If you’re thinking of watching this coming Sunday’s Motown spectacular on ITV may we suggest an authoritative companion…. a brand new Motown book by music biz insider and self-confessed Motown freak, GRAHAM BETTS. His book is ‘The Motown Encyclopaedia’ (see our news archive). It’s available right now as a download and easy to fond via the usual portals. Indeed the Encyclopaedia is top of the Amazon music genre chart; so impressive an achievement that we tracked down Graham to find out more about his book and we began asking him what was the point in publishing a new Motown book when there are already so many out there….
The thing about Motown is that there is always another angle and another story to explore. If you think back a few years, who would have thought that a book on the musicians (‘Standing In The Shadows of Motown’) or the singles released on the Tamla Motown label in Britain would have become so successful? Obviously, I’d like to think that fans will be interested in a book that discovers new areas of Motown, but the hard part is attracting new fans to the label and its heritage!
Clearly you felt yourself qualified to tackle the subject… tell us a bit about your music background…. what makes you especially qualified to write a history of Motown?
I’ve spent nearly forty years working in the record industry, as a press officer for Pye Records and then CBS Records and more lately as A&R Manager for Pickwick. During my time with Pye and CBS, I handled the publicity for several former Motown acts, including Edwin Starr, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Billy Griffin and, most famously Marvin Gaye. I’ll let you into one little secret; of all the artists I worked with, and that includes many major names, including Julio Iglesias, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock, Paul Young and Alison Moyet, none could match the sheer professionalism of the former Motown acts. They were always helpful, courteous, respectful; a sheer pleasure to work with. And bear in mind that includes the spell with Marvin when he began going off the rails after his return to the US. I can tell you he never let me down, completing every interview, giving every journalist the story they were after.
But I digress. I’ve also been a writer for much the same period of time, originally for Blues & Soul, briefly for Melody Maker and later for all manner of magazines and papers. During the course of that time I’ve interviewed many Motown acts, including Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, The Temptations, The Commodores, High Inergy and back room people like Hal Davis (what a pleasure it was speaking to that great man!) and Harvey Fuqua. Now, I don’t profess any special inside knowledge of Motown. In fact, if you want to know who does, then look no further than Sharon Davis. Sharon was the first person I contacted when I came up with the idea of the book, because if there is one person better qualified to write such a book on Motown, then it is her. If Sharon, a lifelong friend and great lady, had said she wanted to do a book along similar lines, then I’d have backed off and let her do it.
Overall, then, I would say my knowledge of the workings of major record companies, coupled with my journalistic eye for detail, made me one of the better bets of getting this book done.
OK, so why then did you choose the encyclopaedia approach?
I’ve got quite a collection of Motown books, both collective histories and individual biographies, and they all follow the same exact path; they tell the story chronologically. That makes sense, of course, because if you want to know about the life of Diana Ross, you want to know where and when she was born, something about her life before The Supremes, the successes she enjoyed with the group and then the launch of her solo career. The same applies to just about every artist.
I was doing some research on Motown, although I can’t remember exactly what it was. I do remember that I had to delve into four or five books to find the information, which struck me as a bit long winded; surely it had to be better to have all of the information in just one book. Then I was reading, of all things, a Laurel & Hardy Encyclopaedia (another interest of mine, alongside football) and it occurred to me that a Motown encyclopaedia, or A to Z, whichever you prefer, was the perfect way of telling every story that was worth telling connected to Motown.
Having decided that was the way forward …where do you begin…was it “who can I think of who begins with A”? and so on?
If you remember ‘Blackadder The Third’, you will probably remember the scene where Blackadder attempts to belittle Dr Johnson’s new dictionary by dropping words and names that he knows the Doctor will have omitted from the book – Aardvark for example. Taking that into account, I had to ensure that no one would be able to say that I’d missed an artist, so I had to find a way of ensuring I had a listing of every Motown artist, ever. The first thing I did therefore was put together a massive discography, containing both American and British releases, singles and albums, A sides and B sides. That took me some two or three months and ran to more than five thousand titles (that figure also includes releases that were scheduled or planned and subsequently withdrawn), but it certainly ensured that everybody who had a Motown record was included.
