- I Hear a Symphony: Motown and Crossover R&B by Andrew Flory
The title of this significant contribution to pop music studies, particularly in the areas of soul/R&B music, suggests the idea of crossover, which Flory defines as the "phenomenon of commingling music markets that had once been mostly self-contained" (p. 1). Crossover serves as the book's main through-line and is an apt way to describe Flory's approach to the subject. Flory is a musicologist, but his book is about more than Motown's music. He fluidly connects interrelated topics—history, music, race, pop culture, cultural identity, marketing and branding, corporate relations, and biography—to present a holistic view of one the most influential record companies ever to produce a track.
The text includes an introduction, six chapters, two appendices, extensive notes, and a bibliography. Flory organizes the book into a "general narrative timeline (with some significant overlap)" (p. 9) that follows Motown's growth from its origins in Detroit, expansion into international music markets, move to Los Angeles, acquisition by MCA in 1988, and legacy. What differentiates I Hear a Symphony from the many other books written about Motown is that Flory critically addresses the music. As he asserts, "musical evidence is at the center of each chapter and fundamental to the book's overall argument" (p. 8). There are many music examples, but the nonmusician can simply read the text and play the tracks to hear what Flory describes. The book also includes photographs, charts, reprints of advertisements, and album cover art to enhance the text.
Flory delivers his main argument in the introduction: "Motown's approach was calculated to transcend the R&B market, and before long its music was at the forefront of sweeping challenges to the record industry's longstanding practices of racial segregation. … [Motown] led a musical tide out of the R&B market that crossed cultural borders and routinely delighted mainstream listeners, attaining a level of mainstream acceptance that was unprecedented for a company of its background" (pp. 1–2). He then lays out the "four interrelated phenomena" that serve as the focus of the text: "(1) interaction between R&B and other entertainment markets; (2) varying forms of African American identity that were highlighted or de-emphasized during those interactions; (3) the different agents responsible for musical creation and identity formation at Motown; and (4) dialogue between musical works that helped to situate Motown's music within both domestic and international markets" (p. 2). Flory later uses a nuanced definition of crossover and applies [End Page 272] it in different ways throughout the book to coincide with Motown's evolution as a company.
Chapters are given rather pedestrian names. The first, "Searching for Motown," begins with a synopsis of the slow erosion of musical and cultural boundaries between pop, R&B, and country that began during the late 1940s and early 1950s, then turns to a biography of Motown's chief architect, Berry Gordy, who had forays into various businesses prior to launching his music enterprises. Gordy's initial success came after he cowrote "Reet Petite" for Jackie Wilson; the song first appeared on the record charts in November 1957. Through his growing network, Gordy wrote and produced many tracks that were released on several labels, including United Artists and Chess. Gordy also established Jobete, his own publishing firm, and Motown, which released its first record in 1959. After he established the label, it took Gordy several years to find the musical formula that would eventually signify Motown. "Not all of Motown's music from [this] time aligned with stereotypes of black culture" (p. 33), Flory reminds the reader. Motown's roster included white female singers, rockabilly artists, and even some country-oriented musicians.
Chapter 2, "The Rise of the Motown Sound," describes Gordy's well-known "assembly line" production style. Motown utilized vertical integration that...