required reading

Book Review

Motown : The Sound Of Young America


Thames & Hudson (UK) ISBN-978-0-500-51829-8  (hardback)

There is a song by writer/performer/comedian, Christopher Green, as executed by one of his alter-egos, viz the country singer, Tina C., titled ‘I Became A Schizophrenic So I Could Love You Twice As Much.”  Having written and re-written a different review of this book - one I have come to actually something like a year late, it being first issued in the UK to coincide with the advent of ‘Motown : The Musical’ - on a daily basis over the last five days, I have concluded that the best way to finalise my opinions is to take a leaf from Tina, or at least to paraphrase the song title.  Thus, I have become a schizophrenic so at least half of me can love ‘Motown : The Sound Of Young America’ twice as much as the other half.

Therefore, to gladly begin with the positive...  This truly is an absolutely beautiful book.  285mm high x 225mm wide, 400 pages, lavishly - something of an understatement - illustrated.  Indeed, from taking the book out of its packaging and poring, nay, lingering over the illustrations, mesmerism has been the order of the day.  Colour photographs feature (mainly) Motown’s biggest ‘name’ stars and there are several pages featuring montages of discs and album covers.  Black & white photographs tend to be of a more intimate ‘behind the scenes’ and/or historical variety adding to the visual story of the company that became the most well-known worldwide in black music history.  Even were the owner to have no interest in the content, this is the ultimate in impressive ‘coffee table’ books so surely guaranteed to achieve prominent display that I have found myself browsing furniture catalogues to find an appropriately classy coffee table to match its merits.  But, of course, this is much more than a picture book and that is where, especially from the personal point of view as a Motown fan - no, call it fanatic - one can’t help being of (at least) two minds.

Principal author, Adam White is without doubt a Motown fan too and, indeed, a respected authority on the subject.  He was vice-president of communications at Universal Music Group International from 2002-2012, has been Grammy-nominated for earlier books with Motown as the subject and was editor-in-chief at ‘Billboard’ magazine, co-authoring ‘The Billboard Book Of No:1 R&B Hits’.  His collaborator, Barney Ales, was Berry Gordy’s right-hand man virtually from Motown’s inception, advisor and major player in product promotion, rising to Executive Vice-President and General Manager.  When Motown moved from Detroit to the West Coast in 1972, Ales remained in the motor city but rejoined Motown, becoming President in Los Angeles from 1975-1978.  Over the years, there have doubtless been more books and articles written around the Motown label(s) than any other company, whether concerning the machinations of day-to-day operations, the facts and the rumours, artist profiles and/or biographies and auto-biographies by artists, producers, musicians, back-room boys and, not least, founder Berry Gordy Jr., himself.  Here the text concentrates firmly on the business angle, no doubt giving a platform for Ales - who appears to have a few axes to grind - to put a firm personal slant on things but one wonders whether this might have been better done in a more modestly-presented tome of his own.  White has advised that the goal with the narrative was to try to add to the sum of knowledge about Motown, particularly from a business perspective and that can be clocked up as ‘goal achieved’ but at an expense that a Motown fanatic might find hard to come to terms with - and here’s the rub...  Artist-wise, it’s as if only the Diana Ross-led Supremes, the Smokey Robinson-fronted Miracles, Temptations, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5 are all that mattered; Motown’s first real queen, Mary Wells’ departure from the label - even conceded by Berry Gordy as a devastating blow - gets little more than a cursory mention, the major songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland fail to get the credits they deserve, while the Funk Brothers do not even appear in the index.  Try finding such as the Elgins, Yvonne Fair or the Monitors in the index too - no show, while the names of Tammi Terrell and the Velvelettes appear only once in the text and Thelma Houston and the Originals only occur in photographic form.  Even acts like the Marvelettes, the Contours and Gladys Knight & the Pips are all but disregarded, yet the Beatles’ name crops up on no less than two dozen pages.

Wrapping up then, it’s impossible not to rightly love the presentation and looks of this book but, while there’s no denying the fascination of the in-depth look at the business side of things, what kept the essence of Motown music alive - at least until it lost its way as the seventies wore on - and, indeed, still does today, was its artists, writers, musicians and producers and although the authors may well perhaps perceive writing about them has all been done to death, it seems clearly from on-line chat groups that the fans - the fanatics! - still can’t get enough.

review posted 1/4/17

Adam White’s ‘West Grand Blog’, dedicated to Motown and related topics, can be found at