Detroit — the hometown of Madonna, Diana Ross, and Aretha Franklin, has a proud musical legacy to offer. Throughout the 20s to the 80s, many pioneers and trailblazers including, singers, musicians, and performers who lived here, influenced and shaped multiple music genres as we know them today.
The history of Detroit’s music tells the story of how this set of genres evolved and where it’s going. From R&B to Gospel and from Jazz to Punk, Pop, and Techno; Detroit has heritage and representation of all of them. It is the birthplace of the futuristic genre Techno and home to the iconic “Motown Sound” — a music label that produced one hit after another first started operating out of downtown Detroit.
Where it all began
The Greater Detroit Area was home to a diverse population with each ethnicity bringing their own rich and vibrant musical traditions. Residents of African-American descent greatly influenced almost every genre and its legacy in Detroit. By the ‘40s, east Detroit had become a prominent entertainment district — Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, where a number of legendary jazz artists, bands, and singers performed. But in the late ‘50s, the district gradually disappeared into a neighborhood and a freeway.
After Black Bottom was demolished, the music scene on West Grand Boulevard was slowly replaced by the Motown label in the 1960s. The mark of this legendary label grew beyond the music industry, becoming a radical social and cultural movement.
Artists like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, Michael Jackson, Martha Reeves and others attempted to bring together a racially segregated society and in turn greatly influencing popular music and culture of their time. The label itself is a story of the success of these talented and dedicated individuals.
The label gets its name from Detroit itself — Motor City became Motor Town, later contracted to Motown. Motown would later go on to be recognized as ‘Sound of Young America’ and turn into a pop music institution. To the date, it has produced north of 180 No. 1 worldwide hits and its legacy lives on as the Motown Museum.
With artists like Erykah Badu, Lil Yachty, and Migos on its roster, Motown Records continues to focus on the sound of young America and remains a key component of Detroit tourism. While keeping the seven houses that made up the record label’s original headquarters, the Motown Museum announced a $50 million expansion in December 2017. The history of Gordy’s empire will be presented through interactive exhibits in a new structure that should be finished later this year.
The challenges faced in Detroit
The years following the founding of Motown have been difficult for the city. It even apparently was on the verge of extinction in October 1966. Gil Scott-Heron wrote the song “We Almost Lost Detroit” that gave John G. Fuller’s 1975 exposé its title after a near-disaster at the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station in Monroe, about 30 miles outside of Detroit. The Detroit indie band JR JR covered the song in 2011.
Detroit is in risk of becoming a lost city due to social and economic concerns as well. The profound racial tensions in the city were once again made public by the riots in July 1967. 43 people were killed, almost 7,000 locals had been detained, and 3,000 properties had been destroyed during five days of rioting and looting.
The so-called “white flight” from Detroit was fueled by the riots. The city’s tax base was destroyed when the population dropped from about two million in 1950 to 677,000 in 2015, which contributed to Detroit’s $18 billion debt.
Detroiters still engage with music even in the darkest times. The civil rights movement benefited from the involvement of Motown. Following its meteoric rise to No. 1 following its publication in April 1967, Otis Redding’s ballad “Respect” became Aretha Franklin’s hallmark song and an anthem for feminism and equal rights.
A list of Detroit’s most important musical landmarks
- United Sound Systems Recording Studios- The well-known wooden home with the blue-painted windows is still being used as a studio today. One of the most significant locations in the world for the creation of music offers guided tours of the museum. Jimmy Siracuse founded United Sound Systems Recording Studios in 1933, where Miles Davis, Max Roach, and Charlie Parker recorded bebop standards, “Boogie Chillen” by John Lee Hooker was cut, “Tamla’s First Release” by Berry Gordy was cut in 1959, and “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye was cut. It was used by Bob Seger in the 1970s. The Red Hot Chili Peppers were discovered by George Clinton there, and they later wrote an ode to the city called “Detroit.” In 1985, Detroit native Aretha Franklin and the Eurythmics collaborated there to record “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves.”
- Hitsville USA- Any trip to Detroit must include a stop at Hitsville USA, the illustrious location of Motown Records. You can tour the recording studio used by well-known musicians like Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, and Smokey Robinson to create their music. The museum, which is undergoing a refurbishment, is packed of images, costumes, and memorabilia of its hit-making performers. On the Detroit Princess riverboat, there are Motown dinner cruises on the weekends in the summer and the fall that feature food, beverages, and live performances of the label’s iconic hits.
- The Majestic- In addition to Ford Field Stadium, which is the home of the Detroit Lions and has hosted performances by Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, and Jay Z, Detroit is home to other important music venues, including as Little Caesars Arena, the lovely Fillmore, The Music Hall Center for The Performing Arts, and the Little Caesars Arena. The Majestic Theatre in Midtown, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008, is one of the most magnificent theaters.
- DTE Energy Music Theatre- The stunning DTE Energy Music Theatre, located in Clarkston, about 30 miles west of Detroit, is surrounded by lakes and woodlands if you want to get away from an urban environment. The location, which was formerly known as the Pine Knob Music Theatre, features a 15,274-seat outdoor Amphitheatre. In June 2019, as part of the venue’s commemorations of Hitsville, Motown hitmakers Lionel Richie and the Commodores performed there.
