‘Motown: The Sound of Young America’ Over-promises and Under-delivers

A Motown book that largely recounts the career of its head salesperson can’t really be seen as a definitive history of an enterprise that changed music, culture and commerce in America.

Why the world needs yet another book about Motown isn’t immediately clear.

You’d think by now, after all the bios and autobiographies of label founder Berry Gordy and all the major artists, dashed-off tell-alls, scholarly dives, cultural analyses, documentaries, retrospectives and lavish music reissues, there would be no nook or cranny left unexplored. Its significance beyond being a massively successful record label has long been accepted wisdom. We know the hits by heart. What else is left to say?

Apparently, Motown thinks there’s still a lot to say, and they’ve sent along a 400-page coffee-table book as evidence. But Motown: The Sound of Young America is simultaneously more than it needed to be and less than what it could have been.

Coffee-table books typically are heavier on visuals than text, and there’s a good bit of that here. Photographs from the Motown archives hint at the style Motown’s performers carried during the ‘60s: the Supremes meeting Queen Elizabeth, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles fooling around during a photo shoot, and many more. How these performers looked and handled themselves was a critical part of Gordy’s vision of mainstream success. But most accounts of that begin and end with clips of Motown artists performing on The Ed Sullivan Show and elsewhere on TV. Seeing these young black men and women — most of whom weren’t all that far removed from Detroit’s ‘hood — cast as style icons brings a new dimension to our knowledge of how Motown happened.

It would have been nice had Motown included a lot more such photos, but instead it gives us page after page of single labels and album covers. That’s interesting trivia for R&B historians and folks who might still have some of that vinyl in their attics, but a little of that goes a long way. Too much of it starts to feel like reading a discography. People don’t consume coffee-table books for information as much as flip through them and go “oooh!” and “aaah!” at all the amazing pictures. There aren’t nearly as many such moments here as the book’s heft and production values would suggest.

Actually, it’s the reading aspect that’s most curious. Of all the Motown tomes, this is one of the few to focus on the business side of the operation. That’s not surprising: although Adam White is the credited author, Barney Ales receives co-billing. Ales led Motown’s promotion, sales and distribution efforts, getting the records onto radio playlists and into record shops. The text is very much Ales’ story, with Motown’s artistic and cultural impact receiving a relatively cursory treatment.

The news here is that although Motown was a black-owned operation selling black music to the masses, the folks in the offices were all white. White explains how that was a function of both the times and Gordy’s business sense. There weren’t a lot of black folks doing industry sales and promotion back then, Gordy knew Ales from his pre-Motown years as an aspiring songwriter and entrepreneur, and Gordy knew he needed well-connected people to get his product to market. Ales was indeed well-connected, and assembled a team that knew the ins and outs of breaking hit records in all the key cities. However, White notes, it wasn’t until the late ‘60s that Motown integrated its business team.

Ales did have one major impact on Motown’s musical output: he convinced Gordy to dabble in rock. Another member of the Motown sales team knew about a white band making some waves in the Detroit area, and Ales brought them into the fold. That band was Rare Earth, and they ended up having a few hits in the early ‘70s. Too bad that no one else on Rare Earth Records, which was basically Ales’ baby, had much success (unless you count R. Dean Taylor’s schmaltzy hit “Indiana Wants Me” — yes, for those of you who might remember the song, it was released by the world’s biggest black-owned label ever).

Ales’ story as presented here is critical to understanding how Motown became successful — the grind and magic didn’t come from just the musicians and producers. But a Motown book that largely recounts the career of its head salesperson can’t really be seen as a definitive history of an enterprise that changed music, culture and commerce in America over the course of a decade. That’s like trying to tell the story of a major publication by foregrounding its printers.

It might have been more impactful for Ales’ account to stand alone as yet another piece of the Motown canon. That certainly would have made room for even more cool photos, which might have made the $60 cover price a little more justifiable. As it stands, Motown would love to impress upon us not only the significance of its subject, but its own monolithic grandeur, as well.

RATING 5 / 10
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