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United Sound Systems Saved—with a Twist

By Clive Young. The beleaguered historic studio has been saved from demolition by an unlikely new owner.

Detroit, MI (January 14, 2019)—United Sound Systems Recording Studio recorded legendary artists for decades, but in recent times, it looked like the historic facility had reached the end of the road. In 2013, the Michigan Department of Transportation announced it would likely have to demolish the studio in order to expand nearby Interstate 94. Then in 2016, federal prosecutors seized United as part of a major drug trafficking case. The studio was ultimately put on the market last summer with a price tag of $1.5 million but little hope for the future. Now United has been sold—and saved—by an unlikely new owner: the Michigan Department of Transportation.

Calling the sale “a sound decision,” the MDOT has purchased the facility, its contents and adjacent parking lot for a total of $1.7 million, and plans to move the studio from its current location at 5840 Second Avenue. United won’t travel far, however; it will be painstakingly shifted next door to its current parking lot, allowing it to remain within its historical district as designated by the Detroit City Council in 2015.

The MDOT funded the purchase with money from the I-94 modernization project’s dedicated right-of-way funds. Moving the structure to the parking lot will increase the distance between the facility and proposed retaining walls that will be built as part of the I-94 project. The aim, according to MDOT, is to “protect the structure from future construction impacts,” though it may also help lessen the impact of the roadway’s vibrations and noise on the studio

First built in 1917 and converted into a studio in 1939, the edifice is considered to be Detroit’s first major independent recording facility and was a key part of the region’s music scene for decades. Not only did it host the first session for Berry Gordy’s Tamla label in 1959, paving the way for Motown Records, but the likes of Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Jackie Wilson, Bob Seger, the MC5, the Doobie Brothers, Miles Davis, George Clinton, John Lee Hooker, Dizzy Gillespie, Death, Luther Vandross, Anita Baker, John Coltrane, Kenny Burrell and hundreds of others recorded there over the years.

Classic sides recorded there include Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft,” and Aretha Franklin recorded two mid-1980s hits onsite as well—a remake of The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” with Keith Richards and a duet with Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox for “Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves.”

Shuttered for years, the facility fell into disrepair and financial troubles. In 2009, the site was purchased by Danielle Scott in foreclosure for $20,000 and underwent restoration for the next five years, eventually opening for tourism and the occasional session in 2014.

However, United was seized by federal prosecutors in 2016 when it came to light that Scott had purchased the studio with capital from her cousin, drug trafficker Dwayne Richards, who funded the purchase to launder money. Using the facility and Scott as a front, Richards conducted deals at the site and was eventually convicted of distributing more than five kilograms of cocaine.

Concurrently, faced with public outcry to the proposed demolition of an integral part of Detroit’s musical heritage, the MDOT explored options to move the I-94 construction away from the studio, but found that none adequately allowed the project or the studio to continue without major impact. Consulting with the State Historic Preservation Office, the MDOT eventually decided that purchasing and moving the building within its existing property property would be the most viable way to preserve its history.

The overall I-94 modernization project is a massive undertaking expected to be completed in 2036, aiming to rebuild the freeway to current design standards and add two new lanes for 7 miles in the heart of Detroit. It will also replace 67 bridges, including the one next to United—the Second Avenue bridge, which passes over I-94.