Book review: Motown: The Sound of Young America by Adam White with Barney Ales

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The worst possible way to read this book would be library-style… in total silence.

After all, isn’t Motown synonymous with dancing, or at the very least tapping your foot while singing along to hit after hit?

The much-loved world famous record machine has provided a soundtrack to so many people’s lives although everyone will have their favourite period of course.

For some it will be the era of those mid-60s love songs, crafted by the powerhouse trio of Holland/Dozier/Holland whose conveyor belt output helped define the Motown sound until they quit over arguments about profit sharing and royalties to set up their own stable of labels.

For others it is the harder edged and more intense socio-political commentary which emerged at the end of that decade when producer and writer Norman Whitfield tapped into the emerging ‘psychedelic soul’ which saw the likes of The Temptations start singing lyrics with a conscience rather than just about romance.

No matter where your true Tamla leanings lie, with page after colourful page of 45rpm record label close-ups and LP covers, there is no shortage of inspiration for the sounds you could pick out of any collection as you savour the inside track of Berry Gordy’s empire founded in Detroit in 1959.

While Motown certainly had a hold on UK record buyers, the book reveals that the company produced more US number one hits than the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys combined.

This luxuriously packaged 400-page hardback has been launched to coincide with the opening of Motown: The Musical in London’s West End and weighs many times more than the programmes likely to be found tucked under the arms of audiences as they leave the theatre at the end of the show.

There is just too much treasure here to take in at one sitting.

The result of hours of dedicated research by one-time Billboard magazine editor-in-chief Adam White, a self-confessed Motown obsessive, working closely with Gordy’s right hand man Barney Ales, this book is best enjoyed in stages.

Dip in – time and time again – to delve into a visually rich archive of photographs, including previously unpublished pictures of so many of the key players.

Some focus on full-on stage glamour, others capture unguarded moments from a host of stars from Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye to the Jackson Five and Gladys Knight and the Pips.

By drawing on many years of interviews, there are candid insights into the workings of the Motown machine, following its meteoric rise from the small family business at Hitsville USA to become a worldwide music monster.

Like Motown itself, the book does not shy away from tackling US social history, including the impact of the 1967 race riots.

Highlighted in an early chapter, entitled We Don’t Serve Coloured People, are the harsh realities of segregation, not least to the company’s early roster of talent as they endeavoured to take their distinctive studio sound out on to the road and were met with much prejudice.

The African-American civil rights movement was championed by the label and although its release contrasts with the later mainstream success of all those future hits, back in 1963 the company issued an album of the Rev Martin Luther King’s address to the Freedom Rally held in Detroit on June 23. The activist’s defining ‘I have a dream’ speech, delivered two months later in Washington, was featured on what was regarded by Gordy as a worthy LP follow up.

In contrast, in 1974, one of Motown’s most successful acts, Stevie Wonder, would ensure that an album featuring the cream of his previous material would NOT be released. The book reveals that the performer, who had earlier negotiated a new contract giving him remarkable creative independence, was so keen to protect sales of his current material that he objected to the issuing of a three LP compilation of his work when Motown launched its acclaimed Anthology series.

While similar sets featuring many of his label mates reached the record racks, his remained on the shelf. But not forever. Three years later it was given a different title, while retaining the original artwork, and finally shipped as Looking Back!

The book is an absolute mine of information and should appeal equally to diehard Motown fans and the more casual music lover keen to discover the back story of this pioneering record label.

(Thames & Hudson, hardback, £39.95)