Be that as it may: Motown was known widely as a Black American “Soul” label and record company, and therefore somehow associated – or related - with genres I became fan of (Reggae), or of which some songs I liked (could be funk, soul, R&B). I learned about the name Berry Gordy as Motown’s founder, and that the record company was based in Detroit. Some artists associated with the label I heard of - or from - too: Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder..
Beyond that, to be honest, my knowledge about Motown as a company never became overly extensive or detailed. For that reason, it was perhaps good and fulfilling that I read recently a book about it: to get to learn more about the history of Motown. It is a work titled ‘Motown : music, money, sex, and power’ (Random House, 2002), written by Gerald Posner. It was published in 2002, and with over 300 pages “medium-voluminous”, I would say.
Its somewhat sensationalistic, almost “cliché” subtitle did not appeal to me so much. After all: so much is “money, sex, and power” in this world. Often combined and (thus) not always rendering pleasant or equal environments. From loveless marriages, to big capitalist companies, or histories of colonialism and exploitation. Also, for instance, slavery in the Americas was besides about exploitation (money), power (and its abuse), also about sex, as many slave owners and overseers were free to sexually abuse and rape their female slaves, and did so on a daily basis. On occasion female slaves gave in only hoping to get some perks out of the forced intimacy by the white man. Money, sex, and power, allright..
So, in my opinion, the subtitle was not particularly promising, but it must be said: the 2002 book by Gerald Posner turned out to be a good read, and informative to me. I found it to be well-written and engaging from the start. In the remainder of this post follows a review of the book, as well as some comparative analyses.
Almost inevitably, the story of Motown is also a semi-biography of its founder Berry Gordy, who started it in 1959. I knew not much about him, but heard somewhere he was family-focussed, strict, organized, and discipline-minded as Motown’s president. That might be functional, but sounds at the same time rigid and conservative to me. And, well, boring and unimaginative, especially for the music industry derived from a creative spirit.
In the first part of Posner’s book, however, about a young Gordy before Motown, it became clear that there was more to Berry Gordy. This concerns especially his trajectory. His family was quite tight, disciplined, and work-focussed, yet for a while the youth Berry Gordy got known as the “lazy bum” among his siblings, living off others, and avoiding jobs and work. His parents tried at times in vain to arrange some more steady jobs for him. In time, Berry Gordy “got to know the streets”, so to speak, and caught the habit of gambling in dubious areas and locales. In part he lived a life close to, or even in, crime. At one point he had a few prostitutes working for him, making him effectively a pimp. He wanted to stop that, though, and changed his ways toward an own business, aided by his tight and supportive family..
His interest in music, and artists like Jackie Wilson he met at a club where he worked, put him on the music industry path, including useful connections. He wrote songs that became hits. That made him money to start producing and in time the recording company that would become known as Motown.
His sisters and brothers would achieve important functions in it, under Berry Gordy.
That focus on Gordy remained throughout the rest of the book. In many instances it even seems mainly written from Gordy’s perspective, although Posner as author stays quite objective.
I guess it is undeniable that Gordy as a person – but with his family - is dominant in Motown, at least as a company. That is the main focus: the Motown company and its profits. The creative process of hired songwriters, weekly meetings discussing songs to record or release, and whether songs became hits, receives a lot of attention in this book. Also, how the company was run by Gordy.
DISCIPLINED AND ORGANIZED
That was the thing with Motown: it was very disciplined and organized, just like “regular” companies, so to speak. The famed Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriter trio were paid to deliver songs to artist Gordy wanted to be promoted.
Songs with hit potential, and aimed toward a “pop appeal”. Definitely a commercial choice, although the music was largely based on Black, African American traditions (soul, with Gospel influences a.o.). This music was “watered down” as Gordy aimed to reach a White audience too, besides a Black one. This made commercial sense. It was also part of his life view, though. He hired several White people at some crucial posts in the Motown corporation, also helping this cross-over.
