West Grand Blog

For $10,000, a book disappears

AS HIS OWN ‘STORY’ IS REISSUED, PETER BENJAMINSON REFLECTS

  

“Not so long ago, Florence Ballard Chapman was an expectant young mother. She lived in a substantial house on Buena Vista and she thought she had enough money to last the rest of her life. Now, she says, she’s broke. Her old house, which she says was taken from her by foreclosure, is boarded up. She and her husband are separated. She receives payments as aid to dependent children. And she wants no more children than the three daughters she has now because she’s afraid she couldn’t provide for them.”

       This excerpt from a Detroit Free Press report in 1975 about Flo Ballard’s post-Motown life was the work of Peter Benjaminson, one of the newspaper’s senior journalists. Interviewing the ex-Supreme and learning of her darkest days, he told me recently, was “the first indication that there were at least two sides to the Motown story.” Ultimately, this led Benjaminson to write what became the first significant account of the company’s birth and evolution, its people and their progress: The Story Of Motown.

       Originally published in 1979, the work has just been reissued by Rare Bird Books, complete with a fresh foreword by Greil (Mystery Train) Marcus. Since his Detroit years, Benjaminson has written three other Motown-related books, about Ballard, Mary Wells and Rick James. The first of this trio even led to a bizarre incident with a fraudster who persuaded him that she wanted to make a movie based on the singer’s life. Benjaminson subsequently recounted that tale for Rolling Stone in 2014.

Benjaminson+1.jpg

       Forty years ago, The Story Of Motown was welcomed by Hitsville followers worldwide. It was apparent that the author understood the arc and the achievements of the company, as well as the cultural context in which it operated. It was obvious, too, that he had numerous sources, including the firm’s former PR man, Al Abrams – although not its founder (more on that in a moment).

       So much has been written about Motown since the book first appeared that it’s easy to forget that much less was known in the 1970s, especially about the backroom believers. (Nelson George’s Where Did Our Love Go? didn’t arrive until 1986, and Berry Gordy’s autobiography wasn’t published until 1994.) “Although the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News wrote occasionally about Motown,” says Benjaminson today, “neither paper covered pop music or Motown extensively. In fact, except for Billboard, no one did. Even Rolling Stone didn’t pay that much attention to Motown.”

       Then again, that suited at least one senior executive at the company: vice chairman Michael Roshkind. During his original research, Benjaminson met Abrams and learned that he had written a book about Motown after he was fired by Roshkind in 1966. “But,” Benjaminson explained, “when Roshkind found out about it, he told Abrams that he didn’t want publicity about Motown that he couldn’t control.” The executive then offered to buy Abrams’ manuscript.

       To Benjaminson, the former Motown publicist described the exchange of money and manuscript between him and Roshkind, “which was a scene straight out of a spy movie. Abrams was nervous about it, and insisted on meeting Roshkind in a public place. I remember [he] said it was either an airport or bus station. They did one of those semi-concealed handovers where both sat looking straight ahead, each reading a newspaper, with a seat between them, while pretending to neither know or notice each other.”

       During the course of a few minutes, the deal was done. Abrams placed his manuscript on the seat while both men carried on reading, and a short while later, Roshkind picked it up. Then, he put down an envelope containing $10,000 in cash. “After a few minutes more of newspaper reading,” continued Benjaminson, “Abrams picked it up and left.” More than 30 years later, Abrams did have a book published, Hype & Soul! – Behind The Scenes At Motown, although its resemblance to the $10,000 manuscript may never be known. He died in 2015, as did Roshkind.

MANY A FORMER MOTOWN EXECUTIVE…     

       For his book, Benjaminson spent months talking to former Motown artists and employees. Not all were willing to be identified at the time, and “a former Motown executive” appears frequently as an attribution. The author recalled for me that he visited Roshkind twice in Los Angeles to obtain an interview with him, with Gordy “or anyone else then working at or for Motown. He refused and, apparently thinking I was Abrams the Second, he offered me a job – title and salary unspecified – if I gave up the idea of writing the book. I politely refused, so at least through Roshkind, I was never able to talk to anyone then involved with the company.”

