Review of Motown: Money, Power, Sex, and Music
by Gerald Posner
Random House 2003 347 pp. 25.95
Copyright © Steven E. Alford
While the “Greatest Generation” has memories of wartime valor, Boomers have—in addition to Vietnam horrors—the sweet, sentimental memories of their music. And just as aged fans of Frank Sinatra have discovered the considerable canyon between his public persona and private person, Boomers are in line to learn the real stories behind the idols of their adolescence. Gerald Posner’s Motown: Money, Power, Sex, and Music will surely enlighten, entertain, and most assuredly, depress anyone who doubted that in show business, “business” reigns.
By anyone’s standards, the rise of Motown, Berry Gordy’s family-owned business, would be remarkable. All the more remarkable is that the family was black, the town was Detroit, and the business was white-dominated.
Berry Gordy, the great-grandson of a slave, was born in 1929, the seventh of eight children. While raised with strict discipline and instilled with the value of hard work, Gordy was no one’s idea of a promising young person. Lazy, unmotivated, drawn to the superficial in life, the only activity that attracted Gordy was boxing, until he discovered songwriting. Abandoning a job in a Detroit auto assembly plant, he decided to be a freelance songwriter. Quickly branching out into artist management and recording, Gordy enlisted the aid of his family in developing a record company to sell the songs of Jackie Wilson and, most important, Smokey Robinson.
While working out of his sister’s house, Berry sought a less cramped environment, and, in 1959 settled on a small two-story house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard. Gordy put a sign in the window that read “Hitsville, USA.” Begun with an $800 dollar loan from his family, sold in 1988 for over 60 million dollars, Motown Records was born.
Over the next twenty-five years, Motown’s success was by any standards phenomenal. While many would argue it was the talent of the songwriters—principally Smokey Robinson, Eddie and Brian Holland and Lamont Doizier—and the artists, from the Supremes to Stevie Wonder, Motown was, first and last, a business, one which owed its success to the acumen of Berry Gordy.
Musically illiterate, unable to play an instrument or read music, Gordy’s genius lay in creating an assembly line for music production—“create, make, sell”—modeled on his auto plant experience. His other expertise involved getting talented Detroit teenagers to sign contracts whose conditions invariably benefited Motown.
Unlike other black entrepreneurs, Gordy sought to sell black music to white people, engineering a sound destined to cross over. “I don’t like to call it black music,” he once said, “I call it music with black stars.”
While “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” may have been the watchwords of the Sixties, “litigation, drugs, and sex” best suits Motown. Posner chronicles the contractual arrangements that both protected artists from the business end of their careers, supplying them with cars, clothes and travel, while simultaneously billing them against their royalties. Motown’s practices, while not uncommon, spawned an uncommonly energetic and lengthy line of lawsuits as world famous artists, caught up in their fame, later learned that they kept little of the cash they generated for Motown. The list of drug casualties is inordinately and depressingly long, as is the list of Gordy’s wives, lovers, and children, both legitimate and illegitimate.
Perhaps the most depressing story in the book is the sad tale of Diana Ross (“Miss Ross to you”). Her crazed mid-life Divahood is shown to be simply that of a “spoiled brat” who acquired the financial and professional wherewithal to indulge her monumental vanity by acting disgracefully to everyone around her.
The central and important weakness of this book is that virtually no one of the principals would talk to Posner, and those who did would do so only anonymously. Hence, the book is the work of a superior writer bereft of any novel insights or information, other than those contained in court documents, many of which he was the first to review.
Motown suggests that the music world is first and last a business, and that musicians have a reliable habit of dying broke from drink and drugs. Boomers will enjoy this book, but those who stand to benefit most from internalizing its lessons are named Britney, Justin, and Christina.