The first million-selling hit for Motown – early in its existence – was Shop Around (1960) by the Miracles (including Smokey Robinson).
The bulk of the book is thus about Gordy’s perspective. It is to writer Gerald Posner’s credit, though, that he still keeps this engaging throughout. His dealings with some artists and groups in promoting them, from his long-time friend Smokey Robinson, to later connections with the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and the Supremes with Diana Ross. The latter, Ross, gets quite a lot of attention in this book, also because Gordy was supposedly in love with her. Diana Ross, though, does not always come off well in this book. Not so much her artistic qualities, as her “diva”-like arrogance. This was quoted from other artists at Motown, though they also felt sidelined by her. Her on/off affair with Gordy made her also more important for Motown, besides her popularity and hits as part - and lead singer - of the Supremes. The Supremes would have several big hits.
Gordy being the main focus, others become also “extras”, and passing “supportive roles” in the way this book is told. The singer Marvin Gaye is also quite present in the book, as a somewhat looser one in the tighter Motown setting, smoking early on also regularly marijuana for instance, that was not appreciated so much at the disciplined Motown.
A point of critique I can give is that some of these non-Berry Gordy characters remain too “flat”, sometimes hardly mentioned. Whereas popular “hit makers” as the Temptations, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and some others, are recurringly mentioned, lesser known artists or musicians are rarely mentioned. “Songs were recorded”, is often said in the book, often mentioning who wrote the song (Holland-Dozier-Holland), or who produced it. What musicians he used, how he found them, how regular they were? Those questions remain unanswered. At least in this book: elsewhere I understood that Gordy gathered top musicians from the local Jazz and Blues scenes in Detroit in 1959, to help him record the songs. These group of musicians – calling themselves the Funk Brothers – were talented, but remained relatively little known, or little acknowledged . They helped make the Motown sound. This book however does not mention them much.
Unfortunately, this entire musical creative process is simply not the focus of Posner’s book, that focuses on Gordy’s general hope for “commercial hits” that a wide public liked. It is in that sense more from a business than from a musicians’ perspective.
Okay, but even the general artistic choices for songs put out for the market get too little attention, in my opinion. “Motown Soul” was known as smoother and more polished – “poppier” than more “rough-edged”, or “Blacker” Soul or R&B (or upcoming Funk) in the US. In what musical ways, I ask myself then? That is perhaps the musician in me, and shows my personal fields of interest. I am a percussionist, and I note the extensive use of the tambourine, generally on the “off-beat”, as part of the Motown sound. A bit too much tambourine, and too little other percussion (e.g. more conga’s, scrapers, or bells), at least in my opinion..
As I said, that’s the percussionist in me, and is a side path to the focus of the book, at least a detail, however crucial. Gerald Posner discusses Motown more in broad lines “as a company”, and still mentions successful hit songs and artists, meetings evaluating songs, with a “creative team” at Motown, deciding what music to release. This was interesting to me, because I did not know it went in such a structured, company-like way, with formal meetings that were recorded, registered in administrative procedures etcetera. That differs from what I heard about other recording companies, where haphazard and chaotic “personal whims” seemed more decisive in what got recorded or released for the market.
Gordy’s various intimate relationships with women, some he worked with or worked for him, get quite some attention, as do such relations between other artists at Motown. Especially his crush on Diana Ross gets much attention. Interestingly, even this becomes at the end secondary to Motown as company, pointing at a discipline. This books makes that company focus of Gordy clear, showing how this “drive” outweighs other personal and intimate relationships. A mostly commercial drive, but with cultural aspects, at least. Comparably, though even more interesting, also the famous painter Pablo Picasso tended to make personal relationships (intimate/romantic, friends etcetera) secondary to his “art”. The difference is that Picasso was the creative artist himself, whereas Gordy facilitated and organized it only, allowing for himself a, say, “colder”, materialistic distance.
