Motown: The Sound of Young America
by Adam White with Barney Ales
Thames & Hudson ISBN 978-0-500-294857, $39.95
Talking with Barney Ales, Motown’s head of sales through the label’s sixties pomp, is like opening the best-informed, and most buoyantly cheerful music encyclopedia in the world.He remembers, it seems, everything - from the time he took Eddie Holland and Gladys Horton to a Cow Palace engagement in San Francisco, and all the musical arrangements were sent to the wrong hotel; to his favorite pub in a small English town; to the names of the people he was dealing with as a tenacious Detroit independent was transformed into a worldwide phenomenon.Many of them, he’s still in contact with.
His co-writer, Adam White, for example, has been a friend since they met in the mid-1960s, when White was covering the latest Motown tour for one of the UK music mags.His foreword was written by Andrew Loog Oldham, who Ales has known since the days of Motown’s Rare Earth subsidiary.
And his book, out in paperback some two years after its original appearance, effectively tears up every Motown history that has ever been published in the past, because you know that this time, the story is true.
One of the direst pitfalls facing “history” is, the further away an event, or an era, retreats, the more theories thrive and rumors become fact, and this is as true in music as it is in any other field.Paul McCartney is just one of many musicians who have recounted, with something approaching bemusement, conversations with a fan who tell him outright that John did this and Paul did that, completely ignoring the fact that McCartney was in the room when it happened and is probably better placed to recall a sequence of events than some dude who about it in some book.
Ales himself bemoans the forests-worth of paper that have been wasted on Motown misinformation that poses as detail, lies that have supplanted truths and sheer fantasies that have replaced fact.He can name them, too, if you ask.He prefers, however, to keep his own counsel and allow the reader to decide which stories are most likely to be accurate; the ones he lived and now recalls, or the ones that someone puts together from sundry internet forum ponderings,
Maybe that, the need to set the record straight, was the driving force behind this book.But it’s also a story that needed to be told for its own sake, for we will not see Motown’s like again.The confluence of so many talents - both behind the mike and behind the scenes - is one that likewise will never be repeated.It’s a cliche to say it was a different world back then, but what Motown accomplished through the first half of the sixties, and then maintained for decades after that, was nothing short of miraculous, and Ales was one of the men who made it happen.
So yes, this is a Motown history.There is little room for the “personal lives” of the stars; no dirt to be dished on who did what to whom and when.Rather, The Sound of Young America allows the records and events to tell those stories, and focuses instead on the equally fascinating tale of how that music made its way from a basement studio in Detroit to every transistor radio in the western world.
Neither do the words alone tell the story.Over a thousand illustrations are scattered through the book’s 400 coffee-table sized pages, the majority in color, and they are beyond fabulous.Record sleeves and labels, promo shots, press pics and private snapshots (Ales’s own personal photo album fills many of the pages)… in terms of visual appeal, The Sound of Young America has to be up there among the most beautifully, and copiously, illustrated music books there has ever been, to the point where it’s hard to even flick quickly through the pages without being captivated by one image or another.
Here, the Supremes crashed out in their New York hotel room; there, assorted label staffers captured going about their daily business.Here a page full of Marvin Gaye album covers; there, an ad for the Motown Fan Bag - “join us and get these seven groovy gifts.”If you don’t read a word of the main text, the photos alone are worth the price of admission, and while the inclusion of a discography would have been nice, how much better to find a double page spread of Jet magazine covers, each one highlighting another Motown act?And so much more besides.
This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of Motown’s birth, and a wealth of celebrations are doubtless in the pipeline.Some will prove essential reading/listening/viewing; others, doubtless, will add further wasted to the wasted forests that Ales and others bemoan.The Sound of Young America, however, already stands proud as the ultimate guide to the full Motown tale, from the early 1960s to the late 1980s.This edition simply reinforces that fact.
Dave Thompson is co-author of Brian and Eddie Holland’s forthcoming autobiography Come and Get These Memories (Omnibus Press)