In the 1950s and ‘60s, it went everywhere with us. We held it to our ear, walked home from school with it in our pocket, listened to it at beach parties, danced with it and went to bed with it. When we weren’t listening to Detroit Tigers games, it was probably tuned to one of the legendary top 40 radio stations.
We listened to the music of the Four Tops, the Velvelettes, the Supremes, Gladys Knight, the Spinners, Marvin Gaye , the Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations or one of the other myriad Motown groups. If you were lucky, you swayed to the music at the Motown Revue, which brought the Motown sound to both big cities and small towns across Michigan.
Why was the music of Motown so enthralling? Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” nailed it: “It has a good beat, and you can dance to it.”
And boy did we dance, especially those of us who attended Michigan State University. As a freshman at MSU, I found that about 80 percent of the students I met were from Detroit high schools like Cooley, Denby and Cass Tech, and they brought the music of Motown with them to college. Every weekend, cover bands like the Sounds and Soundettes covered Motown songs at dances on campus.
If you were lucky enough to be around Lansing in the ‘60s, you likely heard one of the best Motown cover bands, the Sunliners, at local saloons like the Dells, nestled at the north end of Lake Lansing, or at Coral Gables. The Sunliners, who were later known as Rare Earth, could always get the audience up and dancing with their signature song, “Get Ready.”
The band’s sound also attracted the attention of Motown Records exec Barney Ales, who signed the group in 1969. Motown even named its new rock ‘n’ roll subsidiary label, Rare Earth, after the band.
How Ales and Motown were able to sign Rare Earth, an all-white band, is one of the hundreds of previously untold stories told in “Motown: The Sound of Young America,” which was released in September.
Written by two record industry execs —Adam White, a former Billboard editor, and Motown general manager Barney Ales — “Motown” is truly an insider’s look at the legendary record label, its founder Berry Gordy, its stable of performers and its lasting impact on society and culture. The book is the ultimate history of one of the most successful record companies of all time.
Detroiter Susan Whitall, who has written about musicians and the music industry for more than 40 years at Creem magazine and the Detroit News, said the longevity of Motown and its music “is really saying something.” Even she was impressed by the book’s depth.
“We thought we knew everything about Motown,” she said.
One reason Whitall believes the book is a fresh perspective is that it explores Motown through the eyes of Ales, a lesser known but key cog in the Motown machine.
“Barney was the backroom guy and took care of everything,” she said. “Barney had a reputation that he was a connected guy because of his Sicilian roots.”
That reputation, while not true, also helped in collecting overdue bills from distributors, as Ales relates in the book. The book also goes behind the scenes, looking at the musicians who helped shape the Motown sound.
“The music was so well orchestrated and played at such a high level by session groups like the Funk Brothers,” Whitall said. “It was sophisticated pop music with addictive grooves. You didn’t get tired of playing it over and over like most pop music.”
The book looks at Motown’s high points, like landing the Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder, as well as the low points, like losing Mary Wells to a competitor. The record label’s history plays out against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, discussing its influence on Motown and R&B music. White listeners liked Motown music, but the black performers often had a tough time finding a place to stay after the show was over, especially in the South.
Even at home, there were some places blacks — even Gordy — couldn’t go. The book tells the story of Gordy and Ales taking their spouses to the London Chop House for dinner and being rebuffed until Ales pressured the owner to let them in.
Smith, a lifelong fan of Motown and a close friend of Ales, brought his research chops to the project.
“He’s been gathering information his whole life. He was totally immersed in this book,” Whitall said. “That’s where the book really succeeds.”
Whitall said that many of the photos in “Motown” have never been seen before, and there are stories that have never appeared in print. In one such story, Gordy and Ales come up with the Supremes’ “Buttered Popcorn” while enjoying popcorn at the theater with their spouses.
Whitall is working on a reissue of her own book, “Women of Motown: An Oral History,” which will be released in late spring. Whitall is also the author of the Michigan Notable Book “Fever: Little Willie John, A Fast Life, A Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul.” Whitall, who grew up in Birmingham, still remembers buying her first record at Kresge.
“It was a 45 of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Fingertips,’” she said.