Today I welcome Graham Betts to my blog. He took on the challenge of creating a Motown Encyclopedia. And I would say he succeeded as the book contains biographies of all 684 artists who had releases on Motown and their various imprints, as well as biographies of 16 musicians, 23 producers, 19 writers and 13 executives.
Here he shares some of what went into compiling this encyclopedia.
When I originally left school in 1973 it was with the intention of becoming an architect. Those aspirations came to an abrupt end after just eighteen months and so I decided to use the next two years to think seriously about my next major career move. In the meantime I landed a temporary job, later made permanent, with the Social Science Research Council as an Information Officer.
Despite the rather grand title the job entailed writing to the numerous academics the Council funded and asking them to provide a 400 word summary of their research, which would then be featured in the annual publication Research Supported by the SSRC. I quickly discovered that academics cannot provide 400 words – I received either forty words that had to be worked up to the required length or some four thousand words that needed heavy editing. Thus I received on the job experience of editing and proof reading, and whilst I didn’t think much of the job at the time, the overall experience would prove useful in my later endeavours.
Working for the SSRC kept my days occupied and during the evenings I invariably went out to concerts and shows and would send in reviews to magazines. Although these were not commissioned they were usually printed, in full, by the recipient magazines, giving me a growing portfolio of articles. That in turn led me to the realisation that my preferred career choice would be something to do with the record industry. I sent out covering letters and photocopies of the printed articles to all the major record companies in England, uncertain as to what particular role I was aiming for but hoping that they might see me fitting in somewhere within their organisation. As luck would have it, at the time I wrote Pye Records was looking to expand the Press Office, so my experience within the SSRC as an Information Officer, coupled with my knowledge of music gave me an opening. In January 1978, therefore, I became an Assistant Press Officer and three months later, having successfully completed my probation, I was upgraded to the full rank of Press Officer.
Writing artist biographies, release sheets and press releases at Pye was infinitely more exciting than my work for the SSRC. I was still going out most evenings to shows, except I was now effectively being paid to do so! I was still writing too, with my stock being somewhat raised when I won the Melody Maker Essay Contest in 1978 (when I entered the competition I was still a civil servant at the SSRC), which saw me having to write a further article for the magazine. Given a choice of what and where I wrote, I opted for doing a piece on Motown Records – the label was just about to celebrate its twentieth anniversary and The Commodores were enjoying a worldwide smash with Three Times A Lady. I was therefore sent on an all-expenses trip to Florida to catch up with and interview The Commodores, then flew across the States to California where I undertook interviews with other Motown personnel.
I have continued to work in the record industry since those heady days, including spells with CBS Records (now Sony) and more recently in the budget and reissue sector. I currently work for Pickwick Group, where for the last fourteen years I have been Artist & Repertoire Manager with particular responsibility for all the company’s releases.
My writing career has continued alongside my work career. Obviously, the bulk of my writing has been connected with music, an area that I feel I have specific expertise. Having contributed to numerous books over the years, including such publications as the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles, The Motown Story and The History of Rock, I had my first music book published in 1997, a biography of George Michael entitled Read Without Prejudice. Soon after I produced a series of football (soccer) books for Mainstream, writing five and editing another five club histories. Since then I have had published a further twenty seven books on either sport or music and also contributed to a considerable number more. All of these are in the non-fiction category – I do have an idea for a historical novel but apart from doing some research on the period I want to set the novel in have done little else about it.
This is mainly down to having a number of other book projects on the go. I’ve recently signed a deal with the OCC (the Official Charts Company, who produce the British singles and album charts) for a series of books that are possibly to be crowd funded, although the OCC are handling the logistics and I will take care of the writing. Then there are a number of other chart based books we are looking at that will probably be print on demand books. Overall, therefore, I’m as busy now as I have been for the last twenty years or so. And I still have a full time job, meaning I write in whatever spare time I can allocate!
Many times I’ve tried setting myself a daily target of words, but I seldom keep to it – sometimes you find the words just flow and you can sail past whatever target you have and on other occasions the well seems to dry up and rather than struggle along I will shut down my computer and go off and do something else, hoping that when I return to whatever project it is I’m working on I will once again have found the inspiration.
I’ve not received much advice, good or bad, during the course of my writing career. However, one thing I did read that has served me in good stead was by Stephen King, who said, “If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.” When I was struggling to produce the five club histories for Mainstream and was up against a deadline that seemed to be approaching quicker than I could write, I gave myself probably the simplest of all incentives to get the job completed; I wrote out a check for the amount that was payable on delivery of the manuscripts and used that to help me complete the task in time! Hardly the most creative of inspirations, but effective none the less!
My most recent book, Motown Encyclopedia was without doubt one of the hardest books I’ve ever undertaken. I originally came up with the idea when I was doing some research for another project and found myself having to switch between three or four books in order to find out the truth behind one story. This was largely because most of the reference books I was utilising tended to present the story in chronological order. Then I happened to be reading a Laurel & Hardy Encyclopedia and thought the format would lend itself well to Motown.
