Legacies, ladies and symphonies
Three new Motown books are reviewed
We all know that it’s what’s in the grooves that count(s), but sometimes what’s on the page adds value, too. Besides, Christmas is coming, and when better to give – or receive – a new Motown book than during the “gifting” season?
A trio of titles are under consideration here, and each takes a different approach: Legacy by the Jacksons with Fred Bronson, Women of Motown by Susan Whitall, and I Hear A Symphony by Andrew Flory. What follows may help you to decide which to choose – or perhaps to acquire all three.
Firstly, let me declare an interest in The Jacksons: Legacy (320pp., Thames & Hudson in the U.K., Hachette in the U.S.). This coffee-table tome is a visual history of the Jacksons, drawing on their archive of photos from fifty years of making music and music history. The accompanying narrative is written by Fred Bronson, a close friend and professional colleague; previously, he and I collaborated on The Billboard Book of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits. We have both spent much of our lives associated with that trade magazine, while the Jacksons’ interest in showcasing their story was sparked by Thames & Hudson’s 2016 publication of Motown: The Sound of Young America, my book with Barney Ales.
The images in The Jacksons: Legacy are self-explanatory and evocative, ranging from grainy, black-and-white photos of the brothers’ youth to glistening, full-colour portraits – candid and posed – of their professional peaks in the 1970s and ’80s. My own favourites include shots of the siblings being introduced to the Queen Mother in London in 1972 (the expression on father Joe Jackson’s face is priceless) and, three years later, of them congregating in Jamaica with Bob Marley and his extended family, balancing on what appear to be huge, gnarled tree trunks, with nary a spliff in sight.
Bronson’s newly-conducted, extensive interviews with Jackie, Tito and Marlon are presented in bite-size chunks and in career chronology, providing insights into how each of them, together with Jermaine, Michael and Randy, grew up, boarded the Motown machine (and, later, the CBS behemoth) and transfixed the world. Fred has also called on others with Jackson connections, such as Gladys Knight, Tommy Chong, Deniece Williams and Clifton Davis. Chong, who was one of Bobby Taylor’s Vancouvers, recalls, “Joe [Jackson] and Bobby came to me to look at the contract, because I was the only white guy they knew. Joe handed me the contract and let me look at it. I said, ‘It’s just for seven years. You can’t go wrong in seven years.’ ” For her part, Deniece Williams remembers competing with the Jackson boys in talent shows. “There was no hope once they hit the stage,” she explains. “It was over.”
Susan Whitall’s Women of Motown: An Oral History (218pp., Devault-Graves Digital Editions) is exactly that, in a new edition of a book first published in 1998. Whitall, who frequently wrote about Motown while at the Detroit News, is an accomplished author; her biography of Little Willie John, Fever, is essential for anyone wishing to understand that important musician’s life and influence.
Each of the eleven chapters of Women of Motown is devoted to a solo star or group, from Claudette Robinson to Kim Weston, the Marvelettes to the Velvelettes, and more. The format offers each performer recalling her career and music (hence, the “oral” history), or remembering sisters-in-song who are no longer alive, such as Mary Wells and Tammi Terrell. Especially enjoyable is Mable John, illuminating her early days. Before meeting Berry Gordy, she knew his mother, Bertha Gordy, when the latter was selling insurance. “I wanted a job after school when I went into high school,” explains John. “My father never wanted me to work. But he agreed that Mrs. Gordy could take me into the office and train me.” Subsequently, Bertha introduced Mable to her son Berry, who went on to record the youngster at Motown. (Actually, John says that Gordy first signed her to United Artists Records, as he did with Marv Johnson, but nothing was released.)
Whitall does not entirely subordinate her own voice to those of her interviewees. “During Motown’s heyday,” she contends, “female artists were still ghetto-ized…but Gordy designed Motown as the sort of place that encouraged talent, no matter the gender. The boss was as ready for female songwriters such as Janie Bradford or Sylvia Moy to hand him hit tunes as anybody.” In this edition of Women of Motown, Bradford gains her own insightful chapter, originally written for the first version, but omitted. “I don’t know what I was expecting” she says about encountering Berry for the first time, “but Mr. Gordy was just a human man, flesh and blood. I was disappointed because there was no halo and no wings.”
