Fascinating but flawed, the latest from Kurlansky (Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man, 2012 etc.) suggests that not only was the Martha and the Vandellas’ hit the anthem for a time of profound change, but a call to arms for rioting militants in its “invitation across the nation.”
The author is on solid ground when he keeps a tight focus on Motown, Berry Gordy and the hit machine the mogul established in Detroit along the lines of the city’s automobile industry: “A bare frame of a street singer could go through the Motown plant and come out a Cadillac of a performer.” He shows how Gordy got rich, his artists got famous, and his studio musicians and some of his songwriters got shafted. He explains how Motown’s changes reflected a changing America, as dreams of integration shattered with the King assassination, the rise of Black Power and the rioting in the streets. “It was also suggested that the popularity of the song ‘Dancing in the Street’ had encouraged people to take to the streets,” writes Kurlansky in an oddly passive construction that proceeds to cite a “rumor” that the hit was banned from the airwaves. Plainly, change was in the air, and to overload this one hit with too much revolutionary significance in a 1964 that also gave the world “The Times They Are A-Changin” and “A Change Is Gonna Come” blurs cause and effect. And then there are all the nit-picky errors: that “(Michael) Bolton achieved stardom in the 1980s with his hard rock band Black Jack [sic],” that the sophisticated, debonair Chuck Berry was “a wild-looking black man…who hopped around the stage madly,” that Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” was “swing.” Perhaps the book’s biggest howler lies in the understatement that “many people were affected by the King murder.”
An ambitious thematic arc, but the devil’s in the details.