Detroit recording studio could be seized by feds

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

United Sound Systems, the oldest independent recording studio in the nation, is in danger of being seized by federal authorities who allege it was bought with drug money.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit filed paperwork last month to take the Detroit building on Second Avenue in forfeiture as part of a 2012 federal drug case in which 11 men were indicted by a grand jury in a cocaine distribution case.

The studio, which is still active, is where John Lee Hooker sang “Boogie Chillen” in 1948 and where Jackie Wilson recorded his first record.

The property is owned by Danielle D. Scott, who bought the studio in 2009 for $20,000 and has been working to restore it. Scott said she was part of the team of people who worked toward a historical designation for the building.

“I’ve always been a fan of the music,” Scott told The News in 2014. “I’m trying to find out as much as I can about the history. We go across all the (musical) genres here.”

According to court documents, cooperating witnesses told federal prosecutors that Dwayne Richards, an accused money launderer and cocaine trafficker and one of the 11 men charged in the drug case, is Scott’s cousin.

A special agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency alleges in court records that Richards used Scott to conceal the movement of money and property — proceeds from drug trafficking — by purchasing the studio.

Prosecutors said Richards, whose alias was “Big Hommie,” was a big-time cocaine distributor in Metro Detroit but he also worked at the studio.

Confidential witnesses told federal officials that Richards was observed at the studio in 2011 or 2012 fixing up the building and property. They said he used friends to complete the work and restore it into an operational studio.

Richards, according to court records, formed “Global Success Entertainment” in 2011 for media and music production. His company was involved in the music and soundtrack for the movie “House Arrest,” which made its premiere in 2013.

His attorney, Stephon Johnson, declined to comment Monday. Scott couldn’t be reached for comment.

If a judge agrees the property should be forfeited as part of the case, the U.S. Justice Department would take ownership of the property, and in most cases, it liquidates it to pay back victims or pay for prosecution.

United Sound was the go-to studio since the early 1930s for some of the most celebrated music of the 20th century, including that of jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and Kenny Burrell, as well as the MC5, the Rationals, Little Willie John, Bob Seger and Aretha Franklin.

Don Davis owned it in the 1970s when George Clinton and P-Funk almost lived there.

When it opened in 1933 as a recording studio, the studio was most likely located on Cass, according to observers. But it was up and running at the Second Avenue location since at least 1940, owned by Jimmy Siracuse, who was joined later by his son, Joe. Producer Don Davis bought the studio in 1971.

The Rationals recorded their classic blue-eyed soul version of Otis Redding’s “Respect” at United Sound in 1966.

The building has also been in jeopardy because of a proposed entrance ramp to Interstate 94 by the Michigan Department of Transportation.

MDOT’s massive project to expand and upgrade seven miles of I-94 is scheduled to begin in 2019.

The long-proposed MDOT project calls for reconstruction of I-94 from Conner to Interstate 96 and includes rebuilding of 67 bridges and six railroad overpasses, linking east/west service drives and reconstructing interchange ramps. The massive project could take 20 years, road officials say.

Rob Morosi, a spokesman for MDOT, said Monday the agency has not made an offer for the property because it does not know if it will need it for the I-94 project.

“We are still working on refining the design...We are still looking at a way to minimize the impact in Midtown. We are still looking at tweaking certain design elements and allowing the studio to stay,” Morosi said.

The current freeway expansion plan can fit within the existing footprint of I-94, Morosi said. If MDOT were to install dedicated service drives, that would impact the studio property, he said.

The studio is also a historic landmark after receiving Detroit City Council approval in 2015, meaning it would require city approval before the venue could be demolished to accommodate the widening of I-94.

Some of the music recorded at USS

“Boogie Chillen” by John Lee Hooker (1948)

“Mommy, What Happened to Our Christmas Tree” by Little Willie John (1951)

“Danny Boy” by Sonny Wilson (Jackie Wilson) (1952)

“Come to Me” by Marv Johnson (1958). Robert Bateman and the Rayber Voices provided backup; Beans Bowles played the flute solo.

“My True Love,” “Leroy” and “The Way I Walk,” and other early singles by Jack Scott (1958-’59)

“Del Shannon Sings Hank Williams” by Del Shannon (1965)

“Respect” by the Rationals (1966)

“East Side Story” (1966) and “Ramblin’, Gamblin’ Man” by Bob Seger (1969)

“Hot Buttered Soul” by Isaac Hayes (1969)

Funkadelic’s “Free Your A**, And Your Mind Will Follow” (1970), “Cosmic Slop” (1973), Parliament’s “Mothership Connection (1975), “Chocolate City” (1974), “Up for the Down Stroke” (1974) and many other George Clinton sessions

“Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get” by the Dramatics (1972)

“Seven” by Bob Seger (some tracks) (1974)

“Who’s Zoomin’ Who” by Aretha Franklin (1985), including the hit “Freeway of Love”

Source: Detroit News archives