Picks and Pans Review: The Motown Album

updated 11/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Text by Ben Fong-Torres, Berry Gordy, Dave Marsh and Elvis Mitchell

Consider it a subtle residue of racism. The white pop icons of the '60s, Elvis and the Beatles, are probably the most exhaustively photographed creatures who ever drew breath. But when it came time to assemble a photo album of the black artists who have appeared on the Motown label—artists who have had a more profound and lasting impact on contemporary music than their Caucasian coevals—the label's archives were skimpy and had to be supplemented by canvassing collectors and individuals with various connections to the record company's glory days.

Still, you get lots of dopey publicity glossies and amateurish snapshots. You see the backs of many heads (though that's interesting in a way, for the men's splendid conks and the ladies' frou-froued 'dos).

Despite the frequently less-than-artful nature of the photography, there are some priceless images in this book: Maxine Powell, who ran the "charm school" for Mo-town's girl singers, voguing near Buckingham Palace; the Four Tops cruising in a Lincoln convertible with a primitive version of a car phone; the Supremes wearily sitting in a dressing room at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel; choreographer Cholly Atkins putting Temptation Otis Williams through his paces; Marvin Gaye barbecuing in his backyard with his arm affectionately slung around wife Anna, the sister of Motown founder Gordy; Martha and the Vandellas posing in a Mustang rolling down the assembly line; the Miracles at Detroit's Fox Theater doing "Mickey's Monkey."

The text is pretty thin and has to be fleshed out with snatches of lyrics in big, big type. Gordy and Detroit native Mitchell, a free-lance writer, contribute short remembrances. Ex-Rolling Stone writer Fong-Torres wrote the bulk of the book, a perfunctory history of the company and its artists. You learn more from the captions and from rock journalist Marsh's discography.

The other problem is that the scope of the photos extends well beyond the label's golden age. You go from smiling to cringing as you turn pages and discover that you've left behind the world of Little Stevie Wonder for that of Lionel Richie, Rick James and (yikes!) Bruce Willis.

The vintage shots, though, are wonderful to gaze upon. Motown may not have attracted shutterbugs, but Gordy's label was a beacon for musical talent. (St. Martin's, $50)

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