As you can imagine, the Motown story is one of the most complex of all stories connected with the record industry. Nearly everyone knows everything there is to know about the likes of Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye. Or if they don’t know about those artists, then there are plenty of reference books or websites that will provide that information. What intrigued me was the stories of the lesser artists, those who had only one single released or scheduled and who had then fallen off the radar. How did they come to be recording for Motown? Who discovered or signed them? What were their experiences like?
In order to ensure I covered everybody in the Motown Encyclopedia, my first task was to create a definitive discography, listing every single and album release. And not just on Motown but all of the sub-labels too, such as Tamla, Soul, Gordy, Rare Earth and V.I.P. There were also instances of records being originally released on Motown and associated labels and then being sub-licensed to other labels. Barrett Strong’s Money is the most obvious example of this; originally released on Tamla it was licensed to Anna Records (then distributed by Chess) and became a Top 30 success. There were other examples during Motown’s early, formative years, as well as the several licensing deals Berry Gordy did to get his repertoire released in Britain and Europe. Later there were releases that only appeared in Europe, including a number of titles aimed at the Northern Soul market, all of which had to be covered in the book. Finally, there were a number of licensing deals Berry Gordy did that worked the other way; Creed Taylor’s CTI label, Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s boutique label Manticore and British independent label Gull are among the labels that had their product manufactured and distributed in America by Motown during the 1970s. It took me about four months or so to complete the discography, by which time I’d discovered there were over six hundred artists who had some connection or another to the company, well in excess what I expected. Irrespective of this, each and every one would have a mini biography included in the encyclopedia.
I’d also decided to feature every record that made the Top Ten of the pop chart on either side of the Atlantic and provide some background information to the record or its creation. Then I looked at the musicians, writers and executives, as well as other entries that are key to the Motown story, such as the idea behind the original Motortown Revue and the dates on that historic tour, the first live dates in Europe and the line-up and programming for the Motown 25 television showcase. By the time I’d drawn up the list of everything to be featured, it ran to more than 1100 entries!
Not long after I came up with the idea and put together a synopsis, my then agent contacted to say he had a publisher keen to conclude a deal. Indeed, the would be publisher was said to be that keen they wanted a deal to be agreed within two months, ahead of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Eventually the deal fell through; the publisher still thought the book was a great idea but felt that as Motown was an American record company the book should have an American writer! Having already done a lot of the research in identifying the entries I wasn’t prepared to hand over the idea, although I might have been prepared to accept a co-author and even put forward a couple of name suggestions for them to pursue, but nothing came of it. I must admit I’m still rather glad nothing did come to fruition with that particular publisher because I think they failed to grasp the full extent of what I was proposing. They only seemed interested in the Motown story as it related to America, so didn’t particularly see the need to mention those records that only appeared in Britain. Which is fine until you realise Lynda Carter, better known on either side of the Atlantic as Wonder Woman, had a record released on Motown in Europe only, which would have meant her omission.
There were other publishers interested over the next couple of years, some of whom I came closer to agreeing a deal with than others, but ultimately none of the offers seemed worthwhile, not when set against the amount of research and time I spent putting the book together. One seemed to think I had managed to put the entire book together purely from Wikipedia! Instead, I spent a total of three years researching and writing, trying to track down every artist I could in order to obtain information. It was actually a repeat of the detective work I’d undertaken for my Complete Hit Singles and Hit Albums books some ten years previously. If I couldn’t find the artist then I’d try and track down the producer, songwriter or manager; anyone who might have some background information I could utilise. I have to say very few of the 684 artists (this number includes those artists whose only Motown connection is the inclusion of a track on a compilation or soundtrack, but hey, I’m a completist!) proved totally elusive and I had some fun doing it; one artist I couldn’t find but managed to locate his producer via ebay when I spotted his rather unusual surname and after initially contacting him via the ‘ask the seller a question’ function managed to get some great, hitherto unknown background information on the artist.
My original intention had been to do a straight reference book, but during the course of my research I came to realise the value of the information I was getting. Add to this the interviews I’d conducted with Motown artists over the years, such as Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Edwin Starr, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and High Inergy, as well as various executives and producers, such as Norman Whitfield, Harvey Fuqua and Hal Davis, and I came to the conclusion the book would be a more enjoyable read if I incorporated those quotes into the respective entries.
Finally, after three years of work and still no nearer getting a firm publishing deal I was faced with a difficult choice. As far as I could see, my options were to abandon the book, pay for a limited print run or make it available as an ebook. Options one and two were non-starters, so I looked at the third one. I’d got two other books that I’d been commissioned to write but which hadn’t been published owing to the collapse of the publisher so I thought I’d test the market, so to speak, by getting those out on Kindle. Actually, it was more about learning how to format for Kindle than actually earning a return on the two other books. Neither of them are music or sport and I put them out under a pen name, but I learned enough from the process to feel confident that I could turn the Motown Encyclopedia into an ebook without too much difficulty. So, in June 2014 I duly launched the book via Smashwords and Amazon and was pleasantly surprised at the response I received.
