Some tunes are so catchy that we can “play” them in our head—not just the basic melody, but individual moments of musical inflection. Think of “My Girl” by The Temptations: immediately you can recall the fuzzy, thumpy bass intro, followed after a few bars by a twangy guitar lick and echoing snaps. Without even trying, your brain constructs David Ruffin’s clear, evocative voice, and the way he finesses the word “sunshine” in the first lyric.
The perfectly-crafted and intensely memorable radio hit was the specialty of Berry Gordy’s Motown empire, headquartered at its heyday in the blue-and-white “Hitsville U.S.A.” house on Detroit’s West Grand Boulevard. The “Motown Sound” both defined the label’s identity and cemented its success, with a recipe using a variety of musical ingredients: bright, treble-laden mixing; melodic basslines; call-and-response vocals; ringing, jiving tambourines. And perhaps the most important—though a certain bias should be noted—is the innovative use of lush, beautiful orchestral arrangements on what would otherwise be simple rock-combo pop tunes.
Think back to “My Girl”—after bobbing through the first verse, Ruffin begins singing that famous chorus: “I guess / You’d say…” Softly, a group of horns enter the mix, gaining a bit of volume during “What can make me feel this way?” When Ruffin croons “My girl,” the strings make their entrance, laying out a romantic vamp that continues to grow throughout the song. And the band plays on! There are the triumphant horn triplets in the second verse (ba da da, ba da daa!), and the soaring strings on the instrumental break as the Temps sing “Hey, hey, hey…”
From 1964 to 1972, the orchestra players who helped craft the Motown Sound were members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, helmed by then-DSO Concertmaster Gordon Staples. Tales of the DSO-Motown connection sound almost mythical today, but they’re true—on many a night, after finishing up a performance with the DSO, Staples would round up his band of musicians and drive north on Woodward Avenue to Motown’s Studio A (nicknamed “the Snake Pit”), where the group would lay down orchestra parts until the wee hours of the morning.
“It’s not easy, I’ll tell you that!” Staples remarked in a Detroit News article in 1969. “I heard someone say, if you’ve played one rock session, you’ve played them all. That’s not true. I really think there must be something to this thing they call the ‘Detroit Sound,’ because it is different.”
Staples and his troupe—which also included his wife, DSO violinist Beatriz Budinzky—first collaborated with Motown on Brenda Holloway’s 1964 single “Every Little Bit Hurts.” In addition to the aforementioned “My Girl,” the DSO players contributed to hits like The Four Tops’ “Baby I Need Your Loving,” Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street,” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On;” in 1965, eight of Motown’s top fifteen best-sellers featured orchestra contributions.
“They worked very, very hard,” says Gordon’s son Greg Staples, who has been a member of the DSO violin section since 1999. “But they had a great time doing it and working with all the stars. You can hear it in the recordings—it was a lot of fun.”
The late DSO violinist Felix Resnick, who played on the Motown sessions, recalled in a 1999 interview the thrill of meeting Smokey Robinson and a five-year-old Michael Jackson. Diana Ross once asked if she could play his violin for a moment, but he had to decline; “She had such long fingernails!” he said.
No one can remember exactly how the collaboration began, but the key was Gordon Staples’ friendship with several arrangers on the Motown payroll, especially David Van DePitte and Paul Riser. Staples’ very first session made it clear that Motown had found its man: “My dad was just a great personality who was able to facilitate things…he was so good at being able to communicate with the stars, and with everybody,” says Greg Staples. “He could relate to all kinds of people,” agrees Greg’s mother, Beatriz.
Other DSO musicians who recorded at Motown include violinists Alvin Score, James Waring, Lillian Downs, Linda Snedden Smith, Richard Margitza, Virginia Halfmann, and Zinovi Bistritzky; violists Anne Mischakoff, David Ireland, Edouard Kesner, Meyer Shapiro, and Nathan Gordon; cellists Italo Babini, Edward Korkigian, Marcy Schweickhardt, and Thaddeus Markiewicz; and harpists Carole Crosby and Pat Terry. Staples and Co. even released their own album on Motown in 1970: Catalog number MS722/M1180, titled Strung Out under the name “Gordon Staples and the String Thing.”
Motown Records packed up and relocated to Los Angeles in 1972, but the original Hitsville U.S.A. building still stands, and now houses the Motown Museum. In the years since then, many Motown artists have trekked to Orchestra Hall and other venues to perform alongside the DSO, thankfully with a bit more room available than the cramped digs of the Snake Pit!
“[These songs] are fun, they’re meaningful,” says Greg Staples. “Everybody who contributed to the Motown recordings, everybody who was involved…what an example they set! They were wonderful people and wonderful musicians, and we’re fortunate to still have such a marvelous orchestra today.”
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The DSO thanks Jim Dulzo, whose article “A String of Hits” (featured in Performance in 2000) was used as research for this story. Dulzo is a former Detroit News music critic. The DSO also thanks Greg Staples, Violin, for agreeing to be interviewed for this article.