Another star of Whitall’s book is Brenda Holloway, whose delightful memories include those of touring the U.S. with the Beatles in 1964. Ringo Starr came to her hotel room once, ostensibly to borrow a hairdryer. “And it was in the newspaper the next day,” Holloway notes. “Can you imagine me ever kissing a Beatle? Oh, no, I don’t think so. I’d probably go, ‘I can’t wash my lips ever.’ ”
Andrew Flory’s I Hear A Symphony: Motown and Crossover R&B (334pp., University of Michigan Press) is more serious than a Beatle’s kiss. Flory is an assistant professor of music at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and his is an academic approach: assessing the cultural roots of Motown, and how Berry Gordy and the Hitsville crew navigated a white-dominated music industry, reshaping racial attitudes en route. He prefers analysis over anecdotes, and does not regurgitate tired tales and shopworn themes. “Underpinning a handful of hits that are still well known fifty years later,” Flory writes, “Motown released more than a hundred mostly forgotten singles (and a few long-play albums) during the first years of the 1960s that revealed a company searching for an artistic center. One single portrayed naïve pop appropriate for teenagers, while the next offered suggestive adult-oriented R&B.”
OK, sometimes it’s a little too academic. Documenting the pop covers of Gordy’s output, Flory mentions such records as “rarely released in temporal proximity to Motown’s original versions.” I know what he means, but “in temporal proximity” would never have gotten past the weekly Quality Control committee at Hitsville.
Flory is fearless in deconstructing the records which earned the approval of that QC committee. About the Supremes’ hit which is the title of his book, he notes, “The harmonic progression of the song’s introduction, which reappears in the bridge, prepares the standard Supremes key of C major in a learned manner that evokes Western harmony, using a III chord and a surprising Picardy third resolution, and later in the song several ‘truck driver’ key changes move the key upward by a semitone through D♭ and D, resting finally on E♭.” Phew.
I Hear A Symphony also details the process by which the Motown studio logged its recordings, showing an example of the tape filing card for “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” Five mixes were evidently created from the completed multitrack tape, and the third of three which were collated onto a duplicate master reel was the mix used for the single release. It is to Flory’s credit that this depth of detail is engaging and readable – well, at least to those of us who care (look, you’re this far into a Motown blog, so I’m assuming a certain level of interest).
Flory makes interesting comparisons between the cultural and political perceptions of Motown and Southern rival Stax, while noting that the late Al Abrams worked as a publicist at both companies. And the author explores Motown’s international activities to a degree seldom seen elsewhere, complete with an appendix of foreign-language cover versions and those made in England. There’s even some detail about a British cover of the Four Tops’ “Baby I Need Your Loving” that yours truly abhorred at the time, by the Fourmost (I dubbed them the “Fourleast”).
So there you have it: three significant additions to Motown literature. I have one or two caveats. Legacy doesn’t contain as many rare early photographs as one might wish, but then the Jacksons have been chronicled so extensively in the past – albeit not with this calibre of reproduction – that perhaps it’s not surprising. Women of Motown might have been still more compelling with the inclusion (when Susan Whitall was conducting the original interviews in the ’90s) of, say, Billie Jean Brown or Esther Gordy Edwards. However, most book publishers would doubt the commercial appeal of such backroom believers, even today.
I Hear A Symphony is wide-ranging and thorough, but dense in places. The presence of some first-hand voices might have offset that, although obviously it is not the practice of academic offerings. Flory interviewed Hitsville engineer Mike McLean and talent manager Shelly Berger, for example. A few lively paraphrases from them might have acted as refreshment at certain moments, in the way that coffee – or alcohol – can.
Then again, there may be plenty of liquid support around December 25, when these books could sit, gift-wrapped, under the Christmas tree. Which reminds me to start compiling my Yule playlist (any excuse to hear Marvin Gaye’s “I Want To Come Home For Christmas” again), figure out whether to stream or buy the CD of Smokey Robinson’s Amazon Christmas album, and to open the shrink-wrap of the expanded edition of the Supremes’ Merry Christmas. Happy holidays!