it all started?' "

Motown's stars have largely scattered now; even the Jacksons left the label in 1975. Yet Michael remains good friends with Gordy and loves to visit the birds in the aviary at Gordy's Bel Air home. After the presentation of the check, Jackson, Gordy, Edwards and a small group of insiders retired for a quiet dinner at Gordy Manor, Berry's Detroit home, where Michael and his brothers once stayed for a while. There would be time for some laughs and some storytelling about good times past. Maybe they would "run around with no shoes on, go up to the attic where Michael used to sleep, play pool in the basement," said Gordy, anticipating the moment. In other words, it was a chance to be like kids again—just the kind of evening Michael would crave.

—Jacob Young, and Julie Greenwalt in Detroit

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