- Third Man Records Cass Corridor- The Third Man Records Cass Corridor offers more than just a place to hear music. It consists of a record shop, a novelty lounge, a performance space inside the store, a record booth, and a vinyl record pressing facility where you can watch workers press the records that are for sale through viewing windows. Jack White first opened the shop at 441 West Canfield Street.
- Masonic Temple- The world’s largest structure of its kind is Detroit’s Masonic Temple on Temple Avenue. Beginning in 1920, work was done on this amazing piece of architecture. The Avett Brothers are one of the live music acts performing there in 2019, continuing in the tradition of legends like Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and The Rolling Stones. Aside from the freshly renovated Jack White Theater, which has a capacity of 1,500 people and a stunning lobby entry, the main theater can accommodate close to 5,000 spectators.
- Saint Andrew’s Hall- One of the many thriving music venues in the contemporary Motor City is Saint Andrew’s. Originally the gathering place for the Saint Andrew’s Scottish Society of Detroit, Saint Andrew’s Hall was constructed in 1907 and has since served as a significant stage for ground-breaking artists like Eminem.
- Hart Plaza- Numerous thousands of people from all over the world gather at Hart Plaza over Memorial Day weekend in May to commemorate Detroit’s musical heritage and the birthplace of techno. One of the longest-running dance music festivals worldwide is Movement Music Festival, which debuted in 2006. The stunning waterfront location in Detroit is where the festival is held.
- Fox Theatre- The beautiful Fox Theatre, which featured Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular and debuted in 1928 as a flagship cinema palace, offers backstage tours. You can see the 13-foot-diameter chandelier and gold decorations from all over the world on a 45-minute walking tour through the magnificent lobby.
Detroit was once the musical epicenter of the Jazz age, especially during its genesis, and it continued into the 1950s. Some prominent names include Elvin Jones, Thad Jones, Tommy Flanagan, and Paul Chambers among others. Additionally, Benny Carter, Grant Green, and Joe Henderson relocated to Detroit and spent the better part of their respective careers in the Motor City.
Aside from the artists, Detroit-based bands played a key role in shaping and developing jazz. Interestingly enough, a similar phenomenon happened back in the late ‘20s as well. Among them, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers — widely regarded as the pioneer of big band jazz — and Jean Goldkette Victor Recording Orchestra played critical roles back when big band jazz was in its nascent stages.
Early on, these big band jazz performances were limited to big ballrooms but the ‘30s saw a shift to small cabaret bands. And thanks to this gradual shift, the aforementioned Paradise Valley emerged and became the primary entertainment spot in Detroit.
The Great Migration from the Deep South to Detroit gave birth to Blues movement in Detroit. As touched on above, quite a few pianists used to perform at the Black Bottom Clubs in the early 1920s. During the same decade, many famous classic blues singers performed at the premier venue for Detroit’s black musical community — Koppin Theatre, Paradise Valley.
In the ‘50s, Alberta Adams, Sylvester Cotton, and Calvin Frazier were some notable singers on the blues scene. This scene further flourished as multiple local record labels sprung up, some of which enjoyed great success. A Detroit label that was an important name was started by John Kaplan and Bernard Besman, named Sensation Records. The demise of this label was paralleled by the demise of the Blues scene altogether back in the early 1960s. Motown gained traction and rock and roll rose in popularity and performers who were based in Detroit sought careers elsewhere.
Techno was born when three highschoolers from Detroit experimented with disco, dance, and house and blended these three genres into what we today call, Techno. The three founders named, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May were known as the ‘Holy Trinity’ and their fusion music made waves in the Detroit club scenes. And eventually, Techno made its way to Europe, where DJs mixed it with digital effects and machine-generated beats which brought it global recognition.
Rock and Roll
This particular genre was ushered in Detroit by Hank Ballad & the Midnighters. Hank Ballad was the one the first Rock ‘n’ Roll artist to appear back in the ‘50s who gained nation-wide recognition with “Work With Me, Annie”. The era was furthered by Bill Haley — a Detroit native, with his hit release “Rock Around The Clock”.
By the early ‘60s, young garage rock bands like The Underdogs and The Fugitives flourished around Metro Detroit. And by the end of the decade, MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges — two popular Detroit-based bands appeared who pioneered the Hardrock and Punk movements. In 1969, the terms ‘Punk Rock’ and ‘Heavy Metal’ were coined by a publication out of Detroit by the name of CREEM.
During the decade that followed, the Metro Detroit-based musicians earned international fame, including Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper, and The Eagles to name a few. But during the 90s and the 80s, the influence of these metro Detroit bands somewhat waned but a handful of them managed to garner critical claim nonetheless.
The musical reputation of Detroit is still evolving and with the dawn of the 21st-century Detroit has become a part of today’s Hip-Hop. None other than Eminem, claims that Detroit was a ‘rough’ place to grow up in and was a ‘breeding ground’ for up-and-coming lyricists — a sentiment portrayed by the critically acclaimed film 8 Mile.