United Sound Studios, a Detroit music jewel reopens
By Steve Furay
Special to the Michigan Citizen
United Sound Systems Recording Studio, the historic birthplace of hit songs from some of Detroit’s greatest musicians, has reopened its doors to the public for the first time in years, now as a museum and a production facility. From Aretha Franklin to Funkadelic, the studio has produced classic music and sounds for generations of listeners.
“We would like to get the community educated that — first of all — we’re here,” says Danielle Scott, the owner who took the risk of reopening the studio as a museum. “We’re open, we offer tours, we’re also available for recording time. After educating the community, hopefully we inspire the next generation of musicians and producers, engineers, singers to be a part of this new Detroit, as we say, and a new Detroit music culture that is here.”
Located a half block from the I-94 Freeway on Second Street, the United Sound System Recording Studio was built in 1933 by James Siracuse, fashioned amidst the city’s advertising district where marketing moguls styled the highways of America through premium automobile propaganda. The studio was designed to cut radio commercials and songs that would be broadcast around the country during an era when families would gather together in front of the radio and listen to the first modern programs on the airwaves.
The studio grew with the industry, used for voiceovers and scores for Hollywood films and automobile promotional reels. United Sound was a place where local musicians could find steady work in the heart of one of the most dynamic and vibrant business centers in the world.
In 1959, Berry Gordy came to United Sound to produce the first song for Tamla Records, the label that would become Motown. On display outside Studio C is the actual receipt written out to Gordy for the recording of “Come To Me” by Marv Johnson. Artists who recorded at United Sound include Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Jackie Wilson, Smokey Robinson, Isaac Hayes, Whitney Houston and the Rolling Stones.
John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen” was the first of decades of big songs by a major artists to be recorded there, a legacy that also included Anita Baker’s Grammy Award winning album “Rapture” and Isaac Hayes’ “Hot Buttered Soul” featuring the song “Walk On By.” USSRS also served as the setting for Aretha Franklin’s music video for “Jumping Jack Flash” starring the Rolling Stones and Whoopie Goldberg.
Parliament-Funkadelic, the massive music collective founded by George Clinton that featured many of Detroit’s finest musicians of the era after Motown Records left for Los Angeles, are perhaps the band most synonymous for their sessions at United Sound, recording songs from albums including “Cosmic Slop” and “One Nation Under A Groove.”
Detroit Soul legend Melvin Davis, who will perform March 7 at Paycheck’s Lounge during the Hamtramck Music Festival, explains why the studio was so important to the city.
“Motown was exclusive. You could not go into Motown and use their facilities to record,” Davis told The Michigan Citizen. “So I feel that United Sound is as important of a facility as Hitsville (Motown’s famous recording studio), because so many other people in the city had an opportunity to participate because of that presence.”
In 2009, Scott purchased the building to begin a journey of restoration that would take over four years to complete.
“Basically, from 2009, I did a clean out and started some work and then had to stop, I lost some family members. It just had to work around my life schedule,” says Scott. “I couldn’t do it by myself, I had people helping me.
“Throughout the years, work was being done, of course you can see that now. The reason why I worked inside out, I’m a Detroiter for forty years, and when I got this building everything was basically gutted. And once I got it, they kept trying to come in to get whatever else they thought was left. So therefore, I just closed it up and made it look like ‘you’ve got everything’.
“I’m not going to say (the rehab) is over, but I’m just happy to see what I wanted to see in the end,” she says.
The studio is ready to resume recording and is available throughout the week for scheduled tours. A gift shop is also open, selling t-shirts and sweatshirts with the United Sound name and logo, and visitors are sure to leave with a better knowledge of Detroit music history and why the studio is so important to Detroit’s legacy of independent culture creators.
“I think as far as the Midtown area is concerned, it’s the university, the high school area. We actually can reach out and educate the young adults and children and introduce them to the music, to the different things that go on in a recording studio, and hopefully we’ll inspire the next generation of producers and musicians and artists and singers. When they come in and learn the history of this studio, outside of them wanting to be artists, you might have some of them that might like to build something like this one day.
“Just inspire (the youth), give them hope and know what’s inside your city. It’s a jewel inside their city, so everyday they see it outside their school, and it’s not flooded with negativity. We’ve got this going on. And maybe they walked past a couple times not knowing what it was, and now they do. That’s what I would like to do, I would love to be able to sit back 10, 20 years from now and see this better Detroit and know that I had a part in inspiring some of those youths that came through.”
United Sound is located at 5840 Second Ave., Detroit. For tours and studio information, call 313.833.1833.