It didn’t take long before I was getting requests to turn the book into a paperback version. I’d held off doing a print on demand version because I’d heard some horror stories about the quality of print and the binding, but having control of every aspect of the process with CreateSpace enabled me to see that the book would look every bit as good as a version from a conventional publisher, so I launched that version in August. And once again I’ve been surprised at the response, with paperback sales now running at between three and four times the level of ebook sales. It proves to me, if not to anyone else, that reference works are better enjoyed as physical books since you seldom read them from start to finish but delve in and out as the fancy takes you.
The version that is available at the moment covers the Motown story from its formation in 1959 through to its sale to MCA in 1988. It seemed to me to be an appropriate place to draw a line, but I’ve been continuing my research and writing and have worked out the artists and records that came along after and could, conceivably, produce an expanded version. As if a book of a half a million words needs expanding!
When I started the Motown Encycloepdia I did the bulk of my work typing away at the dining table, which meant we ate most of our meals off trays in the front room! By the time I’d finished, my daughter had left home to share a house in London and my son was about to head off to university. I now have the luxury of a dedicated office (my son’s old room), with all of my reference books and copies of my own books adorning the shelves. And my wife has her dining room table back, even if we still eat our meals off trays in front of the television!
Motown means different things to different people. The mere mention of perhaps the most iconic record label in history is often enough to invoke memories and mental images of Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Jackson 5, The Supremes and numerous others. With each group recalled, there is an accompanying piece of music of the mind, from Baby Love, My Girl, Signed Sealed Delivered, I Heard It Through The Grapevine, ABC and Tears Of A Clown and countless more. Quite often, you can ask people what kind of music they like and they will simply answer ‘Motown’, and both they, and you, know exactly what is meant.
Or rather, what is implied. The Motown they are invariably thinking of is the label that dominated the charts in the mid 1960s with a succession of radio friendly, dance orientated hits, most of which were written and produced by the trio of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland. This period is referred to, naturally enough, as the Golden Era, when Motown was not only the dominant force in its home city of Detroit but carried The Sound of Young America all around the world. The kind of music that had them Dancing In the Street from Los Angeles to London, Miami to Munich and San Francisco to Sydney. It was the kind of music that attracted scores of imitators; some good, some not so good. The kind of music that appealed to the public and presidents alike, and still does.
It was that Motown that this book was intended to be about. However, when you start digging deeper into the Motown story, you realize that throughout its life (which, for the purposes of this book, is its formation in 1959 through to its sale in 1988) it was constantly trying other musical genres, looking to grab hits out of jazz, country, pop, rock, middle of the road and whatever else might be happening at the time. Of course it wasn’t particularly successful at some of the other genres, although those who claim Motown never did much in the rock market conveniently overlook the healthy sales figures achieved by Rare Earth, the group, and focus instead on the total sales achieved on Rare Earth, the label.
This book, therefore, contains biographies of all 684 artists who had releases on Motown and their various imprints, as well as biographies of 16 musicians, 23 producers, 19 writers and 13 executives. There are also details of the 50 or so labels that Motown owned, licensed to or licensed from. All nine films and the 17 soundtracks are also featured. Every Motown single and album and EP that made the Top Ten of the pop charts in either the US or UK also have their own entries, with 222 singles, 84 albums and five EPs being featured. Finally, there are 36 other entries, covering such topics as the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Motortown Revues, Grammy Awards and the most played Motown songs on radio.
The 1,178 entries cover every aspect of Motown and more – of the link between Granny in The Beverly Hillbillies and Wonder Woman, of the artists from Abbey Tavern Singers to Zulema, and the hits from ABC to You Really Got A Hold On Me. The Motown Encyclopedia is the story of Motown Records; Yesterday, Today, Forever.
About the Author
Born in London in 1957 Graham Betts began his working career training to be an architect before switching to the music industry in 1978 as a Press Officer with Pye Records. He subsequently went on to work for CBS Records (where he was Head of Press) and a number of budget labels, including Tring, before becoming Artist & Repertoire Manager for the Hallmark label. He is currently A&R Manager for the Pickwick Group. He has written for numerous magazines and publications over the last twenty five years, including Blues & Soul, Record Buyer and The History Of Rock. A contributor to numerous books on music and football, Graham has also had more than twenty published under his own name, including Michael Jackson – A Celebration, Read Without Prejudice (a biography of George Michael) and England Player By Player (a history of the England national side) as well as the annual publications Complete UK Hit Singles and Complete UK Hit Albums (published by Harper Collins). His most recent book, the Motown Encyclopedia, was published as an e-book in June 2014. Winner of the 1978 Melody Maker essay contest, he currently lives in Aston Clinton with his wife.