As part of this, also financial and payment issues get relatively much attention in this work. Artists complained about not getting their financial due, or too little, within the company’s framework. Royalty percentages were for instance lower than in other companies, causing dissatisfaction. An income was however secured (unlike elsewhere, where one-time payments for artists were the norm), but for some too low.
Again, the fact the Gerald Posner knows how to describe Gordy’s financial considerations in an entertaining manner, shows he knows how to write. His writing style is in that sense dynamic and engaging.
Financial issues tend not to interest me so much, even if inevitable in the system we live in, and the focus of Posner on it in this book almost puts me off. Luckily, Posner knows how to tell a story dynamically and engagingly, thus maintaining enough of my attention.
The same applies to another phenomenon I personally find unpleasant and prefer to avoid: office politics. Power games at the workplace or the office: from sucking up to the boss, using connections to that boss to demean and “put in place” – according to them - uppity lower colleagues. Brrr.. This in my experience often comes down to bullying, and even structural, fascist-like mental abuse.
Motown was a company of a close family and friends, for a part at least, diminishing too much of such negative excesses. There are still some harsh confrontations and humiliating actions described as part of work processes – office politics -, in this book. Again, Posner keeps this dynamic and proportionate, so that the book remains a good read. Not a great read, but at least a good one.
The later part of the book deals with the slow demise of Motown. Gordy moving the operations to Los Angeles in 1971 was sudden and unwelcome for several workers, musicians, and artists and Motown, though several of them followed him. There were some ups and downs since then, yet it was, as Posner quotes, “the beginning of the end” for Motown. In time Gordy wanted to expand Motown’s activities with movies/films, only partly successful. His passionate yet troubled relationship with ex-Supreme Diana Ross continued meanwhile in California, and elsewhere, after 1971. Posner continues to pay much attention to the Gordy-Ross relationship.
Some new artists joined the label that became quite successful, notably the Jackson 5 and the Commodores, resulting in world famous artists Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. These were commercial highpoints in an otherwise decaying company, of which the peak period was more and more in the past. That is the main line of reasoning of Posner in the final part of this book.
Gordy seems by then also to have lost in part interest in Motown as music company, and obtained new hobbies notably the film industry. He remained a distant boss, but hired new presidents. These include Ewart Abner, president of Motown since 1973 up to 1975. Abner was an unsuccessful president, at least according to this book. He was relatively more pro-Black and race-conscious than Gordy and others in the company, and objected to the many white people at important positions in Motown: the number of whites had even increased when Motown went to Los Angeles after 1971. The racial “purging” he attempted was seen as problematic, and some called him even a “racist” toward white people, despite a diplomatic image he upheld of having friendly relations with whites. Besides this racial stance, Abner was also an alcoholic, making his leadership ineffective and inefficient.
Like Diana Ross, Ewart Abner does not exactly come off well in this book, at least according to the opinions stated in this book. Another president for a period, the white man of Italian (Sicilian) heritage Barney Ales, did not too well either, though economically and financially more effective and efficient, people described him as only self-interested and a money shark..
Despite these organizational issues, some of the early Motown artists also are discussed in the last part of the book. The commonly held stereotype that drugs – notably cocaine – was and is rife among artists and musicians seems unfortunately confirmed. Marvin Gaye began using coke more and more, making him unstable and problematic. Even Smokey Robinson – known as a clean and healthy example at Motown – got for a period hooked on it. Gaye lost all his money, and in fact got a large debt, and lived the final months of his life with his parents, continuing his wild, cocaine-based life nonetheless. A fight with his also unstable and alcoholic father, as may be known, cost Marvin Gaye his life: his own father shot him with a gun, supposedly after Marvin hit his father, as the fight got out of hand.. This was in 1984.
So for some instances at the end of Posner’s book, other people than Gordy are treated with more detail, but by then Gordy was less interested in the company, had less of his heart in it. The success of some new artists, e.g. Lionel Richie, The Jacksons, and Rick James, gave some temporary respite, as did some hits by those longer associated with Motown, such as Stevie Wonder.
