Susan Whitall, Detroit News Music Writer
He may be one of the world's most famous musicians, but when Paul McCartney walked through the modest blue front door at the Motown Historical Museum on West Grand Boulevard on Sunday, he was just another excited, awestruck Motown fan.
"He loved Studio A," reports the museum's chief curator, Lina Stephens. Stephens gave the former Beatle a private tour, along with his band and his fiancee Nancy Shevell, slipping them in at 3 p.m., just before McCartney's 4 p.m. soundcheck at Comerica Park.
Casual in a Hawaiian-style shirt, jeans and athletic shoes, McCartney, 69, was low-key and friendly.
"Every piano he came to, he'd say, 'I know I'm not supposed to touch this,' but he touched it anyway," Stephens says.
Asked if he'd like to be on his own or have a guided tour, he opted for the tour. He, Shevell and the band walked through every room of the museum. Stephens reports that he was very surprised to see a photo of himself in an exhibit upstairs, pictured with several of Berry Gordy's children.
But McCartney was most eager to see Studio A, the small space in the back of the Hitsville house where you can feel the ghosts of all those sweaty, classic sessions where so many Motown hits were recorded.
"He loved the film we show, he loved going upstairs (to see the restoration of Berry Gordy's early '60s apartment), but he said, 'OK, let's get to the studio, let's get to the studio,'" she says, laughing.
Once in Studio A, dubbed "the Snakepit" by Motown's studio band, the Funk Brothers, McCartney was amazed to see how small it was, considering the music that came out of there. "Talking to his band, he compared the control room in Studio A to Abbey Road (studio)'s," Stephens said.
When Stephens got to the part of the tour where she demonstrates how Motown producers used a middle hallway as an echo chamber, the musicians snapped their fingers and clapped to test it.
While enjoying Stephens' stories, McCartney was prompted to tell some of his own.
The Beatles were avid Motown fans and recorded several cover versions of the label's hits in the early- to mid-'60s, including Barrett Strong's "Money," Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' "You Really Got a Hold On Me," and the Marvelettes' "Please, Mr. Postman."
"He said, 'We were just kids when Berry was starting to do what he was doing,'" Stephens says. He described how he and the other Beatles would slow the 45 rpm records down while listening closely to each song, so they could hear all the words.
McCartney recalled how when they recorded "Money," a lot of people had never heard the song, and "in some cases that hipped them to Motown."
Like most fans, McCartney and company couldn't resist the gift shop on their way out, and the musicians left for the ballpark laden with Motown bags filled with T-shirts and other items.
There was talk, Stephens said, that McCartney and band might don their Motown T-shirts for the encore that night but alas, it didn't happen.
His guitarist Brian Ray tweeted (@brianrayguitar) on Monday, "So moved by the Hitsville USA museum/Motown Records. Thank God they left it exactly as it was."
"I know (McCartney) encouraged people to come here, because we were very busy on Monday, the day after the show," Stephens reports.
Not only did McCartney mention visiting Motown at his Sunday night concert, but he called the museum a "holy grail," and performed an impeccable version of the Marvin Gaye song "Hitchhike" in homage to Motown, and Detroit, capturing the stop-start shuffle beat perfectly. All it lacked were the Martha and the Vandellas backing vocals.
"Thank you, Detroit. Thank you, Motown," McCartney said.
If you'd like to walk where a Beatle walked — just don't touch the pianos! — the Motown Historical Museum's summer hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The museum is at 2648 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Call (313) 875-2264.