Reviews of Motown Books -
The Motown Album

Motown books: Album cover

By Ben Fong-Torres, 1990

Some Motown books excavate the past in order to pick at the bones. I'll admit, it is fascinating to find ugliness in a "happy" music era.

For the most part, this book avoids that tack. An enthusiastic and funny Berry Gordy foreword and a vivid Elvis Mitchell intro set the stage for this stroll down memory lane.

What sights there are along the way! A grab bag of color and black-and-white Motown photos play up the artists' feelings of kinship. Shots of rehearsals, concerts, and "star" poses remind us why we're interested in these people in the first place. Diverse sizes and some snarky captions keep these 2-D arrangements positively kinetic.

The visuals also reflect the sounds of Motown. Some pages display snippets of relevant lyrics. Not cool enough? How about the inclusion of backup lines? Peculiar fonts full of character? Teensy-to-jumbo words that match the singers' volume? Someone who's never heard a given song could still sense its spirit and vocal idiosyncrasies from those bits.

There's prose, too. Like other Motown books, Fong-Torres briefly profiles a multitude of classic Motown artists, from major to minor figures. Unlike many Motown books, this one also highlights singers through the 1980s, such as DeBarge.

The tone changes as the book progresses. The nostalgic scrapbook becomes more straightforward about the tensions within Motown and the troubles of its performers.

Candidness doesn't always mean accuracy. Based on other sources, certain facts in this book seem...iffy. Fong-Torres gives a decent overview of his subjects, but I wouldn't rely on this book as your one-and-only source for research.

There is a Motown discography of sorts in the back. Dave Marsh offers commentary on selected songs and assesses the musical traits of particular singers and songwriters. This section basically consists of reviews by a passionate, insightful fan, and it's my favorite part after the lyrics and photos.

The Motown Album deserves a flip-through as a lively, loving look at the company's extended family and the music it made. Just don't believe all the small details in this biggest of Motown books.

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