Some nostalgic concerts looking back at Motown were also well-received. The peak period was however largely over, and Gordy agreed finally to sell what remained of Motown to PolyGram in the 1990s. This book ends in 2002, but today Motown does still exist, only as part of the Universal Music Group, into which PolyGram and Motown were absorbed, albeit still as separate entity. No longer independent, though.
Though the attention changes a bit in the final parts of Posner’s book, Berry Gordy remained the main personality described in this story of Motown. Fair enough, since Gordy started it all and remained influential throughout. It is, in my opinion, too much from his perspective too, however. I find it furthermore hard to tell whether the author Gerald Posner has an own bias or agenda, as he is relatively mild about Gordy, but presents a largely negative image of Diana Ross, albeit via others, as well as of some other artists. Some of these felt short-changed and robbed of their rightful money. Posner presents this as neutral, though repeatedly adds a tone of irritation with this: as Gordy would have had. Emphasizing drug or alcohol habits – resulting in some of these artists’ early deaths – is also a bit dubious, even if true. This because also these artists remain flat characters, and the real reasons for their problems are ignored. Maybe they were really duped, who knows. A bit more distance from Gordy’s interests taken by Posner – especially as some artist had lawsuits against him for money - would be better.
Also some other “secondary characters” or “extras” in the book, such as Ewart Abner, do not come off well. Admittedly, Abner died years before this book appeared, but Diana Ross was still well alive, and the author could have asked her about her side of the story. That would make the book more balanced, and journalistically correct, in my opinion.
In conclusion, I found the book engagingly written and it turned out to be in part insightful to me. I learned things I did not know before. It was indeed about “power, sex, and music” as its subtitle suggests. Posner is better in “broad strokes” than in detail or even interesting anecdotes. This book is , however, entertaining and dynamic to read.
A main critique I nonetheless maintain about it, is that the book was too much about money and how to run a company financially, and too little about musical creativity as such. The songwriting, musicians, and recording are only mentioned in general terms..in their function of making money. Though Posner paints a sympathetic portrayal of Gordy, the “money shark” in Gordy did not always make him come over as pleasant in some instances in this book. Sometimes even as cruelly selfish. Kind of uneven – and slightly hypocritical - in relation to the critique and ridicule of Diana Ross for having a big ego, a lavish lifestyle, and big money-spending habits.
So, a recommendable book to read in and by itself, but for a more balanced view from different perspectives one should look elsewhere. Also, those interested in the process of creating and making music – as myself - should look elsewhere. It’s indeed more about “money, sex, and power” (the company), “office politics” and such, than about music as cultural or artistic phenomenon. That is a pity. Only the superficial fact that songs became “big hits” gets enough attention.
I am more a Reggae fan. I appreciate (songs by) some artists who recorded for Motown, notably Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, along with a few others, but found the “Motown sound” overall a bit too poppy and polished to my taste. I liked the call-and-response vocals that characterized that sound, though: a beautiful African retention in a Soul context. Also, the musicians of the house band up to 1971 – the Funk Brothers – had some nice flourishes here and there..
Reggae I like much more though, since my teens already. I soon found out, however, that an important early music label in Jamaica since the 1950s, Studio One, was called “the Jamaican Motown”. Its founder – Clement “Coxsone” Dodd: the first black record company owner in Jamaica – is even compared by some to Berry Gordy, regarding his role in Jamaican music.
Studio One was indeed crucial in Jamaican music, also in genres preceding Reggae (that developed around 1968), such as Ska (appearing around 1959) and Rocksteady (developed around 1966). It helped develop the Jamaican music industry, but also genres.
Motown in the US also helped develop the career of several in time well-known and successful Black US artists, just like in Jamaica many artists – including “big reggae names” like Bob Marley, Dennis Brown, Burning Spear, Bob Andy, Alton Ellis, Sugar Minott, Lee Perry, and many more, started at Studio One.
