Motown: Music, Money, Sex and Power

A colleague at 1039FM loaned me this book by Gerald Posner.  It’s a few years old now, a tremendously entertaining read and it busts open the doors to one of music’s most celebrated labels and hit-making houses. 

In the 1960’s, Motown Records of Detroit was pumping out hits that knocked The Beatles off the top of the charts.  Founder Berry Gordy was clearly a maniacal egomaniac whose original goal in life was to not have to work a day of it.  It turned out that he had a knack for writing catchy songs and a love for money, so when he realized he’d make more dough by creating his own start-to-finish record house, that’s what he did.  He employed family members and kept a few trusted artist friends close at hand (Smokey Robinson) but what Gordy said, went.  With her reedy, nasal voice and almost unbelievable diva-like qualities, Gordy forced Diana Ross on an unsuspecting public despite the fact that everyone agreed Supreme Flo Ballard was infinitely more talented and should have been out front.  Trouble is, Gordy wasn’t sleeping with Ballard and he was with Ross.

Motown had a fascinating way of keeping its books.  When an artist recorded a song, the studio time and fees for the musicians and producer were all charged to that artist’s account.  By the time the record hit the stores the account was already thousands in the red.  Then when the artist went on tour, lodging, food, etc was also charged to them.  They could actually lose money on a hit record.

Motown totally missed the disco craze and lost its focus when Gordy started chasing skirts in Los Angeles, leaving head office in Detroit to flounder. If not for Lionel Richie’s success in the 1980’s the label might have folded altogether.  It stayed valuable enough to be absorbed by another company, making millions for Gordy out of a venture started with $800 bucks and vision. The book is part soap opera, part tabloid (but with named sources and quotes from legit insiders) and all fascinating including testimony about payola, threats and more sex than a year of Saturday nights at the Playboy mansion.  Considering the many lawsuits and bad feelings from artists over the years, it’s amazing that so many of the artists – Michael Jackson included – came back to celebrate Motown’s 25th anniversary on that still-legendary TV special.  Now at 50, Motown is showing its age and after reading this book you might feel, as I do, suspicious about the legitimacy of many of its hits – especially the ones I don’t particularly like!