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Motown: The Sound of Young America - Adam White

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The latest title to arrive at the bookstore is Adam White's heavily applauded book Motown: The Sound of Young America, putting a refreshingly different spin on the Motown yarn. Adam explains all exclusively for A Nickel And A Nail here...

"Another Motown book? It’s a fair question, because there have been more than fifty to date, ranging from autobiographies to historical accounts, from biographies to encyclopaedias.

Yet the goal of this one was to add to the sum of knowledge of this most celebrated music company, while also presenting the visual power of Hitsville U.S.A. in a manner which hasn’t previously been done.  For the narrative, I was able to draw upon the unique perspectives of Barney Ales, who was Berry Gordy’s right-hand man for many years in Detroit and Los Angeles.  Indeed, Barney became president of Motown Records in the 1970s, the third man to hold that post, after Gordy himself and Ewart Abner.

For the visual history, the book – authorised by Universal Music, which owns Motown’s recorded music catalogue – offers approximately 1,000 photographs and images, in black and white and colour, from various sources.  These include Barney’s personal collection, the archives of Universal Music and EMI Records (Motown’s international distributor), and private collectors.  There are also iconic shots of Motown artists taken by in-house and showbiz photographers of the time, such as those capturing the Supremes backstage at the Apollo Theater, Marvin Gaye at the Royal Albert Hall, Stevie Wonder in the recording studio, and the Jackson 5 surfside in California.

Many of the images in Motown: The Sound Of Young America are published for the first time, or have been unseen for many years.  In the former category are backstage shots at London’s Finsbury Park Astoria during the opening of 1965’s Tamla Motown tour of the U.K.  Here, for example, you’ll see Diana Ross and Martha Reeves relaxing and reading (Diana with cigarette in hand) on the floor of the Astoria lobby, before showtime.  And among my personal favourites are candid pictures from a 1962 promotional trip by the Miracles, Berry and Barney to Sacramento, California, including one with Smokey and Berry perched on a diving board above the motel where they were billeted.

The text focuses on the business of Motown and, in particular, on the “backroom believers” – the determined team of individuals, black and white, who got the records played and got the company paid.  This was Barney’s domain, and his stories are fresh.  When Berry’s second wife bootlegged copies of “My Guy,” she unknowingly and foolishly stepped on the toes of Motown’s New York distributor, Morris Levy – a man renowned and feared for his Mafia connections.  Ales and Levy were friends, as was Barney with associates of Jules Podell, the man who ran the Copacabana in New York.  How else do you think the Supremes got booked into this most famous of America’s nightclubs?

Stewart Levine, a principal of the Motown-distributed Chisa label, told me, “I had heard these rumours that it was tough guys that ran Motown.  I had grown up around a lot of club owners and…tough guys.  They were always cool, they always dug musicians.  Barney was intelligent, funny, gregarious.  If he was a gangster, he’s the same gangster that I like, man.”   

This take on Motown is the result of my enduring friendship with Ales, a charismatic Italian-American native of Detroit, who I first met decades ago after a London concert by Gladys Knight & the Pips, Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers, and Chris Clark.  It helped that I had gained an understanding of the American music industry from years of working in the U.S. for Billboard, the “bible” of that business.  Barney’s connections meant that I was able to conduct new interviews for the book with the likes of Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson, Mickey Stevenson and Eddie Holland – all key players in Motown’s history – to complement Barney’s tales.  Moreover, I was able to call upon my lifetime of interviews with people connected to Motown, such as Stevie Wonder’s influential lawyer, the late Johanan Vigoda, who engineered the superstar’s landmark (and rich) re-signing with the company in 1976.

Like many of you, I started as a follower of the music.  Then I was lucky enough to persuade the owner of the record shop in Bristol where I worked to start a nationwide mail-order service for Motown U.K. fans.  This led me deeper into the music industry on both sides of the Atlantic, where I came into contact with many of the artists, musicians and businessmen and women of Motown.  Some of you may even recall The Billboard Book Of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits, an earlier book of mine.

Barney Ales was not an easy man to work for, although he was wonderful to interview, thanks to an impressive memory and the delight he took from telling his side of the story, at last.  But as a boss?  Joe Summers, one of two executives who ran Motown’s rock label, Rare Earth, dealt with trade publications such as Billboard, whose charts were a vital showcase for Motown’s hit-making prowess.  “I used to go [to New York] almost every Monday,” Joe recalled, “and come back [to Detroit] on Wednesday with the advance charts.  If they were good, I’d stay in the office.  If they were bad, I’d go to Carl’s Chop House.  Barney called me there once, when Rare Earth was nearly at the top:  ‘You celebrating your number two record?’  He could beat you up pretty good.”

Fortunately, Motown celebrated hundreds of Number One records, at home and abroad, during its heyday, and some of its original artists are still performing, popular and inspiring, forever aglow with the aura of Hitsville U.S.A.  And so Barney and I hope that Motown: The Sound Of Young America illuminates anew this most extraordinary and influential enterprise, and its achievements.  We know it’s what in the grooves that counts, but prose and pictures can speak volumes, too."

Article photo: The Gordys and the Aleses in a Detroit club, circa 1960.  From left:  Raynoma Gordy, Barney Ales, Motown promotion man Bill Mitchell and unidentified partner, Mitzi Ales and Berry Gordy. Photo courtesy of Barney Ales via Adam White.

Adam White's "Motown: The Sound of Young America" is available at the time of writing in the new book section.

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