Having read the book on Motown, I would like to dedicate the final part of this post/essay to analyse whether this comparison in fact makes sense, according to my knowledge of both Motown and Studio One. Is Studio One really “the Jamaican Motown”, or is it merely a figure of speech?
I know quite something about Jamaica’s Studio One by now, from several works. Now I know more about Motown. I conclude that there are similarities, but also crucial differences.
The parallel that many local artists started their career there is certainly there. Historically, there is also a parallel. Studio One was founded in 1954, but started having an own recording studio in 1963. Motown started in 1959. Both labels “peaked” in the 1960s, so to speak, and ended (more or less) since the 1980s (very roughly speaking)..
Motown was an actual company with separate formal departments and administrative structures. Studio One was, on the other hand, simply said, the person Clement “Coxsone” Dodd. That is in some way funny, but also unfortunate. It had no accounting department for instance, or a marketing department. It was all much more informal than that. Musicians and artists were very busy recording at and pressing records through Studio One though, all throughout the week and during whole workdays. Much music was released, and work has certainly been done. Just like at Motown.
Lacking such formal structures, the weekly, Friday meetings about what songs to put out, at Motown, seems a far cry from the ways in Studio One. Some musicians, songwriters, artists/singers themselves, or Dodd, might expect or have the hunch that certain songs that were being recorded might do well and become hits “in the dancehalls”, but this was never formalized in meetings. No “marketing” professionals or staff were involved. Often their feelings were justified as Studio One put out many successful songs.
This shows how Dodd had gathered some good, talented musicians, songwriters, and singers around him, and had a good “ear” for what is a good song or a potential hit. Dodd could not even play an instrument himself, which makes it even more special. Some instrumentalists joked that he (Dodd) did not even notice when a guitar clearly needed tuning. Dodd had a good “ear” for recognizing good songs and hits, though, being a thing he had in common with Berry Gordy, as well as his capability to gather talented musicians around him and useful recording equipment. As a former sound system (mobile discotheque) owner, Coxsone Dood also was well in touch with the local public tastes, increasing Studio One’s commercial successes. This also applied in a way to Gordy.
The Jamaican music industry was, and still is, however different from the one in the US. There is a more direct connection with popular taste and the public through the said Sound Systems and the public dancehalls. New releases were often immediately tested there for an audience. In the US, songs were released for an abstract “market” with a monetary aim. Also by Motown. The audience and public had their say therefore at the end of the product in the US, while in Jamaica more in early stages. This audience reception at dancehalls then helped shape and direct artistic and recording choices at Studio One.
This is an interesting, and actually more “democratic”, aspect of the Jamaican music industry. A good song is a good song, but a good and balanced - earlier - connection with the actual public is also necessary or at least more “real”. It avoids at least in part that big companies try to shape or manipulate our tastes. This has become of course a common, and degenerated, aspect of capitalism in Western societies, affecting all products, including cultural ones.
Despite these positive points, Coxsone Dodd also had some conflicts with artists. Like in Gordy’s case it related to money. Many artists felt they were underpaid or robbed of royalties for their work and music by Coxsone. Most artists at Studio One came from poor, ghetto backgrounds, and were initially not even knowledgeable about such rights. Some objected against Coxsone Dodd, or recurringly asked Dodd for more money or a better deal, hoping to eventually get out of the cycle of poverty of ghetto living.
Several Jamaican artists complained about how hard it was to simply approach Dodd, as he always had some “tough guys” around him, guarding him. Dodd thus seemed not to be generous financially, comparable to Berry Gordy in that sense. Again, Gordy faced several lawsuits by his former artists, in Jamaica it went more informally: some Jamaican artists once at Studio One at the end simply left disgruntled, or acquired means to start their own recording company..
So, there seem to be similarities as well as differences, between Motown and Studio One, and their founders Berry Gordy and Coxsone Dodd, but either way: they were definitely both musically influential, in their respective genres (Soul for Motown, Ska, Rocksteady, and Reggae for Studio One), in their national contexts, but eventually also internationally. This accomplishment is perhaps the main similarity..