The beat goes on
In the late 1950s, an ambitious, enterprising young Detroit songwriter named Berry Gordy Jr. got his feet wet in the music business. He went on to start Motown Records, a history-making organization that cranked out hit after hit in the mid-1960s and launched the careers of a who's who of R&andB, soul and pop vocalists. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Mary Wells and Jackie Wilson were the label's earliest big successes, but following rapidly on their heels were Martha and the Vandellas, the Temptations, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and later the Jackson 5, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and the Commodores. These artists sold millions of catchy, slickly produced records, successfully bridging the gap between black-made music and the massive white record-buying audience. Four decades later, in Motown: Money, Power, Sex, and Music, author Gerald Posner takes on the daunting task of telling the Motown story. Posner admits that many people affiliated with the company would not grant him interviews. Consequently, he relies heavily on biographies, autobiographies (including those of Gordy and singer Diana Ross) and other published accounts to craft a readable if, at times, somewhat overly glib chronicle of events. The Motown story is mostly Gordy's, and Posner focuses in detail on the head honcho's predilection for authoritarian and paternalistic control, his many marriages and affairs, his eight children with a variety of partners, his exorbitant lifestyle and his attempts to shepherd Motown's growth in the ever-changing music market. Despite Posner's effort to humanize his subject, Gordy comes across as an egomaniac devoid of moral compass or business ethics a black man who exploited black artists. Lawsuits about royalties, rights and ownership remain pending even today. Eventually, after the company moved its headquarters to Los Angeles and sales of new material continued to spiral downward, Motown was sold to outside interests in 1988. With Gordy at the helm, it was said that Motown was like a family, albeit a dysfunctional one, where talent got gypped and bosses scooped up the gravy. Along the way, many individuals connected with the company tanked their careers, fell into a life of drugs, or headed for an early grave. But make no mistake the music was, and remains, great. Posner offers a fascinating look at this slice of pop culture history. Martin Brady is a writer in Nashville.