Giving United Sound, Detroit's other landmark music studio, its due

It may not have the name recognition of Motown, but there's a recording studio in Detroit that is just as important to the city's (and frankly the world's) musical history as Hitsville, U.S.A., the place where Motown artists recorded hundreds of hit records. Located at 5840 2nd Ave. in Midtown Detroit, just over a mile away from Hitsville, are the United Sound Systems Recording Studios, the oldest operating independent recording studios in the country.
"When people hear Detroit, they think Motown," says Chynita Richards, studio manager at United Sound Systems. "But Detroit has so much more to offer than just Motown. United Sound was a hub. Maybe you stood on the lawn over at Hitsville and didn't get picked by Berry Gordy. You could come here and make a record, whether you had a record deal or not."
Over its long history (it opened in its current location circa 1946), United Sound has hosted recording sessions by a bevy of famous artists, including John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, Keith Richards, George Clinton and Funkadelic, and Isaac Hayes, just to name a few. Before he had his own studio at 2648 W. Grand Blvd., even Berry Gordy used United Sound, renting a studio there to record Tamla Records' first single, "Come to Me" by Marv Johnson, in 1958.
Earlier this year, thanks in large part to the Detroit Sound Conservancy's advocacy, United Sound Systems was recognized for its incredible legacy by being granted historic district status by the Detroit City Council. While the designation is important for many reasons, the most immediate benefit is that it adds a layer of protection that will help prevent the studios from being demolished or relocated to accommodate a controversial plan to widen of I-94.
And now, United Sound, again in partnership with the Detroit Sound Conservancy, is hoping to raise money to erect a state historical marker in front of the building. A fundraiser and celebration will take place on Friday, Oct. 23, from 5-8 p.m. at the historic studios.
"We believe the marker will solidify our mark in history," says Richards. "The city designation was great locally, but to take it statewide is important, and then nationally."
Living history
Unlike Hitsville, U.S.A., which is now home to the Motown Museum, United Sound is a working studio, offering veteran and first-time recording artists alike studio time at competitive rates. (You can rent studio A for $85/hour, studio B for $65/hour, and studio D for $50/hour.) That wasn't always the case, though. In 2006, United Sound Systems closed after falling on hard times. It was purchased by its current owner, Danielle Scott, in 2009 and reopened to the public in 2014. Since then United Sound has played host to recording sessions by musicians and podcasters, group tours, and events like a book signing by United Sound alum George Clinton.
"We offer opportunities of a lifetime – to stand and record where Aretha Franklin, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and George Clinton stood and recorded," says Richards.
Carleton Gholz, executive director of the Detroit Sound Conservancy, thinks the fact that the studio is still operating is a boon to preservation efforts. "If there wasn't a working business in there, I'd be even more concerned about the powers that be tearing it down [to expand the freeway]," he says.
Not only does United Sound house a working business, but as of this past weekend, it is now the official home of the Detroit Sound Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting and preserving Detroit's musical heritage. DSC will rent a small space on the ground floor of United Sound that Gholz believes once played an important role for the studio.
"We think it was a space where some recording or cutting of records happened," he says. "It looks like a lathe might have stood there."
Now the space will serve the Sound Conservancy as both a headquarters and a place for its archives. Just this weekend, Gholz and a small crew of DSC volunteers received the keys and began preparing it for occupancy.
"We're working to make it as secure and archivally gentle as can be – it's not the Smithsonian, but it's super exciting," says Gholz. "It's going to allow us to protect the most vulnerable items in both our and United Sound's collections." Those would be tapes, correspondence, packaging materials, photos, and other artifacts of Detroit music history.
Richards is excited to have new neighbors within the building. "Carleton had approached us before we re-opened our doors. He had a great passion for this place," she says. "It was just a natural partnership. We're looking forward to doing great things with the Sound Conservancy."
One of those things includes revamping United Sound's tours come spring 2016.
"The goal," says Gholz, "is to make the best studio tour in the country."
You can help the United Sound Systems and Detroit Sound Conservancy raise funds for a historical marker by attending a fundraiser party at the historic studios on Friday, Oct. 23, from 5-8 p.m. The Sound Conservancy is requesting attendees to make a minimum donation $20 each. United Sound Systems is located at 5840 2nd Ave., Detroit, MI 48202.
To schedule a tour or a recording session at United Sound Systems, call (313) 833-1833.
Matthew Lewis is Model D's managing editor. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjlew.
Photos by Doug Coombe.

Read more articles by Matthew Lewis.

Matthew Lewis is a writer and former managing editor of Model D. He's currently the communications officer for the New Economy Initiative. 
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