Precisely rendered account of the Motor City hit factory’s rise, fall, and corporatized rebirth.
“The music was vital, of course, but what was most fascinating was the cast of characters,” comments veteran journalist Posner (Killing the Dream, 1998, etc.). Motown’s improbable success depended on founder Berry Gordy Jr. He was a poor student who lacked his family’s strong work ethic, but Gordy (alongside early collaborator Smokey Robinson) developed fierce enthusiasm for Detroit’s music scene. His initial efforts at songwriting and band management convinced him that success lay in an independent record label with in-house production and distribution within the still-segregated “urban” (i.e., African-American) markets. Beginning in 1958 with Tamla Records, Gordy launched several small labels that culminated in Motown’s mid-’60s dominance of the pop charts and indisputable contribution to cultural desegregation. Initially, Posner portrays Gordy’s fledgling music powerhouse warmly, depicting a family-run atmosphere that nurtured unschooled musicians: the fiercely ambitious Supremes from the Brewster projects; Marvin Gaye, who nervously auditioned for Berry at the 1960 Christmas party; and youthful Stevie Wonder, who was virtually adopted by Gordy. However, contractual arrangements heavily favored the company, keeping musicians on modest salaries while billing them for all expenses. As a result, “numerous Motown artists eventually challenged their contracts . . . over years of aggressive litigation.” Gordy moved the company to Los Angeles in 1968, alienating Detroit-based performers like Martha Reeves and Gaye. In the ’70s, Gordy had some successes (the Jackson 5) but made ill-advised forays into film production and lost touch with Motown’s operations. The resulting mismanagement, exacerbated by alleged drug abuse and payola, contributed to the defections of Gaye, the Jacksons, and Gordy’s ex-paramour Diana Ross; the company was sold to MCA and other investors in 1988. Although Posner’s tone seems rather dry for depicting such joyous music, his clearly detailed account of this prototypical minority-owned business unearths many fascinating cultural touchstones, such as the pressure felt by Motown’s artists to avoid alienating white audiences with political outbursts.
Warts-and-all nostalgia evokes the undeniable power of the Motown sound.