I also looked into those labels that were distributed by Motown in the US, such as CTI, Gull, Manticore and the like. Here I checked all the physical releases; if they carried the legend Marketed and Distributed by Motown, then they went into the book. The CTI releases in particular were somewhat difficult, because I had listings of titles that were supposedly released during the Motown period, but I couldn’t find a single one that confirmed they were pressed by Motown. So either conventional wisdom is wrong or I am – I’m sure someone will let me know if it is me!
Going back to the Laurel & Hardy book, I noticed the author had included all of the stock players connected to those comedians, as well as directors, writers and assorted other entries. So I did the same with my Motown book; I added all the official members of the Funk Brothers along with one or two others who I felt were key, such as Wah Wah Watson. Then I looked at writers, producers and even key executives – you can’t write a book on Motown and not give Berry Gordy an entry. Or Harry Balk, Barney Ales and so on – most Motown aficionados will be familiar with many of the names I’ve included.
As far as which singles and albums to feature, I thought I’d have a cut off point, which I decided was the Top Ten of the pop charts on both sides of the Atlantic, although I bent that rule for a couple of items; for example, ‘Come To Me’ by Marv Johnson, because it is recognised as the very first Motown record (or Tamla, to be precise) and ‘Why I Oppose The War In Vietnam’ by Dr Martin Luther King, because it won a Grammy Award.
The rest of the entries I came up with to add some diversity to the book. I know a lot of people like lists, so I put in the addresses of those artists with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a list of the titles and songs featured in the Jackson 5 cartoon series, the dates of the very first Motortown Revues and so on.
What sources did you use for this mammoth task?
Not long ago someone said to me that you could have written a similar book using Wikipedia, to which my response was ‘Good luck with that’! I’ve got a fairly extensive collection of Motown records, books, memorabilia and so on, most of which I employed in creating the encyclopaedia. Obviously, some were more helpful than others, such as the Complete Motown Singles packages, which have biographical information on many of the artists. The one thing I didn’t want to do was merely copy other people’s work, so I set myself a target of at least confirming the biographical information that was known and expanding it if possible.
The difficulties came with those really obscure artists, even those from the 1980s, who had one single released (or scheduled) by Motown and did little or nothing for anyone else. You basically have three avenues for every artist; the artist, the song writer and the producer, so if I drew a blank with the artist I’d see if I could track down the writer or producer. Obviously, the internet proved invaluable for this purpose, but I still had to delve deep in order to track some of them down. One I found via ebay, of all places – the name was somewhat unique and I spotted someone selling an item and put something on the ‘ask the seller a question’ link, which was basically are you the same guy who produced so and so. He came back fairly quickly and said yes he was, but how on earth did I know that! So I explained what I was trying to do and he was good enough to give me some background information on the artist, who sadly had committed suicide when his recording career hadn’t taken off in quite the way he imagined it.
When I was lucky enough to get through to an artist, I would ask them a few questions, such as how they came to be signed with Motown, what their experiences were like, that kind of thing. Then when I’d got their responses, I’d draft up a biographical entry, which I’d send to them so they could check what was going to be said.
Going back a little, when I first came up with the idea of the book, my intention had been to do a straight reference book, something along the lines that Colin Larkin had achieved with his ‘Encyclopaedia of Popular Music’. When I got through to some of the artists, however, I realised the value of what I was getting. If I put into a biography that Motown’s marketing efforts on a particular artist were naive, it looks as though that was my impression. But the artist told me that they thought the marketing was naive, so I included it as a quote, making the book much livelier and, hopefully, a more interesting read.
How many entries did you eventually end up with… and did you have to discard any?
Well, since I’ve included every artist who had a record even scheduled by Motown, including those who only appeared on soundtracks or compilations, then I’d have to say no, I didn’t discard any! In all the book has 1,178 entries, which are split into 684 artists, 13 executives, 16 musicians, 23 producers, 19 writers, 222 singles, 84 albums, 5 EP’s (ask your Mum), 17 soundtracks, nine films, 50 labels and 36 ‘other’.
However, the original version of the book was to have included the later Motown story, so artists such as Boyz II Men, 702, Good Girls, Shanice and so on were included. Then I thought that as far as most Motown fans are concerned, whilst the story didn’t actually end in 1988 when Berry Gordy sold the company, the Motown that operated after then was a completely different one to that which had existed between 1959 and 1988. I then decided that 1988 would be my cut-off date and removed all of the artists who came along after, although I’ve kept the information and could, conceivably, do an expanded version. As if a book of half a million words needs expanding!
