"Motown: Music, Money, Sex and Power" by Gerald Posner

Chamberlin.Johnb@epamail.epa.gov Chamberlin.Johnb@epamail.epa.gov
Fri Jan 3 08:56:40 EST 2003

NYTimes  January 2, 2003

Tales From Detroit's Other Industry


       When the record company Motown ? a name so well known that at
least one computer won't allow it to be typed with a
       lower-case M ? fell on hard times in the 1980's, it began to
churn out collections of greatest hits. "With all the
repackaging going on," said Raynoma Gordy Singleton, an ex-wife of Berry
Gordy, the company's founding father, "what
Motown had to show for itself was a million different albums with `Baby
Love' and no new talent."

Motown lore has been repackaged, too. Most of the company's
much-interviewed stars have been the subjects of books or have written
their autobiographies. (From "Secrets of a Sparrow," by Diana Ross:
"Having a lot of hair is a huge responsibility, particularly when I'm
traveling.") The in-house session band, the Funk Brothers, was the
subject last year of the rousingdocumentary, "Standing in the Shadows of
Motown." And now a more cinéma vérité concert film, "Only the Strong
Survive" by Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker, takes a latter-day look
at some giants of soul music, among them the ex-Supreme Mary Wilson.
Even Stevie Wonder's mother, Lula Hardaway, is now the subject of an
authorized biography.

Investigative accounts from Nelson George's "Where Did Our Love Go?" to
Fredric Dannen's "Hit Men" have raised damaging
questions about the company's business practices. As Gerald Posner's
gossipy new compendium points out, a lot of Motown's
history can also be unearthed in the basement archive of the Wayne
County Court in Detroit. Twenty file cabinets are devoted to
litigation between Mr. Gordy and the songwriting team
Holland-Dozier-Holland, and that's just for starters. Many of Motown's
greatest success stories have ended in bitter legal wrangling.

So Mr. Posner's "Motown: Music, Money, Sex and Power," actually a much
more reputable book than its title suggests,
recycles many stories that are familiar. But amazing anecdotes about the
company's early days remain good as new. And some
are less familiar than others. Yes, Mr. Gordy adopted Tamla as the name
of one of his legendary record labels because it
sounded like Tammy, the title of a hit song by Debbie Reynolds. But it
may be more surprising that "Money (That's What I
Want)," written by Mr. Gordy, was designated Tamla 54027 even though it
was only the label's eighth release. Right from the
start this future mogul knew how to make an impression.

The book recalls how he hung out his famous "Hitsville" sign at the
company's modest headquarters, before there were any
Motown hits. He helped heighten his label's distinctive sound by using a
basement bathroom as an echo chamber, although a
session could be ruined if someone flushed a toilet. He sized up records
by the way they sounded on small transistor radios,
knowing that this was how they would most often be heard. And he would
ask his staff whether a new song was as good as a
hot dog (knowing that the hot dog always won, but noting how long it
took employees to make up their minds).

He also dreamed up strict rules for his company's product. Motown lyrics
had to be in the present tense. Motown singers were
not to frown or snap their fingers. Dance moves were meant to be
exciting, but booty-shaking was out of the question.

Then there were the discoveries, in stories that have taken on a
fairy-tale glow. "I'm William Robinson," said one of the label's
first performers and one of the most loyal to Mr. Gordy. "But they call
me Smokey." Among the teenage schoolgirls who
pursued the increasingly powerful mogul were the future Supremes, who
very nearly called themselves the Darleens, the
Jewelettes or the Sweet P's. When a staff member said, "B.G., you got to
come hear this little kid now," that was Little Stevie

This book's most memorable stories describe the way young Motown talent
was made to work at a fire-drill pace. In 1965,
when Columbia Records decided to release a 1961 song by the pre-Motown
Four Tops, the Motown team was told one
morning to come up with a bigger hit. They had a smash, "It's the Same
Old Song," written by noon, recorded by nighttime and
rushed into stores three days later.

How much of this is apocryphal? Mr. Posner claims to have spoken to two
dozen sources on condition of anonymity and
received the occasional plain brown envelope in the mail; this allows
him to omit footnotes and attribution. Some of his material
has a suspect theatrical ring, as when Ms. Singleton, who was also Mr.
Gordy's business associate and is the author of an
inevitable memoir, claims she was told, "I've gained all these riches,
but I will never have another woman who will love me for
just me and not because I'm Berry Gordy." Mr. Gordy refused to be
interviewed by Mr. Posner, but paraphrases of his
autobiography turn up frequently, sugar coating and all.

Happily, Mr. Posner, a former Wall Street lawyer, has a good ear for
tales, tall or otherwise. And he also assiduously digs into
the business practices that turned the Motown story sour. As the label's
stars had their increasingly large bills paid by the
company, never realizing that their incomes would be whittled
accordingly, they may have been hurt by kickbacks, off-the-books
bartering and payola; many of them have made such claims in court. Mr.
Posner's most cogent witness testified to an elaborate
scheme whereby full-price records were falsely described as discounted
ones, thus cutting royalties substantially. Unfortunately,
this witness died after testifying in court, and Mr. Posner has no one
else to back up these charges.

In the end Mr. Posner presents the best and the worst of this story with
suitable glitter. And his book heightens a welcome new
fascination with Motown's glory days.

John Chamberlin
Office of Policy, Economics, and Innovation
1200 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington DC 20460
phone#: 202 566 0061
fax#:      202 564 7303
Room#: 3521 F, Ariel Rios North
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