       Those who were prepared to talk to Benjaminson included Earl Van Dyke, Lamont Dozier, Robert Bateman, Maurice King, Sylvia Moy, Frank Wilson, Janie Bradford, Joe Porter, Kim Weston, Beans Bowles and, of course, Florence Ballard. Among the executives interviewed were Phil Jones in sales and marketing; Ralph Seltzer in legal and administration; and John Widdicombe, who was involved with Motown’s country music label. Also, says Benjaminson, “a few others who asked not to be mentioned and who may still be alive.”

       Benjaminson spoke to onetime Vandella Betty Kelley while she was working at a small drugstore in Los Angeles, and conducted part of his interview with Brenda Holloway while she was unloading groceries from her car. A scheduled session with Maxine Powell in Detroit came to a premature end. “On the way to her house, I called to ask for directions and she told me she’d only allow me to interview her if I paid her.” He declined as a matter of policy.

Peter Benjaminson, 1979

Peter Benjaminson, 1979

       Benjaminson possesses a sharp ear for minutiae, both amusing and revealing. He notes, for instance, that as Berry Gordy became more successful, he travelled under assumed names, sometimes in disguise; that the Motown founder once owned three llamas at one of his Los Angeles properties (an extravagance which presumably influenced Michael Jackson); and that, in the early 1960s, Gordy seemed entirely unaware of the massacre of European Jews during World War II, asking Al Abrams. “Is this really true? This guy Hitler, did he really kill six million of you?”

       The Story Of Motown mostly avoids the familiar chronology of artists’ careers – so much the better for the republished edition – but arguably underplays the transformation of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye in the ’70s. The degree to which those titans took over the direction of their music and careers was not only an extraordinary accomplishment, but also sustained Motown Records’ balance sheet and cultural influence. In fact, Benjaminson seemed to acknowledge as much in an article about Stevie (“Motown’s star – despite Motown”) which he authored for the Free Press after his book’s publication.

       Curiously, there’s no mention in The Story Of Motown of Billy Davis (aka Tyran Carlo), Gordy’s pre-Motown songwriting partner. Their work together for Jackie Wilson gave Gordy creative credentials, chart kudos and music industry experience which helped to shape Hitsville. In fact, during the week in 1959 when he sought to borrow money from his family to launch Tamla Records, Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops” – credited to Davis, Gordy and the latter’s sister, Gwen – was high on the Billboard charts. A loan encouragement, surely.

A FRANK AND OPEN ACCOUNT

       “I plead guilty to knowing nothing about Billy Davis/Tyran Carlo until years after The Story Of Motown came out,” says Benjaminson. “My only excuse is that no one ever mentioned him during my year or so of interviewing. I’m impressed, I must say, that Gordy wrote so openly about being close friends with an apparently gay man. I’m also impressed that Gordy wrote frankly about his episode of sexual failure with Diana Ross in his autobiography, and then included a scene dramatising that failure in Motown The Musical. Most males who’ve experienced such a failure, including me, wouldn’t write about it in their autobiographies or include a scene about it in a musical they wrote.”

       The music of Motown is Berry Gordy’s primary legacy. Benjaminson confesses disappointment that he wouldn’t talk to him at any point over the past 40-plus years. “That,” he concludes, “may be Roshkind’s legacy: that I’ve written more books about Motown than anyone on earth, all of them full of interesting and accurate information, in my humble opinion, without ever being able to interview Gordy.”

Miscellaneous notes: 2019 promises to be a busy year for Motown beyond the 60th anniversary on January 12. West Grand Blog will try to keep up. Stay tuned. There may even be more about Mike Roshkind.

Adam White3 Comments