United Sound Systems Page 2

Come Up Trumps
Quickly establishing himself as a tidy writer of hits, Gordy dreamed up the idea of starting his own record company and was out searching for talent when he stopped in at a carnival in Michigan. It was here that he happened across a sweet-voiced local singer called Marv Johnson who was heading up a nightclub group called The Serenaders based in Detroit. Gordy signed Johnson to his fledgling Tamla label and the pair cooked up a cute single called 'Come To Me'. It was the label's debut, which they cut at USS and licensed to United Artists, who made it a national Top 30 hit.


'Come To Me' by Merv Johnson was recorded at USS in 1958 and would be Tamla Motown's first release.

Sonic Temple
Berry was up and running and bought a property at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, not that far from United Sound Systems, building his own studio there that he dubbed Hitsville USA; it was fashioned after USS which at the time had basically two rooms, Studios A and B. By now USS was known locally as The Temple Of Sound as James Siracuse had been joined in the business by his brother, Tony, who'd been working in the production of jukeboxes and had a knack of getting amazing sounds out of unremarkable spaces.


Brochure from 1968 shows the studio interiors

The two decades that followed saw such stars as Jackie Wilson, Del Shannon, Muddy Waters, Jack Scott and Dizzy Gillespie become USS regulars and the 14-year-old Little Willie John recorded his debut single, 'Mommy, What Happened To Our Christmas Tree', in Studio A.

In 1971, the studio was bought by a brilliant guitarist/producer called Don Davis who had been a session player on loads of hits including Barrett Strong's classic 'Money (That's What I Want)' and Mary Wells' 'Bye Bye Baby'. In the mid-'60s he'd worked as a producer for Motown, then moved to Stax where he played guitar on Johnnie Taylor's hit 'Who's Making Love' and later co-wrote Taylor's No 1 smash 'Disco Lady', which he produced at USS.

Once he'd moved in as the new owner, Davis updated the equipment and, taking his cue from Motown and Stax, established his own in-house band, The Company.


David, Bobby and Dannis Hackney of 'proto punk' band Death, caught on camera in the early '70s

This group would back many of the clients who rolled through over the years including Burt Bacharach, Aretha Franklin, The Staple Singers, Carla Thomas and David Ruffin. A regular visitor was George Clinton, who made United Sound Systems the HQ for his Parliament and Funkadelic projects recording the timeless anthem 'Free Your Ass And Your Mind Will Follow' – not to mention the mind-blowing album Maggot Brain, among other cosmic treats.


R&B singer, songwriter and pianist Marv Johnson who sang on Motown's debut single

Oh, and here, as promised, comes Death. Three local Black brothers – David, Dannis and Bobby Hackney – started out playing funk but abruptly changed tack to heavy rock after attending a performance by The Who. The trio named themselves Death after their father was killed in a car crash and, funded by a major record company, entered United Sound Systems in February 1975 to start work on an album.

The label wanted them to change their name, scared that it was too grim to sell any copies, but the band refused. The upshot was that the plug was pulled on the sessions with only seven songs laid down.



In 1985 The Eurythmics (top) joined with Aretha Franklin to record 'Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves' at United Sound Systems

Punk Pioneers
When Death released two of the tracks – 'Politicians In My Eyes' and 'Keep On Knocking' – as a single on their own Tryangle label a year later, they didn't exactly set the world on fire and the band split. Yet, as these things sometimes have a habit of doing, they've been rediscovered over the years and devotees make a credible claim that Death actually invented punk rock a good 12 months before anyone had ever heard of The Ramones. The seven-track album was lauded on its eventual release in 2009 under the title …For The Whole World To See.

The Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin stopped by in 1985 to record the worldwide hit 'Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves' and the studio remained a going concern until the early 1990s when Davis, who'd become a highly successful banker, closed its doors.


Press shot issued by Concorde Records of The Staple Singers in the studio in 1961 (l-r) Pops, Cleotha, Pervis and Mavis Staples

It was re-opened by a new owner, college lecturer Roger Hood, in 2004. He subsequently passed it on to Danielle Scott in 2009 and she saw off an attempt by developers to have it bulldozed to make way for a widening of highway I-94. It's now been granted historic district status, which is just as it should be.

Key Recording Timeline


Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Duke Jordan, Tommy Potter and Max Roach record 'Klaunstance'

Sonny Wilson (aka Jackie Wilson) lays down 'Danny Boy' for Dizzy Gillespie's label Dee Gee Records

Strings and horns for Isaac Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul are captured on tape by engineer Ed Wolfrum

The Red Hot Chili Peppers check in to make their Freaky Styley album with George Clinton at the controls

Anita Baker records her breakout album Rapture, which sees the singer earn two Grammy Awards

The studio features in the video for Aretha Franklin's take on 'Jumpin' Jack Flash', with Keith Richards