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It’s a good bet that most lawyers don’t think about the journalistic service they perform when they file lawsuits. But litigation often provides the only public information available on a given subject. Journalists who cover the music industry, for instance, are rarely able to get truthful, bottom-line information from record companies. And if not for lawsuits, Gerald Posner probably couldn’t have written Motown: Music, Money, Sex, and Power. Like most outside chroniclers of the label, Posner failed to get any of the principal characters at Motown Records to talk on the record, and had to rely on secondary and anonymous sources. That means a lot of his material will seem familiar to anyone who’s already read the self-serving autobiographies of founder Berry Gordy or singer Diana Ross, or Nelson George’s excellent 1986 Motown history, Where Did Our Love Go? But where George’s book shines with superb music criticism, Posner’s account impresses with its abundant details on the label’s business dealings. His remarkably thorough book is largely drawn from court records generated by the label’s voluminous litigation � Motown produced almost as many lawsuits as hit records. Indeed, some actions are still unresolved almost four decades later. A TV commentator and former Wall Street lawyer, Posner is best-known for high-profile investigative books about the John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., assassinations. The author took on Motown at the suggestion of his friend Frederic Dannen, author of Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business, who told of hearing “astonishing tales” about the Detroit-based label. The packaging for Posner’s book reflects this gossipy origin, as the back cover lists a set of loaded questions about allegations of murder and Mafia ties at the label. But the teasers are misleading, since the author easily dismisses the more lurid stories, yet offers few blockbuster revelations of his own. Soundtrack Of An Era Before it turned into a litigation factory, Motown was an impressive Horatio Alger success story � a black-owned label that really did fulfill Gordy’s grandiose claim of producing “The Sound of Young America.” From “Stop! In the Name of Love” to “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” Motown’s hits sounded just huge on the radio, belying the cramped garage studio where they were recorded. In 1966 three-quarters of the label’s releases made the charts � an amazing statistic, considering that the industry as a whole had a success rate of only 10 percent. Motown’s success bred dysfunction, however, as Posner shows. Gordy’s management style was to foster rivalries among his artists, writers, and producers, who had to compete for a limited number of release slots. Conflict of interest was standard operating procedure, since the label and its subsidiaries simultaneously served as record company, manager, booking agent, accountant, and financial adviser. Gordy and his lawyers encouraged artists to negotiate contracts without outside legal advice, and to sign deals with truly stingy terms. Despite its African American ownership and Gordy’s talk of the company as one big happy family, the label was just as exploitative as any other of its time. “Then Things Spiraled Out Of Control” By the late sixties, Motown began to fall apart. Frustrated with the artistic and financial limitations that Gordy imposed, most of his major artists left, or sued, or did both. Posner presents the impresario as a brilliant Charles Foster Kane figure, alone and forsaken by the end. When Gordy lost his magic touch during the seventies, Motown became little more than an oldies label. Eventually, all he could do was sell it for $61 million in 1988. Because Posner’s book focuses on the business of Motown, not the music, he adopts a dispassionate tone, which unfortunately results in some long dry stretches. Still, for Behind the Music junkies who don’t already know the story, his account is a worthwhile read, especially since the story is far from over as the legal battles continue. “In true Motown style,” Posner writes, “the music . . . eventually stopped, but the litigation lasts forever.” Menconi is a contributor to Billboard and Spin, and is the author of Off the Record, a novel about the music industry.

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