Have you ever stumbled upon something super-cool and asked yourself, how did I not know about this? That’s exactly what happened to Kris and I a while back when we showed up for a tour of the United Sound Systems Recording Studio on Second Ave in Detroit. Turns out this place was one of Detroit’s first independent recording studios. Early on it was used for industrial and promotional film production, then it became a full service recording studio that gave artists, musicians, writers and producers the ability to record music, cut the record and get airplay without being signed to a major label. You may be asking yourself, I wonder who recorded there? Are you ready for this? Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Miles Davis, John Lee Hooker, Jackie Wilson, The Rolling Stones, Muddy Waters, Isaac Hayes, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bob Seger, Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Marvin Gaye, MC5, and Whitney Houston…….to name a few! For more than 70 years some of the best vocalists, musicians and sound engineers came together at United Sound Studios to record an astounding variety of successful Jazz, Rock, Soul, Blues, Rockabilly and Funk records.
It’s a gorgeous afternoon, we have driven by this building a hundred times over the years and never realized what it was. From the outside it looks to simply be an old house with dark windows on the second floor; a blue sign splits the levels with the name United Sound Systems in white letters. We park in the adjacent lot, walk to the front door; finding it locked I give it a knock and it opens immediately. Explaining we are here for the tour we are welcomed inside and ushered to the gift shop where we purchase tickets. The interior is still a work in progress as tours and events are being established. We wait for the tour to begin in the basement level with a number of other visitors; framed album covers from MC5 and Aretha Franklin hang on the walls. We are led up to Studio B as our guide gives us a bit of history, United Sound is a recording studio, not a label; initially commercials and advertising jingles were recorded in the building. Upstairs, a large window divides the space between the engineering room and studio, the large console is a sea of levers buttons and switches, walls and ceiling are covered in soundproofing materials. Our group gathers in the studio area; folks take turns putting on earphones and make-believe they are singing into the mike, making their own record. A photo of a young Whitney Houston, taken in this room, hangs on the wall.
Up a flight of stairs we are now standing in what was the original reception area; Rolodex cards that once sat on the secretary’s desk, bear names and phone numbers of Ike and Tina Turner and Bootsy Collins, I love that kind of memorabilia! Through the door is a small theater room, we all take a seat; a short film shares the story of United Sound. Founded by James (Jimmy) Siracuse in the 1930’s it was moved to this residential space on Second sometime in the early 40’s. In 1947, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Duke Jordan, Tommy Potter and Max Roach recorded “Klaunstance” for Savoy Records, 1948, John Lee Hooker records “Boogie Chillen”, Dizzy Gillespie records tracks here in the 50’s, Jimmy Work recorded his hits “Making Believe” and “That’s What Makes The Jukebox Play” here in the mid 50’s. United Sound was around before there was a Motown; Berry Gordy recorded Marv Johnson’s “Come to Me” at United Sound in 1958 and later released it as the first single on his Tamla 101 label. In the 60’s Bob Seger recorded “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” and “Heavy Music”, MC5 recorded “Back in the USA”. Don Davis purchased United Sound in 1971, the studio continued to thrive; 1985 brought Aretha Franklin to United Sound to record “Freeway of Love”, Anita Baker’s Grammy winning album “Rapture” was recorded here too…….. I know, amazing!
When the film ends, we pass through a room; commercial records cover the walls, upstairs, we check out yet another tiny studio, before heading back downstairs. In the kitchen area, framed and autographed gold records hang on the wall, below that, the echo chamber that helped create the ‘Detroit Sound’ is cut into the wall, a set of blue silky costumes worn by The Dramatics, have been donated and are on display; we take notice of renderings depicting how this space will be used in the future. On to Studio A……. it’s huge! Tons of fancy looking equipment fills the engineering space, the recording console looks as if it could launch spacecraft. Today only, studio A is hosting a Rockabilly reunion; authors of the book Detroit Country Music Craig Maki and Keith Cady are joining some of Detroit’s veteran Rockabilly musicians for some music and memories. Our group files into the performance space, five musicians are busy playing an old Rockabilly tune; pieces of vintage equipment and black and white photos connect the past to the present. When the song is finished Craig Maki introduces the guys who were instrumental to Detroit’s country and bluegrass music scene in the 1950’s; Jimmy Kirkland, Jack Scott, Dave Ronelier, Johnny Powers and Dave Morgan. Each of these men recorded here back in the day; they played in bands that drew big crowds in southeastern Michigan cities like Mt Clemens, Sterling Heights, Pontiac, Utica, Troy, Flint, Detroit and throughout the Midwest.
The family of Chief Redbird is on our tour; Redbird organized several bands, played fiddle, sang and wrote songs, he was extremely popular. Jobs in the auto industry brought many southerners to Detroit in the early 20th century, making the city a natural for the creation and enjoyment of this genre of music. We listen as musician’s fingers move across guitar strings, vocalists sing the same lyrics they sang more than 50 years ago, everybody is having a great time. This studio was in constant use until 2008, the list of people who have crossed the threshold is mind-blowing; it’s wonderful to see it up and running again! More of Detroit’s incredible past preserved, I’m so happy we came!
Hygrade Restaurant and Deli was started over 60 years ago on what was then a busy section of Michigan Ave; today, not so much. About a mile outside of Corktown, the deli is definitely worth a visit. The current owner’s family bought the place in 1972, looking just as it does today: metallic gold, blue and red chairs, Formica tables, light wood paneling and white globe lights that dangle from the ceiling; this is not retro, it’s original! There’s still a decent lunch crowd when we arrive; we choose a table along the wall that affords us a great view of the interior, yellow paper menus are already on the table along with glass salt and pepper shakers and the old-fashioned glass sugar dispenser. There’s really no need to look at the menu, the Reuben is the house specialty, can’t argue with that. We do add a cup of mushroom barley soup and a side of potato salad.
A few patrons sit at the counter, it’s way cool with its low counter, multi-colored stools and great colored panels behind; the work area is all stainless steel and sees a lot of action. Before long our meal arrives, the sandwich is split onto two plates, each with its own pickle spear. The corned beef is fantastic; cooked to perfection, it is so tender and lean it just falls apart, there’s a good ratio of sauerkraut and dressing too. The soup was flavorful; the barley makes the broth silky. The potato salad is the traditional mustard-style, exactly what you’d expect from an old-school deli. There’s no shortage of nostalgia in Detroit!