Books by Suzanne E. Smith

Released: Jan. 1, 2000

A finely rendered history of the storybook success of the "Motown Sound," arguably the most resonant cultural development of its time, within the localized context of urban turmoil and the civil-rights struggle. In documenting the complicated epic of Berry Gordy's "homegrown" cultural enterprise, Smith (History/George Mason Univ.) digs among the roots of African-American popular music and the pre-1960 waves of northern migration that created thriving (though segregated) communities in Detroit and elsewhere. She shows how the Sound's famous alchemy derived from friction between Gordy's desire for commercial success in mainstream markets and the artistic urge for fidelity to African-American concerns at a time of conflict. Relying on primary sources and on the recollections of Motown's acts, employees, and session players, Smith touchingly captures the industrious determination of a cultural community whose ambitions were underwritten by social cohesion and a generations-strong work ethic. But darker elements of mid-century racial strife persist within the starry Motown story, from artists' encounters with segregation to "urban renewal" schemes like Detroit's infamous Cobo Plan, which demolished established minority neighborhoods and encouraged draconian police actions that centered on self-fulfilling fears of unrest. Although Smith is occasionally dry or repetitive, she captures the spirit of this exciting time by focusing on individuals (Nat King Cole, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Motown discoveries like the Supremes and Marvin Gaye) whose actions were central to their era's cultural and civil-rights triumphs. More sobering is her re-creation of events leading to Detroit's 1967 riots, when intransigents on both sides of the color line overrode more moderate, conciliatory factions, leading the city toward a conflagration that permanently sundered the region's black and white communities. This reconstruction of Motown's meteoric popular rise during an era of fractious social division is compelling and informative for both aficionados of the music and students of American urban history. (18 illus.) Read full book review >