One or two things were changed during the course of writing – one artist didn’t want me to reveal their birth date since they were still active and felt that the music industry was ageist, so letting everybody know their exact age would prove detrimental to their career.
By the same token, there were one or two things I wouldn’t change. A representative of another artist contacted me to let me know that they (the representative, not the artist), took offence with the number of times I said that their records had failed, or flopped. I tried to point out that since the industry measures success by total sales or chart positions, and a particular record hadn’t sold well or made the charts, then it had failed. I also tried to point out that there were only so many ways you can say the same thing; flopped, failed, missed out, whatever. “But they were extremely popular on radio, so therefore they were successful” he told me! In the end I told him that we were never going to agree and the entry was going to stay the way it was written!
Ok, the book’s ready….. what kind of interest did you get from publishers and how did the book finally come out?
When I had the original idea, which would have been in August 2011, I put together a synopsis and half a dozen or so sample entries, which I then sent off to the guy who was acting as my agent at the time. He got in touch some three days later and said he had a publisher interested, so much so that they wanted the deal tied up before the Frankfurt Book Fair, which was in October. That, at the time, was music to my ears, since it would have given me an advance with which to purchase research materials and, more importantly, they would have been committed to publishing once we’d agreed a timetable.
I went along to a meeting with the publisher and everything seemed to go well – they liked the idea and gave me an indication of sales expectations, not only for the UK but worldwide too, and it seemed a case of merely waiting on an offer. However, a couple of days later my agent got in touch and said there was a problem – the head office of the publishing company, who were based in New York, felt that as Motown was an American record company the book should have an American author! I have to say that then and now I think that is a ridiculous notion – nobody sits here and says that as Princess Diana or The Beatles are British then only British authors are entitled to write about them!
My retort at the time was that an American author would write only about 75% of the book as I envisaged it. I don’t wish to cast aspersions but a lot of Americans don’t know there’s a world outside of the United States and an almost equal number know but don’t particularly care! I doubt they would have bothered with British chart positions, or European only releases, which in turn affects certain aspects of the book. For example, I’ve tried to make the size of the biographical entries reflective of each artist’s impact on Motown. If an American was to write an entry on Yvonne Fair it would be a terse, hundred words or so, whereas my entry takes into account the success she had in the UK. Edwin Starr, anyone? Or Jimmy Ruffin?
Anyway, I wasn’t prepared to hand the book idea over, having already started on my research, so that deal fell through. There were others, including another that would have come close to getting some sort of official status from Universal, only for that particular publishing company to say they wanted to concentrate more on the artistic nature of Motown and its album covers – we’re still waiting for that book to appear!
Eventually, I parted company with the agent and handled it all myself. I got another couple of publishers interested, one of which is supposedly going to publish the book this year, according to the last email I had from them, but in the absence of a firm offer, I decided I’d be better off putting the book out myself rather than sit around waiting ad infinitum.
Publishing the Motown Encyclopaedia as an e-book was never my preferred option, largely because I personally would rather have a hundred books and a hundred CDs sitting on my shelf than a Kindle and an ipod. However, I took advice as to whether the public would want what is ostensibly still a reference book in e-book form and was told they would, so with nothing further to lose and everything to gain, I released it myself.
Since it been out how’s it been doing?
The response has been very encouraging, I have to say. Utilising my old contacts, I’ve been able to secure a feature in a national newspaper, which is, hopefully, due to appear to coincide with the airing of the ITV documentary ‘The Nation’s Favourite Motown Song’, which will then be followed by the release of an album by the same name. At some point, either later this year or early next, Motown The Musical should hit Britain, which will obviously lead to renewed interest in the label and its artists. There is one or two other things I’m working on that could raise awareness of Motown, and that can only help the book in the long run.
It is getting through to American readers that’s going to be the problem. There is only so much I can do via Facebook or other social media sites, so I’m trying to target newspapers and magazines based on the touring musical show, although the difficulty is that most of them will not have a clue who I am. Of course, the same applies in the UK, but at least if I can get people onto my Author’s Page on Amazon they can see I have the experience and, hopefully, the knowledge to have been able to pull this off. Time alone will tell, of course.
