(All Images: Authors Collection)
Despite the bad news in the press recently about Flint, Michigan’s lead-poisoned drinking water clean-up, there is a more nostalgic and brighter story to share about the large blue letters that once appeared on the outside of a building at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan. Dubbed “Hitsville U.S.A.” from 1959 to 1972, this building was the headquarters for Motown’s operational center. Founded by Berry Gordy, Jr., the combined names of motor and town was appropriate, with Detroit’s billing as “motor city”, where U.S. automobile manufacturing was centered. Moreover, Motown became a style of music, combining rhythm and blues and rock music in the 1960’s. Between 1960 and 1969 the label posted 79 hit records on Billboard’s Hot 100 list.
Early Motown artists included Mary Wells, songwriters Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. In 1972, the label relocated to Los Angeles where today, after surviving several sales, the division is operated in the Capitol Records Building.
Six years prior to Motown’s move to California and three states to the south of Motown, competition from another vital Rhythm and Blues center was rife at 926 East McLemore Avenue in Memphis. This was the headquarters of Stax Records, alternately known as “Soulsville, U.S.A.” Elvis Presley would eventually record there. On January 29, 1966 Stax released a hit record from singer Wilson Pickett.
Co-written by Eddie Floyd and house band guitarist Steve Cropper (of Booker T and the MG’s), “634-5789” with its subtitle “Soulsville, U.S.A.” rose to become a #1 hit on the Billboard Hot Rhythm and Blues Singles chart. Patty LaBelle and the Blue Belles provided backing vocals to the recording.
In 1962, the Motown girl group the Marvelette’s changed the title of the song to “Beechwood 4-5789”. Wilson departed Stax Records for partner company Atlantic Records. Ultimately, Atlantic began dispatching Pickett (and later Aretha Franklin) to FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama where Pickett recorded another hit, “Mustang Sally”.
Over any years, “634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.) has been covered by an admirable number of singers including: Otis Redding, Johnny Van Zant and Bruce Springsteen.
In 1986, Tina Turner recorded a live version of the song in her television special “Break Every Rule” with guitarist and singer Robert Cray. This rack was also later included on her 1988 album “Tina Live in Europe”, with the songs “Private Dancer” and “Help” issued as B-sides. Proof positive that this hit single has a very long shelf life.