Turning around United Sound

Inside United Sound's Studio A
Inside United Sound’s Studio A. Photos by Doug Coombe for Model D Detroit. Used with permission.

Anyone who has been involved in the music business in any way, shape, or form for any length of time learns quickly that it is called the music business for a reason. There is the music, which is the creative side, and then there is everything else involved in converting an artist’s intangible creativity into a marketable product – and then into a profit.
Without a doubt, the first step in packaging the musical creative process begins in the studio, and the list of hits created at Detroit’s legendary United Sound Studios (Located at 5840 2nd Ave. in Midtown Detroit, just over a mile away from Hitsville) places it in that sparsely-populated top tier as one of the all-time great American recording spaces. It is also the oldest operating independent recording studio in the country.
It may not have the name recognition of Motown, but it 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.

“When people hear Detroit, they think Motown,” says Chynita Richards, who has been studio manager at United Sound Systems since 2014. “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.

“At the time she (United Sound owner Danielle Scott) bought it, she didn’t know the historical significance of United Sound, but once she did, it just gave her more motivation to complete the task of getting the renovations done and getting this place back open,” said Richards.
“I think initially she was looking for a business opportunity, somewhere she could have some extra income. She was looking for something that would engage young people. One of her biggest goals was to create opportunities for young people out here, especially in the city. She’s a native Detroiter, and she was looking for something that would provide extra income and that would also create opportunities for young people in the city of Detroit.”

Artist Helluva at United Sound
Artist Helluva at United Sound

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 took 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.
“Initially we just started out doing tours, because we did not have all the equipment in here to record. So we did a lot of tours at first. Raising awareness about the history. …Ultimately it turned into much more than either one of us could have anticipated,” said Richards.
“We’re booking average like five days a week. Sundays are our slowest days,” but staying true to the unusual creative rhythms of musicians, United Sound is open for recording 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.
“You know, we want to be available when people get the urge to record, and we have a lot of people who work 9 to 5 jobs, or maybe work evenings or afternoons. So we just want to offer them that availability so they can still come in to work on their projects.
“The elements that this studio offers is something that you can’t get at home, so we offer the opportunity to come and record where certified hits were recorded.
“We had a lot of gear donated top us from various sources, like L.J. Reynolds (from the Dramatics), he donated some drums to us. And these drums were actually used on a lot of George Clinton’s records. These same drums were used on a lot of hit records that were recorded here. And George Clinton donated a piano to us as well.”

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 October 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, which will hopefully increase revenue.
“We’re almost to the point where we’re making a profit.,” said Richards. “I think 2016 is going to be a great year for us. We’re in the process of lining things up now.”

Matthew Lewis is managing editor for Model D Detroit. Keith A. Owens is senior editor for the Michigan Chronicle. This story was originally written by Matthew Lewis for Model D. To read that version, click here. This version was done with permission from Model D Detroit, and with additional reporting added by Keith A. Owens. 

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