Florence Ballard Chapman of the Supremes is buried at Detroit Memorial Park East. Fans leave notes, pictures and other memorabilia at her gravesite. (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)
Many musical greats from Detroit's storied jazz, R&B and rock past have departed this earthly plane, but that doesn't mean you can't visit them. A number are still in Metro Detroit, laid to rest in historic city cemeteries as well as far-flung, more modern mortuary parks.
At old Mount Hazel cemetery in Detroit, you can almost hear the plaintive words and music of Son House's eerie blues "Death Letter" as you stand in front of his grave. An inscription by historian Dick Waterman tells how this first generation Mississippi bluesman who spent his last days in Detroit seemed to go into a trance, back to an earlier time, when he played his music.
In Warren, at Detroit Memorial Park East, you can visit the memorial for Florence Ballard Chapman of the Supremes and see what fans have left: flowers, a scribbled note, maybe a photo of Diana, Flo and Mary in silvery gowns. Ballard died in 1976, just 33 years old.
Woodlawn Cemetery on Woodward Avenue just below Eight Mile in Detroit is a must-see for Motown Records fans, with three out of the four original Four Tops entombed there, as well as three Funk Brothers, Temptations singer David Ruffin and Aretha Franklin's singing sisters, manager brother and father, noted gospel preacher the Rev. C.L. Franklin.
There's even a Michael Jackson memorial at Woodlawn. Jackson, whose career started at Motown in 1969 when he was 11, is actually buried at Forest Lawn in Los Angeles, but the many tributes, stuffed animals and tear-stained notes left on the lawn of Detroit's Motown Historical Museum after his death in June 2009 were put into a vault and buried here.
"People visit the Jackson memorial almost every day," said Carlos Rowe, Woodlawn family service counselor. He said they leave flowers, framed photographs and other mementos to the King of Pop. If a photo or object disappears, something else appears the next week.
Eminem's friend, rapper DeShaun "Proof" Holton, was buried in 2006 wearing his Timberland boots in Woodlawn's locked Rosa Parks Chapel, just inside the cemetery's front gates on Woodward.
Some families have only personal information about their loved one inscribed on the headstone — "Father, Husband, Brother" — with no hint of their musical legacy. Others include musical notes or a piano, or words like "Motown legend."
What motivates people to visit a piece of stone marking the grave of a stranger, even a famous one?
"It's because they're people they admire," said Lee Herberger of the Detroit Blues Society. "It's the same reason I chase around looking for these people. Some of them were good friends like the Butler Twins; others like Calvin Frazier I never met, but I'm aware of his extraordinary career — he was recorded by (music historian) Alan Lomax in 1938.
"I've had people say to me, 'Oh, I went out to see the Butler Twins and I left a harmonica on Clarence's grave, and for Curtis I left a guitar pick," said Herberger. "When you go out there, you'll find assorted things lying out there."
On a sun-dappled fall day, wandering the winding paths at Elmwood Cemetery with its ancient obelisks and angels, downtown Detroit's skyscrapers seem to be a world away, rather than a half-mile.
Many prominent Detroiters are buried at Elmwood, including Josephine Ford, John L. Lodge and Bernard Stroh. But it's also the final resting place of MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith and singer Nathaniel Mayer, whose grave is yet unmarked.
For as any Detroit music fan knows, even a legendary musician may not earn enough money for what middle-class families take for granted — a marker with a name.