The biggest thrill I got was receiving a message via Facebook from Susaye Greene, formerly of The Supremes, who had bought the book, was thoroughly enjoying it but wondered why I hadn’t tried getting in touch when I was writing it! I responded that I’d spent so much time trying to contact the obscure artists it never once occurred to me that the premier artists would be that bothered. We’re in touch now and Susaye has also been helping out on promoting the book and undertaking interviews. Also, I have to make mention of Al Abrams, Motown first employee and their publicist extraordinaire. He’s been firing press releases all around the States on my behalf, so it feels like I’ve got an external publicity company working for me!
Can you whet our appetites even more by telling us a on or two things that your book reveals about Motown that no other book has discovered.
The main thing, of course, is putting together a biography of sorts for every artist. Most Motown fans know pretty much all there is to know about Diana Ross but not Stacie Johnson. Likewise Marvin Gaye as opposed to Leon Ware, or Stevie Wonder against Stephen Cohn. I guess what I’m proudest about is managing to track down some artists that proved beyond Universal and Motown – check the very last Complete Motown Singles package and have a look at their entry for Celebration, then have a look at mine!
The beauty of the book done in the form I’ve done it is that you can throw in all manner of trivia and it just makes the book such a treasure trove of information. There may not be many people who know and even fewer who care, but I reckon this is the only book that will tell you the names of the two artists who posed for Playboy magazine. Or which will tell you Vic Caesar’s score on the Donkey Kong pinball machine! It is also probably the only book where Granny from Beverly Hillbillies, Wonder Woman, Smokin’ Joe Frazier and Alex from Clockwork Orange have a connection (they all recorded for Motown, in case you’re wondering).
One other thing I will say, which is another source of immense pride. I sent copies of the files out to three people with impeccable Motown credentials, including Sharon Davis, and aside from not finding any errors (though I’m sure there will be one or two!), they all commented on how I’d managed to get hold of information even they didn’t know. If it has that impact on them, I’m guessing the public will be a little more than pleasantly surprised!
Almost finally, you’re obviously a Motown fan…. what are you five favourite Motown records – the ones you love, the ones you feel maybe sum up the essence of the label.
Tough task for any Motown fan… a definitive selection is nigh on impossible but during the course of writing the book I spent virtually every minute accompanied by Motown sounds, listening to particular artists as I was writing their biographies, or about particular singles or albums, so I’ve probably listened to more Motown music in the last three years than I had in the previous thirty! So here’s ten that have particularly rocked my boat over the last three years.
Eddie Kendricks – Keep On Truckin’ or Girl You Need A Change Of Mind
I can’t make my mind up between one or the other here – I just love the percussion and the overall feel of both. They are both almost exactly long enough for the walk from my house to my local pub – I’ve skipped along the path to both of these, I can tell you!
Stevie Wonder – Superstition
My favourite artist of all time, I named my son after him. I still marvel at the ‘Talking Book’ and ‘Innervisions’ albums and could probably have picked the entire Top Ten purely from those two albums.
Temptations – Papa Was a Rolling Stone
The first Motown album I ever bought was ‘All Directions’, when I was in the first flush of my teenage years. I’ve never tired of this; it still excites me.
Gladys Knight & The Pips – Just Walk In My Shoes
I know next to nothing about Northern Soul, but to me this is as good as it gets, an absolute stomper.
Marvin Gaye – Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)
I love the whole of the What’s Going On album, so again picking one cut was problematic. I picked this one because I’ve never heard a bad version of it – check out Grover Washington’s version too.
… and as sixth, the record I want at my funeral is Stevie Wonder’s ‘Higher Ground’.
Final finally where can we find out more? Where can people get hold of the book?
The book is available on all good (and a few not so good) digital platforms, including Amazon (where you can learn a bit more on me via my Author’s Page), iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords and Google Play. More to the point, if anyone has the ear of a good publisher, let them know this would make a great printed book! Here. Here’s the links.
Amazon UK: www.amazon.co.uk/Motown-Encyclopedia-Graham-Betts
Amazon US: www.amazon.com/Motown-Encyclopedia-Graham-Betts
(the black and white photos accompanying this interview show Graham with just a few of his Motown heroes and heroines … we love the jackets and the hair!)