One of the strategic things I did on my train ride to Charlotte (and back) is that I did not bring any electronic items – no headphones and music, no laptop, except, necessarily, my cellphone. What I did bring were three books.
The first one I read, actually by the time I reached Washington, DC, was Where Did Our Love Go? – The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound by Nelson George, which I purchased at a library sale. I should say that I’m a big fan of George, who has written about American black music (r&b, soul, hip hop, rap) for a number of years. Back when I had a subscription to Billboard magazine, he was a writer there. I even supported his recent Kickstarter project, Brooklyn Boheme: Fort Greene/Clinton Hill Artists Documentary.
The fact that the book was a tad disappointing may not be George’s fault. The reason I wasn’t as engaged as I might have been is that I had heard most of the narrative – about Berry Gordy writing music for Jackie Wilson, utilizing his family in the business, future stars serving as office workers or, in the case of Marvin Gaye, as a session drummer, the power of the songwriters to lay the same tracks on several artists, the ultimate push for more autonomy by Gaye and Stevie Wonder, and Gordy’s special relation with Diana Ross – before, quite possibly in articles written by Nelson George. So it wasn’t new, though it was complete and well written.
What WAS new for me was the ancestry of Berry Gordy. Georgia slave owner Jim Gordy had a son named Berry (b. 1854) by his slave Esther Johnson. Berry married Lucy Hellum, a woman of black and Indian heritage, who conceived 23 times; nine children survived, including another Berry, born in 1888. He married teacher Bertha Ida Fuller, and in 1929, they had Berry, one of the youngest of their seven children. These first two chapters about race in America were largely new to me, and, therefore, quite fascinating.
The book I recommend to people who know less about Motown than I do, which, immodestly, I suggest is most people.