It's a little surprising to find Nelson George's "Where Did Our Love Go?," a keen account of Motown's first decade, beginning in the cotton fields of Oconee County, Ga., after the Civil War. Isn't the Motown story really about Detroit and the '60s, the Supremes and "Baby Love," the Four Tops and "I Can't Help Myself," the Temptations and "My Girl," and all those other soul classics?
Of course, those songs are what attracted George, Billboard's black-music editor, to the Motown story in the first place. But George is a sharp enough journalist to know that the story of a record company is more than the sum of its artists' biographies and hits. In Motown's case, it's largely the story of Berry Gordy Jr., the company's founder, owner and president.
Neither Gordy nor Motown spoke to George, so, like a detective, George pieced together newspaper and magazine accounts, legal records and dozens of interviews in order to pierce something that verges on a mystery. How exactly did this one-time professional boxer build his very successful business and create perhaps the most vibrant and enduring body of popular music of the '60s?
It's back in the cotton fields of Georgia, where George discovers what Gordy brought with him when he started Motown at Smokey Robinson's suggestion in 1959. It wasn't money. It was a set of tough entrepreneurial values handed down from his grandfather, Berry Gordy I. By the time of his death, Gordy I owned two large farms, a house, a general store and a blacksmith shop, all accumulated in a hostile culture where it was considered natural for him to own nothing.
It is this early bit of Gordy family history that makes the heart of this book -- the analysis of Motown's business and creative machinery -- tick. It may be surprising to learn that most of Motown's key executive positions were held by white men. It's not if you understand that Berry Gordy was after success, and that in an industry dominated by white men, it was critical to have some on your side.
George's Motown story doesn't ignore the stars Gordy nurtured. The deft capsule bios he weaves through the book reveal a critic's insight and a storyteller's flair. There are all kinds of wonderful tales, some comic (Smokey Robinson caught smooching in the hall by his wife), some risque' (Stevie Wonder's sexual initiation) and some revealing (a backstage incident in which Gordy slaps a reluctant Marvin Gaye into performing).
What makes "Where Did Our Love Go?" an exceptional music book is that it demystifies Gordy's hit-making assembly line, revealing a unique system of exploitation, competition and quality control. Besides paying extremely low salaries and royalty rates, Gordy devised clever ways of keeping Motown's profits in his pockets. Along with the record company, he established publishing and management companies and invariably signed an artist to all three. Any money an artist earned in one company was written off against expenses incurred in another.
In addition to attracting an incredible wealth of talent, Gordy actively pitted his songwriters and producers against each other in relentless pursuit of the next hit. It was Gordy's pressure that kept the creative juices flowing at flood levels every day at Motown headquarters, an inauspicious brownstone appropriately called "Hitsville, U.S.A."
George also takes you into the Motown studio, where you meet the Funk Brothers, that colorful group of veteran studio musicians who toiled anonymously and brilliantly on all of Motown's output. From the studio came numerous alternative versions of the same song, each played upstairs for Gordy on a low-budget speaker designed to replicate the sound of a teen-ager's transistor or car radio. The record charts show that Gordy's ears were nearly faultless.
In some ways, George's book is almost a case study in the wondrous way capitalism and creativity can intersect in America. Well, at least the musical results were wondrous. George never backs off from the personal tragedies (including the sad decline of the Supremes' Flo Ballard and the suicide of the Temptations' Paul Williams) or the bitterness (which abounded) that Berry also helped create. To his credit, George communicates what Gordy's greed and ambition cost as well as what they earned.