“When I met him, he didn’t have money, but he had direction. . . . And he had the balls to go after what he wanted . . . Berry Gordy was street.”
Smokey Robinson knows what he’s talking about. He was put through considerable struggle and humiliation, after all, for having the gall to try to make Berry Gordy a rich man. In the end, of course, they made each other rich men, but in the beginning you’d think that Smokey was trying to sell to Berry something he didn’t need or want, this small-time record peddler, not knowing where his first hit was coming from, a man who had experimented, on the streets of Detroit, with record-retailing, auto-manufacturing, songwriting, talent-scouting, even (ludicrously) singing. He was a wife-beater and a gambler and, indeed, the consummate small-time hustler: for a time, he was a pimp who rode the bus to work.
Before long, he made a lot of money from a song about money that we all know by now. He told an interviewer at the time of that song’s pop-chart ascendance that it was the one he was most proud of, because “there is, after all, no more complete and meaningful message than that.” Throughout the opening pages of Gerald Posner’s Motown, one thing is made repeatedly and perfectly clear: Success did not make Berry Gordy an asshole; being an asshole made Berry Gordy a success.
You may think that the last thing this world needs is another book on Motown, and you’d probably be right about that. But here’s another one anyway—not definitive by any stretch, but somehow satisfying nonetheless. Call it a blacktop to smooth over what we already know, what dozens of histories would have us know and what far too many dishonest autobiographies would have us believe. Our author this time is Gerald Posner, who has written books on Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray. If there’s one salient way in which this book differs from his others, it’s that this one contains more death and trauma.
On the book’s back flap, there’s a picture of Posner, pin-striped and smirking, holding a jewel CD case and wearing around his neck a pair of over-sized headphones, looking only slightly less ridiculous than Michael Dukakis in an Army helmet. Not until page 296 do we learn that our author is just as tone-deaf about music as he is about prose, when he calls Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear “one of his weakest artistic efforts.” The musical views of Mr. Posner will not be further discussed in this essay.
To his credit, Posner claims to be nothing more than a historian anyway, so let’s take this one back to Detroit, Michigan, to Hitsville, U.S.A., 1962, before Berry Gordy sold out the first time, by moving his factory out of town to Los Angeles. He brought a lot of people with him out of the ghetto in those days, and in the Motown system they thrived—not just the visible talent, of course, but all of it: everyone from production geniuses, like Holland-Dozier-Holland and Norman Whitfield, to instrumental geniuses, like bassist James Jamerson and the in-house studio band the Funk Brothers (recently lionized in the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown). The genius and importance of James Jamerson, particularly, is not to be understated, for he is the one who concocted that uniform bassline which made Motown tracks so friendly to the ear, even to the ear that was engaged by the transistor radio, which was, at just that moment in history, becoming insanely popular, particularly among that demographic which bought pop records. The tempo was “light, with a steady, even beat and a continuous-loop melody.”
Gordy wasn’t just running a record company; he was running a factory, just like the one he used to work for. Everything had its function in the process of assembly: they had a finishing school and a dance instructor and even, for the songs themselves, a quality-control board, which was actually called Quality Control. Musicians were seldom allowed to write their own songs, and everybody, it seems, did some kind of work, instrumental or vocal, on everyone else’s records. Creatively, though, writers wrote and producers produced, and that was pretty much that. It was one big family, the way Berry Gordy looked at it, but as everyone became entangled financially and romantically and artistically, this Family assumed the aspect of a decidedly incestuous one.
The eternal irony of Motown in the ‘60s, of course, is how such a homogenized sound thrived among the youth in those mad times. Gordy once bragged: “In all the camps there seemed to be one constant—Motown music. They were all listening to it. Black and white. Militant and nonviolent. Anti-war demonstrators and the pro-war establishment.” He’s right, of course, but Posner gets the best word in edgewise by noting the rather despicable irony at work here: “While blacks were being sent in disproportionate numbers to fight in Vietnam, Motown artists played to packed halls of mostly white college kids who had somehow gotten draft deferments.”
While Gordy was busy congratulating himself on Motown’s broad appeal, he almost missed his chance to further that appeal. If it wasn’t for the increasingly independent and eccentric edginess of Marvin Gaye and the Temptations (with Whitfield producing) and Stevie Wonder, then Motown may have missed the counterculture train altogether (as it later missed the disco and the MTV trains), and then Gordy may have never have even had the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and sell out so many people, before relinquishing his company to the highest bidder.
He discovered the Jackson Five and allowed for their early stardom, but they put so much money in Gordy’s pockets that they were at least even at the end of every day. That’s not how Gordy liked to look at things, though. Just as he did with all his artists, he insisted on reminding them that he had made them, and so was entitled to a criminally large percentage of their earnings, all the while charging them for their own exorbitant travel and recording expenses, along with other incidentals: things that competing record companies were not so stingy and sly about. Berry Gordy was a thief, and the record will always show that he was a thief. He got exactly what he asked for when every major Motown producer and artist—with the exceptions of Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, and Smokey Robinson—abandoned him. CBS Records made Berry Gordy look fifteen kinds of backwards when they offered the Jackson Five 27 percent of their own royalties. Motown’s proposed rate? 2.7 percent.
It was around this time when the bodies began to drop—so many bodies, and in such quick succession, that it doesn’t do any good to say who came first. The Motown casualties are numerous enough to comprise an entire roster of tragedy: Al Bryant of the Temptations (cirrhosis), James Jamerson (cirrhosis and heart failure), Paul Williams of the Temptations (self-inflicted gunshot), Georgeanna Dobbins Tillman of the Marvelettes (sickle-cell anemia), Hubert Johnson of the Contours (suicide), David Ruffin of the Temptations (drug overdose), Mary Wells (throat cancer), Marvin Gaye (his father’s gun), Florence Ballard of the Supremes (heart failure and heartbreak). Many of them were abandoned or otherwise treated poorly by the man who claimed to have made them what they were. Unfortunately and pejoratively, he was probably right.
Motown was able to just barely remain relevant into the ‘80s, by signing Lionel Richie and Rick James. But when it celebrated its own 25th anniversary on national television, in family-reunion fashion, many were left to wonder not so much how Berry Gordy had managed to breed so large and prominent a family, but rather why that family had strayed so far from its paternal figure. A freshly liberated Michael Jackson took the stage with his new, sequined look and his hot new song, “Billie Jean,” which would go on to make more money for CBS Records than Berry Gordy had probably ever seen in his whole miserable, selfish life, and then he showed off his new move, his Moonwalk, to outrageous cheers, so smooth and controlled and methodical, as if to literally rub his own greatness into the face of the man who refused to acknowledge his worth. Diana Ross must have felt embarrassed for her former lover and eternal boss when she got up in front of the audience and announced, “It’s not about the people who leave Motown, but it’s about the people who come back, and tonight everybody came back.” Gordy, we’re told here, thought to himself, “No, Diana, that doesn’t cut it, that doesn’t make it OK.” He felt bad, all right, as well he should have. But after reading this sad and horrifying book, we can’t possibly believe that it was his conscience which was actually hurting Berry Gordy.
"The language and dialogue in his latest novel, The Whites, gives away his identity -- and that's a good thing.READ the article