Stateside: Sir Paul McCartney restores historic, Motown piano

Sep 13, 2012

It's called "Hitsville USA": the little house on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit that Berry Gordy, Jr. bought as a home for the fledgling record company that grew up to become the legendary Motown.

These days, Hitsville is a museum dedicated to sharing the Motown experience with fans that come from around the world.

One such fan was in Detroit on a Sunday in July 2011. And before he performed for 37, 854 fans at Comerica Park, Sir Paul McCartney had one request: to visit Hitsville.

That visit led to McCartney's "adopting" the battered old piano he saw in Hitsville's Studio A, and paying to have it meticulously restored by Steinway.

More than a year later, the piano is restored, ready to play those Motown sounds again, and it will do that at a charity concert Sir Paul is putting on next week in New York.

Robin Terry, executive director of the Motown Museum, spoke with Cyndy about the restoration.

"Why did he want to visit Hitsville?" Cyndy wanted to know.

“Obviously Motown music has played an important part not only in the music of the Beatles, but these musical legacies had a tremendous impact on one another and American culture.”

“To be this close to it, he had to come and see it,” Terry said.

At one point, McCartney became teary-eyed standing before a photo of himself as a young man with members of Motown founder Berry Gordy%u2019s family.

Terry said the visit was all about nostalgia for McCartney. At one point, McCartney became teary-eyed standing before  a photo of himself as a young man with members of Motown founder Berry Gordy’s  family.

“How moved he was to be there with Berry Gordy,” Terry said.

“He referred to Hitsville as the holy grail when he left. There is something about being in that space that’s just magical. You’re literally standing in the footsteps of these tremendous artists and this incredible talent that came out of this one little stable. This one house: Hitsville, U.S.A.,” Terry said.

While on the tour, McCartney attempted playing one of the pianos Hitsville had on display, but it was out of tune.

Terry says that within a day, McCartney had called back and asked whether he might be able to help restore the piano for the museum.

“That began this wonderful journey and this wonderful partnership with Steinway and Sons out of New York,” Terry says.

The piano has been in New York now for a little over a year as it is being fully restored.

“The best part of this process,” Terry says, “has been getting to know the piano.”

The story of the piano begins in 1877. Terry says she traveled to Steinway and saw a handwritten note marking its original sale.

It journeyed for some time before making its way to Detroit, where it was acquired by Golden World studio. Golden World would eventually become known as Motown Studio B, and that’s how it became part of the Motown family of instruments Terry said.

According to Terry the piano had a reputation for not staying tuned.

“So it had a personality?” asked Cyndy.

“It did. And there was this great story that one of the engineers was telling me about how Earl Van Dyke at one point got really frustrated with this piano and said you know this piano is going to take a major restoration to ever be in good solid recording condition,” Terry said.

It’s finally getting that restoration.

To celebrate the restoration, McCartney teamed up with Berry Gordy to host a small group of friends and patrons at Steinway Hall in New York on September 18.

Robin Terry is the grandniece of Berry Gordy and the granddaughter of Esther Gordy Edwards, who founded the Motown museum.

Cyndy wanted to talk about Terry’s family pride and ties to the museum.

“Where does your mind go when you walk around that museum?” Cyndy asked.

“Today I feel an enormous amount of pride about what my grandmother did to preserve this history. 

You talk to people like Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder, and they talk about how as young artists coming up in the industry they had no idea they were creating history.

They were doing what they loved to do,” Terry said.

“To think that my grandmother somehow knew what they were doing. That somehow, someday, that would be important, that it would inspire somebody else—that gives me great pride,” said Terry.

“Just the fact that I am the person to sort of keep that flame going, keep that torch lit. It’s an enormous sense of pride.”

Find out more about the Motown Museum here. Also, there are still opportunities to attend the event at Steinway Hall. Contact the museum to learn more.

- Jordan Wyant, Michigan Radio Newsroom

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