Author chronicles glory days of the legendary record company
Published: Sunday, January 12, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 11, 2003 at 9:52 p.m.
Motown: Music, Money, Sex and Power
By Gerald Posner
(Random House; 350 pages, illustrated; $24.95)
An account of the legendary Detroit record company during its heyday in the '60s and '70s.
Motown lore has been repackaged, too. Most of the company's much-interviewed stars have been the subjects of books or have written their autobiographies. (From "Secrets of a Sparrow," by Diana Ross: "Having a lot of hair is a huge responsibility, particularly when I'm traveling.") The in-house session band, the Funk Brothers, was the subject last year of the rousing documentary, "Standing in the Shadows of Motown." And now a more cinema verite concert film, "Only the Strong Survive" by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, takes a latter-day look at some giants of soul music, among them the ex-Supreme Mary Wilson. Even Stevie Wonder's mother, Lula Hardaway, is now the subject of an authorized biography.
Investigative accounts from Nelson George's "Where Did Our Love Go?" to Fredric Dannen's "Hit Men" have raised damaging questions about the company's business practices. As Gerald Posner's gossipy new compendium points out, a lot of Motown's history can also be unearthed in the basement archive of the Wayne County Court in Detroit. Twenty file cabinets are devoted to litigation between Gordy and the songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland, and that's just for starters. Many of Motown's greatest success stories have ended in bitter legal wrangling.
So Posner's "Motown: Music, Money, Sex and Power," actually a much more reputable book than its title suggests, recycles many stories that are familiar. But amazing anecdotes about the company's early days remain good as new. And some are less familiar than others. Yes, Gordy adopted Tamla as the name of one of his legendary record labels because it sounded like Tammy, the title of a hit song by Debbie Reynolds. But it may be more surprising that "Money (That's What I Want)," written by Gordy, was designated Tamla 54027 even though it was only the label's eighth release. Right from the start this future mogul knew how to make an impression.
The book recalls how he hung out his famous "Hitsville" sign at the company's modest headquarters, before there were any Motown hits. He helped heighten his label's distinctive sound by using a basement bathroom as an echo chamber, although a session could be ruined if someone flushed a toilet. He sized up records by the way they sounded on small transistor radios, knowing that this was how they would most often be heard. And he would ask his staff whether a new song was as good as a hot dog (knowing that the hot dog always won, but noting how long it took employees to make up their minds).
He also dreamed up strict rules for his company's product. Motown lyrics had to be in the present tense. Motown singers were not to frown or snap their fingers. Dance moves were meant to be exciting, but booty-shaking was out of the question.
Then there were the discoveries, in stories that have taken on a fairy-tale glow. "I'm William Robinson," said one of the label's first performers and one of the most loyal to Gordy. "But they call me Smokey." Among the teenage schoolgirls who pursued the increasingly powerful mogul were the future Supremes, who very nearly called themselves the Darleens, the Jewelettes or the Sweet P's. When a staff member said, "B.G., you got to come hear this little kid now," that was Little Stevie Wonder.
This book's most memorable stories describe the way young Motown talent was made to work at a fire-drill pace. In 1965, when Columbia Records decided to release a 1961 song by the pre-Motown Four Tops, the Motown team was told one morning to come up with a bigger hit. They had a smash, "It's the Same Old Song," written by noon, recorded by nighttime and rushed into stores three days later.
How much of this is apocryphal? Posner claims to have spoken to two dozen sources on condition of anonymity and received the occasional plain brown envelope in the mail; this allows him to omit footnotes and attribution. Some of his material has a suspect theatrical ring, as when Singleton, who was also Gordy's business associate and is the author of an inevitable memoir, claims she was told, "I've gained all these riches, but I will never have another woman who will love me for just me and not because I'm Berry Gordy." Gordy refused to be interviewed by Posner, but paraphrases of his autobiography turn up frequently, sugar coating and all.
Happily, Posner, a former Wall Street lawyer, has a good ear for tales, tall or otherwise. And he also assiduously digs into the business practices that turned the Motown story sour. As the label's stars had their increasingly large bills paid by the company, never realizing that their incomes would be whittled accordingly, they may have been hurt by kickbacks, off-the-books bartering and payola; many of them have made such claims in court. Posner's most cogent witness testified to an elaborate scheme whereby full-price records were falsely described as discounted ones, thus cutting royalties substantially. Unfortunately, this witness died after testifying in court, and Posner has no one else to back up these charges.
In the end Posner presents the best and the worst of this story with suitable glitter. And his book heightens a welcome new fascination with Motown's glory days.
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