Foreword to Peter Benjaminson’s ‘The Story of Motown’ (2018)

When Peter Benjaminson’s The Story of Motown was published in 1979, it was the first comprehensive book on the record label that—what? Changed the country? Brought black capitalism out of its funeral home empires and gospel emporiums and into the post-war twentieth century boom? Made Detroit as proud in the sixties as the Lions had made it in the fifties? Created records that, though recycled across six decades in countless cover versions by performers from every genre in pop music, through movies, TV shows, TV commercials, radio commercials, and Claymation commercials, remain inviolate and whole, speaking in their own voices, sloughing off the years they’ve traveled like dust? When you hear Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” or the Miracles’ “The Tracks of My Tears” you don’t think of The Big Chill. You hear dramas enacted, on their own terms, and you shake your head, stunned that anything could be this good, this perfect. But if these are perfect records, they are more than that—or their existence as records can’t enclose the story they tell. You could say Motown changed history itself: when it released Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” in 1964, did anyone at Hitsville USA on West Grand Boulevard know, as people would discover, sing, and trumpet in Watts a year later and in Detroit, on Woodward Avenue, two years after that, that the song was about a riot, a refusal, a willingness to tear a city down to make it right? I wouldn’t bet money that in 1964 someone didn’t know.

There had been a short, flat, circumscribed study published in the UK in 1971, David Morse’s Motown and the Arrival of Black Music. Scores of books have followed The Story of Motown: from boilerplate like Gerald Posner’s 2002 Motown: Music, Money, Sex and Power to such truly distinguished works as Raynoma G. Singleton’s 1990 Berry, Me, and Motown (“Bury Me in Motown,” as some people in Detroit called this blazing memoir by Berry Gordy’s second wife), Nelson George’s 1985 Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound and Gerald Early’s 1995 One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture, followed in turn by biographies and studies devoted to everyone from Berry himself to Diana Ross to Marvin Gaye to house band bassist and Funk Brother James Jamerson. Following the beginning of his career as journalist at the Detroit Free Press from 1970 to 1976, Benjaminson himself, for all of his years in New York with the Department of Investigation, the correction officers’ union, and the state Department of Labor, and journalism professor, has never left the Motown beat, publishing crucial books on Florence Ballard and Mary Wells. There are books to be found on single Motown albums and even an entire book on a single Motown single. The well is not dry, many of the central actors are dead but more are still alive, and they will be heard from one way or the other.For all of that, The Story of Motown still delivers a charge you can find nowhere else. It’s the sense of excitement and suspense that comes with a tale being fully made public for the first time. When the book appeared in 1979, twenty years after the beginning of the Motown fact with the release of its first record, Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” in 1959, that feeling of unveiling is patent and fierce, and it is just as strong now. Here is where Benjaminson’s experience as a crime reporter, street reporter, city reporter—privately employed, but as well a kind of public actor, with a debt to the truth owed to the public—comes into play.

Motown created events with the making, release, and marketing of its records. Millions of people were affected by those events—and it’s not merely the notion that some of those people might be interested in the story of how that happened that powers Benjaminson’s book. It’s the conviction that everyone and anyone whose life was touched by what happened at Motown deserves access to that story—which is to say, in a perhaps small but undeniable manner, access to their own lives. That’s perhaps why the story as Benjaminson tells it is, regardless of who he spoke to, who trusted him, whose trust he honored, an inside story, with the certainty that the betrayal is always more important than the promise, the secret more relevant than the verifiable fact. It is Motown as public domain.

With such a spirit animating the book, every detail—from the start, the exemplary story of the Gordy clan from its beginnings in Georgia, Berry Gordy’s own beginning in the fifties hustling songs to Jackie Wilson (the list of hits he wrote or cowrote before anyone outside of small music circles knew his name is stunning: “Reet Petite”; “That’s Why (I Love You So),” “Lonely Teardrops,” more), the early Motown business model of making every 45 a hit—takes on enormous pressure, the pressure that comes when any incident in the greater story, be that a decision, a hunch, a bet, an act of generosity or cruelty, a sacrifice made for the good of the company or the company sacrificing someone who was part of it, seems at once unlikely and inevitable. And that means, as one reads the book now, maybe already knowing how so many of the stories turned out—Marvin Gaye turning both Motown and his own life inside out with What’s Going On in 1971 and then dead by his own father’s hand; Michael Jackson leaving the company in 1975, creating the biggest hit in history with Thriller in 1982, becoming perhaps the most famous person in the world by 1984, and dead from a drug overdose at fifty; the Contours’ “Do You Love Me” and a hundred other records sounding like miracles fifty years or more after they were made—you keep turning the pages with the feeling that you don’t know.

Benjaminson’s book doesn’t beg the question of whether it all really happened the way he says it did, because as he tells the story that question fades against its answer: the fact that it happened at all.

Peter Benjaminson and Greil Marcus attended Menlo-Atherton High School together in Menlo Park from 1959 to 1963, a few years before Bob Weir, later of the Grateful Dead, and Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, later of Fleetwood Mac, took their turns at the same desks.

From The Story of Motown by Peter Benjaminson, Rare Bird Books, A Barnacle Book (November 13, 2018)

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