Detroiters Reggie Harris, left, and Steve Moody mow the grass around United Sound Systems, which drew musical acts from all over that wanted to create hits based off the sound quality there. Now, it could face demolition. / Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press
The United Sound Systems building near Wayne State University drew musical acts from all over that wanted to create hits based off the sound quality created within its walls.
It's where Berry Gordy Jr. cut the first record that would lead the way to the Motown dynasty. Aretha Franklin used the studio to record the vocals to her 1985 hit "Freeway of Love."
Funkadelic, which included George Clinton, recorded most of its music there. Miles Davis, the Dramatics, John Lee Hooker, Luther Vandross and Eminem also are among those who recorded tracks at 5840 Second Ave.
But the recording studio where the Motown sound got its start could be leveled as part of a project to reconstruct I-94 by adding a lane on both sides and installing continuous service drives along the freeway.
At least 100 structures could be demolished to make way for projects that would add lanes to I-75 between 8 Mile Road and M-59 in Oakland County and I-94 from Conner to I-96 in Detroit. Those projects are among about 1,000 in the 2040 Regional Transit Plan, which will spend $36 billion in federal, state and local sources through 2040 on projects across southeast Michigan.
Leaders of the Detroit Sound Conservancy, a start-up nonprofit that aims to preserve and share the city's music history, have begun the process of trying to find an alternative to destroying one of the city's most treasured music houses.
"United Sound Systems ought to be the linchpin, the centerpiece of a 21st-Century Detroit soundscape," said Carleton Gholz, 37, who founded the Detroit Sound Conservancy. "It is Exhibit A of Michigan and Detroit's impact on global sound. It should be alive and cooking.
"Preserving it is going to take a lot of money and a lot of imagination and a lot of people."
The Michigan Department of Transportation has preliminary plans to use the land for an off-ramp for the widened interstate. A service drive would run down Antoinette, the cross street just after the freeway.
But MDOT spokesman Rob Morosi said the plans could change as the project moves forward.
"We have not designed this project," he said. "What we did was a study, justification that this is needed. But we have not completed it. This is the worst-case scenario. Either we can alter the design of the service drive, or we could move (the recording studio). We're not just putting our hands up and saying, 'It's got to go.' "
Gholz said he learned about a year ago that the building's land was in the cross hairs of MDOT's plans to reconstruct the freeway.
The building, which was purchased and made into a studio in 1933, doesn't have a historical marker or designation to protect it. Wood is now covering the windows on the front, and it hasn't been used regularly for more than a decade.
Gholz said the owners are aware of the historic relevance but seem hesitant to save it. According to property tax records, the building is owned by Danielle D. Scott. Efforts to reach Scott at her Detroit home were unsuccessful.
Gholz said he has spoken with MDOT representatives about finding a way to keep the building. He laments what he calls a lack of effort by others to preserve Detroit's musical history.
"We've got to have an overall plan," said Gholz, also a postdoctoral teaching associate at Northeastern University in Boston. "This is Motown. Do we care about the musical history or don't we?"
Aretha Hood, who owned the building for a time in the early 2000s with her husband, said studio upkeep was too costly, regardless of the building's place in history.
"It was a money pit," said Hood, a dentist on the city's west side. "It needed so much work."
Musician Charles Scales, a producer and arranger at the studio in the '80s and '90s, said the place is rich with history.
"It's just a great recording environment," he said. "The back room had a vintage console that was one of the best consoles that they made. In the front, there was a fully enclosed sound recording room. You don't get those kind of facilities with Class-A circuitry with serious soundproofing anymore."
Scales said the studio in the front of the building was intimate, while the one in the addition at the back of the house easily could hold a full orchestra. Both, he said, produced immaculate sound.
"For years, it was not only just a good recording facility, but it was just one of those mecca places," he said. "It was just well designed, like one of those really well-done old churches."
Scales said the studio now is a throwback to the days before technology made replicating the sound much easier - and cheaper.
"Now, everything comes out of a computer box," he said. "People have worked around it. The facility isn't in as much demand. People are making hit records without them.
"But they don't make 'em like that anymore."
By Marlon A. Walker Detroit Free Press Staff Writer