Title: Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown Sound
Author: Andrea Davis Pinkney
Pages: 166 pages
Publisher/Date: Roaring Book Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership, c2015.
Berry was sick of seeing his hard-earned creativity and the talents of black performers go unrewarded. He began to seriously consider building a record label that would allow him to produce the work of black artists, to publish his music, to have complete control over the money he and the singers earned, and also to have control over how black performers were portrayed to the public. (19)
In 1959, Berry Gordy secured an eight hundred dollar loan from his family to begin his dream, the music company Motown. Motown became known by its nickname Hitsville, as the production company put out hit after hit from big name, local talent like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Diana Ross. For slightly over a decade, Berry Gordy and his company, who were treated more like family, were behind some of the biggest hits in pop and R&B. But when Gordy moved to California to expand the company, the music lost its rhythm, and artists started pursuing other opportunities and other companies where they could garner the attention and money they felt they deserved. By the 1980s, only a few loyal artists were still garnering hits, and Gordy sold the company before the decade ended, as the era of Motown had already ended earlier.
The narrator is “the Groove,” which takes on the personality of a smooth talking tour guide who has a vested interest in your enjoyment, entertainment, and well-being. It makes the remembrance of pivotal historical moments, like the Civil Rights movement and assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Kennedy, more manageable, reassuring readers that it’s in the past and we lived through it while not deemphasizing the importance of the events. Sometimes we forget the narrator is even present, and other times that effort is stressed in multiple paragraphs that try to reestablish the road trip ambiance. Some readers may like it, while others might have preferred a more straightforward narration with less embellishment.
Little details, like the decorum and manners training that each artist received, break up the monotony of the presentation, which at times can read like a who’s who laundry list of best hits of the 1960s. There are hints of personality for some of the acts, especially when they are soloists instead of groups, but the groups almost become interchangeable, especially when they don’t have those back stories to distinguish them from the other groups presented. The recordings that were more political in nature, such as MLK’s speeches and the concept album featuring songs about the Vietnam War, were unknown to me, and I wish Pinkney had focused more on the aftermath of those publications, or the dissent in the group prior to publication. I feel like that is important to set the tone, and readers just received a minimalist view of the dissension caused by anti-war cover album, especially considering Marvin Gaye was Berry Gordy’s brother-in-law.
Copious amounts of photos help delineate the different groups, but they are primarily staged publicity shots and very few show either the inside workings of the company or the community and culture that would have provided context. There is one page in particular that would have done well for thorough editing. When introducing the Primettes, soon to be known as the Supremes, Pinkney identifies the women pictured as “Betty McGlown, Diane Ross, Mary Willson, and Florence Ballard” in both a caption and in the text on page 94. On page 95, “Barbara Martin left to have a baby, so the newly formed quartet was down to three singers.” Further research on my part leads me to conclude that both women were only temporarily involved in the group, so maybe it’s not really an error, but I wish the discrepancy wasn’t there. We also are presented with a picture of the Temptations with new member David Ruffin before his replacement of original member Elbridge “Al” Bryant is discussed in the narrative. Minor mistakes, granted, but it leads to a feeling of sloppy editing. Another missed opportunity is consulting first hand-account source material. The detailed source notes pages are much appreciated, but it’s rare that a listed source is from that time period directly, with most of the sources being commentary or biographies published decades after events occurred.
Part of the difficulty Pinkney faces is making the subject matter important to children, as most of them are only familiar with Motown music as being the old songs that their parents (or maybe even at this point their grandparents!) listened to. While I’m a fan of the “oldies” because my father played them for me, I think most readers are going to be more familiar with Taylor Swift, One Direction, and Adelle, just to name a few. If they are already familiar with the subject, great, but I don’t think they’ll be running to pick this one off the shelves, even with the great appealing cover and the local connection to Motown as I work at a Michigan library. I understand the difficulties this would have added to the production, but I feel it would have benefited greatly from the inclusion of a CD with at least a sampling of the songs discussed in the book.
This review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.