Books

'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.


Motown: The Sound of Young America

Publisher: Thames & Hudson
Length: 400 pages
Author: Adam White with Barney Ales
Price: $60.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-09
Amazon

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.

5
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

Political Cartoonist Art Young Was an Aficionado of all Things Infernal

Fantagraphics' new edition of Inferno takes Art Young's original Depression-era critique to the Trump Whitehouse -- and then drags it all to Hell.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

OK Go's Emotional New Ballad, "All Together Now", Inspired by Singer's Bout with COVID-19

Damian Kulash, lead singer for OK Go discusses his recent bout with COVID-19, how it impacted his family, and the band's latest pop delight, "All Together Now", as part of our Love in the Time of Coronavirus series.

Books

The Rules Don't Apply to These Nonconformist Novelists

Ian Haydn Smith's succinct biographies in Cult Writers: 50 Nonconformist Novelists You Need to Know entice even seasoned bibliophiles.

Music

Siren Songs' Merideth Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels Debut As a Folk Duo (album stream + interview)

Best friends and longtime musical collaborators Merideth Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels team up as Siren Songs for the uplifting folk of their eponymous LP.

Music

Buzzcocks' 1993 Comeback 'Trade Test Transmissions' Showed Punk's Great Survivors' Consistency

PopMatters' appraisal of Buzzcocks continues with the band's proper comeback LP, Trade Test Transmissions, now reissued on Cherry Red Records' new box-set, Sell You Everything.

Music

Archie Shepp, Raw Poetic, and Damu the Fudgemunk Enlighten and Enliven with 'Ocean Bridges'

Ocean Bridges is proof that genre crossovers can sound organic, and that the term "crossover" doesn't have to come loaded with gimmicky connotations. Maybe we're headed for a world in which genres are so fluid that the term is dropped altogether from the cultural lexicon.

Books

Claude McKay's 'Romance in Marseille' Is Ahead of Its Time

Claude McKay's Romance in Marseille -- only recently published -- pushes boundaries on sexuality, disability, identity -- all in gorgeous poetic prose.

Music

Christine Ott Brings the Ondes Martenot to New Heights with the Mesmerizing 'Chimères'

France's Christine Ott, known for her work as an orchestral musician and film composer, has created a unique new solo album, Chimères, that spotlights an obscure instrument.

Music

Man Alive! Is a Continued Display of the Grimy-Yet-Refined Magnetism of King Krule

Following The OOZ and its accolades, King Krule crafts a similarly hazy gem with Man Alive! that digs into his distinct aesthetic rather than forges new ground.

Books

The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.

Music

ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.

Film

Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.