Photo: With The Supremes, Berry Gordy hails members of the Motown house band, at left, and his Holland/Dozier/Holland hitmakers, in December 1965. LOOK Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division [LC-L901A- 65-26- 16-VVV, no. 10]
Motown: The sound of young America, coming straight out of Motor City/Detroit was the perfect blend of soul and pop. It was the home of legends from Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and Stevie Wonder to the Jackson 5, the Supremes, and Diana Ross. And it was all the brainchild of Berry Gordy, Jr., a local songwriter who quickly realized that producing records and owning the publishing was the best way to make bank.
After launching Tamla and Motown labels, Gordy purchased the property that would become the legendary Hitsville U.S.A., in 1959. The multi-purpose building served as a recording studio, administrative offices, tape library, control room, and living quarters for Gordy in those early formative years. He put several family members in key roles, and made Smoke Robinson VP. Then, on April 14, 1960, Berry Gordy, Jr. incorporated the Motown Record Corporation, and that same year the company had its first number 1 R&B hit, the Miracles, “Shop Around.”
Between 1961 and 1971, Motown lead the charts with 110 top 10 hits, defining the sound of the times. Then in 1972, the company moved to Los Angeles, where it had a second life. Through the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, until the company’s acquisition by Universal in 2005, Motown stayed on the cutting edge, not only making music but also producing films including Mahogany, The Wiz, and The Last Dragon.
In celebration, Thames & Hudson has released Motown: The Sound of Young America by Adam White. At 400 pages, with 1,00 illustrations in color and black and white, this is the official visual history of Motown. The book opens with scenes of the 1967 Detroit Riots that began after local police broke into an unlicensed nightclub on 12th Street. Just eight years earlier, Gordy had lived nearby on Gladstone Street, the location of his very first record release.
But things had changed—both for Detroit and for Motown. The riots became the point of no return, a point at which neither would ever be the same. In the ashes of the riots, Gordy hosted the company’s first-ever national sales convention, attracting a nearly all-white audience, working to maintain the crossover appeal that took his company to the top. Within 24 hours, the company took a record $4 million ($28 million today) in orders, making it the single biggest day of business in Motown’s history and showing Gordy knew exactly how to play the crowd.
This is but one of the beautifully told stories in Motown: The Sound of Young America. The definitive volume of the record label, the book provides more than just the story of the music, but of the people, places, and the culture that made the label a legend. It’s like every “Unsung” and “Behind the Music” wrapped up in one, sharing the details of the company’s rise to the top and its ability to hold that place for years—giving the inside scoop on how Berry Gordy Jr. and his line-up of all-star artists navigated the choppy waters of wealth and fame. The intimate stories and archival images provide an inside look into the personalities who made the label an unstoppable force of nature song after song, album after album, making it a treasure trove of moments and memories to enjoy time and again.
Author Adam White will be discussing Motown: The Sound of Young America at a panel discussion at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Sunday, April 23, 2017 at 3:30pm.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.