Today, the sound of the Motor City’s name most readily connotes the rap soundtrack of Eminem and the bleak visuals of 8 Mile. In the late 70’s, KISS anointed the place “Detroit Rock City” after the punk rock tradition begun by bands like MC5. But before Eminem’s appropriation of rap, and even before the British Invasion of Liverpool lads covering Little Richard, Motown—the company, the label, the producers, the artists—effected one of the greatest crossover feats in music history, eliminating the concept of segregated “race records,” and earned for Detroit its irrevocable association with the name “Hitsville, USA.”
This modest appellation was devised by Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown and the unofficial focus of Gerald Posner’s book Motown: Music, Money, Sex, and Power, so much so that the book reads almost like his biography. Gordy and many others, rightly fearing a seedy exposé, refused even to talk to Posner, thus explaining the superabundance of anonymous sources on which he relies. Unless he cribbed from Berry’s autobiography, Posner’s authority (not to mention taste) is thus questionable when he indulges in a silly novelistic opening that presumes to describe Berry’s very thoughts: “He sat and brooded in the cavernous marble Jacuzzi of his garish Caesars Palace suite…There was no loyalty anymore, he fumed…It was so much easier in the beginning…Gordy never thought fifty would feel like this.” Such a title and such an opening recall all the intelligence and integrity of a VH1 Behind the Music special, promising revelations more depressing than shocking, more lurid than informative. Yet at least VH1 has the advantage in being able to intersperse its solemn, slow zooming in on photo clips and tearful interviews with excerpts of the music itself. This book is supposed to be primarily about the music, but Posner, formerly a “Wall Street lawyer,” seems more concerned with the second word after the colon in his title: money.
Posner, who has previously written on subjects as diverse as Chinese Secret Societies: The New Mafia and Ross Perot, attests that he became gradually convinced that “a journalist who was not necessarily a music writer should tell Motown’s story. The music was vital, of course, but what was most fascinating was the cast of characters.” The characters are fascinating, indeed, but Posner dismisses the music too easily. In place of musical, lyrical, or even much historical or cultural analysis, he performed heavy research in courthouses, and the book sags with the particulars of practically every lawsuit in which Motown was involved.
Yet another prevailing theme of Motown’s history is family, never quite sundered by all of the suits, squabbles, and scandals. Berry Gordy, the perennial good-for-nothing among his seven other industrious siblings, would never have been able to start Motown as a music publishing company without a loan of eight hundred dollars from the family’s collective fund. When his sister Esther doubted him – “Well if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich? You’re twenty-nine years old, and what have you done so far with your life?” – he made her vice-president of the fledgling company. His sister Loucye became another V.P., Esther’s husband the comptroller, and his second wife Raynoma Liles gave music lessons to artists and served on the board of directors. Berry Gordy’s long-time friend Smokey Robinson wistfully summed up the family enterprise: “The Gordys took care of business, but mainly they took care of each other.”
“Hitsville, USA” began with a small house on 2648 Grand, literally a home for Gordy and his family as well as a home for the business that would soon become like a family. A closet served for a sound booth, and the bathroom was used as an echo chamber with monitors standing by to prevent anyone from flushing while a recording was taking place. Everyone was expected to help with any chores required: Musicians mopped floors and manned engineering booths. Singers and songwriters shared their talents freely with other groups that needed help. And anyone could get their start just hanging around the building: Martha Reeves, the powerful voice of “(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave” began at Motown as a secretary and babysitter for Stevie Wonder.
Still, some of Berry Gordy’s success can be attributed to his lack of certain family values. He first demonstrated talent as a salesman, but his father chastised him for his ability at sweet-talking poor families into buying expensive cookware. Instead of relating how Gordy lost his virginity or his history of bed-wetting, Posner would have done better to examine more closely Gordy’s career as a small-time pimp, which overlapped with the beginning of Motown and might cast light on his future dynamic with the female artists he managed. Even TIME magazine called the Supremes “the prize fillies in Gordy’s stable.” Posner plays down Gordy’s sordid profession by quoting Gordy’s own euphemism for it, “I have a few girls” and Raynoma Liles’s unintentionally humorous reflection that “no self-respecting pimp would use a bus, as Gordy had to, for transportation.”
However humble Gordy’s initial means of transportation, no one could deny the man had hustle. At first, he was just the kind of irritating acquaintance always importuning people to listen to his songs. His tenacity and initiative paid off when he wanted to publicize Motown without having much money or influence at his disposal. To get airplay for a new song on Philadelphia’s radio station WDAS, he simply waited around until he heard DJ Georgie Woods tell his assistant to buy him a hot dog. Gordy preempted the assistant by literally running out and fetching the hot dog himself. The DJ then noticed that Gordy’s other hand held a record, and without even listening aired the song “Way Over There” by the Miracles, immediately prompting voluminous orders from Philly record stores. Gordy’s efforts at personal contact with African-American DJs like Woods not only reaped national exposure for Motown, but also buoyed the business with the loyalty and support of the DJs, who threatened to boycott every time a white-owned conglomerate considered seizing control of Motown acts.
Before Gordy finally did sell Motown to MCA for sixty-one million dollars in 1988, people like Jesse Jackson and Bill Cosby urged him to find some other recourse. Motown was a powerful symbol of success in the African-American community, independently writing, producing, and distributing its record hits and breaching the gap between black rhythm and blues and the white version “pop.” With the advent of Motown, African-American music became synonymous with “pop,” and “popular music” was no longer a misnomer.
Gordy liked to hedge the political import of this cultural sea change, however, insisting in the Detroit News, “I don’t like to call it black music. I call it music with black stars.” Posner naively calls Gordy “color-blind” for staffing his sales department with almost all white men, with whom he could not even eat in some restaurants. Such men hardly needed Gordy’s tolerance; he knew that a white sales team would have contacts and influence with white radio stations. Gordy actively sought to expand his market by adapting R&B to the tastes of a white audience in cultivating the unique “Motown sound,” softening the edges of the blues and focusing on catchy melodies while still emphasizing the rhythm with prominent bass lines and drumbeats accented by tambourines. Occasionally, the vocals could be delightfully raw, as in the Contours’ “Do You Love Me” or sweetly artificial, like those of Diana Ross, who unsurprisingly stars in Posner’s book as the most monstrous diva ever to claw her way to front and center with a $260 manicure. Gordy could be censured for steering the label away from politics and controversy during the Civil Rights Era, but as a small and idiosyncratic company Motown created a major cultural impact, and took creative risks through its music.
The first real hit for Motown was a risqué departure from the common subject matter of love: “Money (That’s What I Want).” For all the future lawsuits over royalties, in 1959 Gordy generously gave the receptionist Janie Bradford 50% for her contribution of the one line to his song: “Your love gives me such a thrill, but your love don’t pay my bills.” He said, “There is, after all, no more complete and meaningful message than that.” Money may have been Gordy’s only motivation, but Posner does not seem to comprehend that something came out of Motown that was bigger than Gordy, bigger than the sum of Hitsville’s parts—the competition, the courts, the plaintive choral invocations of “baby, baby.” Motown was a musical compromise rather than compromised music; it appealed to all colors, but never whitewashed itself. In bringing a nation together, it brought forth a joyful sound.