February 03, 2003 12:00 PM

by Gerald Posner

A failed boxer and struggling songwriter, Berry Gordy borrowed $800 from his family in 1959 and hung his new record company’s wishful Hitsville, U.S.A. shingle on a nondescript Detroit duplex. In the cramped basement studio—one vocal booth was in a bathroom—Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops and the Supremes went to work. An investigative journalist who keeps his narrative in fine rhythm, Posner details the dark side of the heavenly Motown sound. The Four Tops and Temptations armed themselves for protection during tours of the Deep South in the mid-’60s. Marvin Gaye recorded his masterpiece What’s Going On during a cocaine binge. And Diana Ross sashays through the pages like a real-life Veruca Salt, insisting that even her bandmates address her as “Miss Ross” and ordering underlings to avert their eyes in her presence. Sifting through court documents, Posner paints an alternately admiring and damning portrait of the oft-sued Gordy, who bound his stars to onerous contracts. “We never saw a single penny from any of those early tours,” said Temptations singer Otis Williams. Gordy sold Motown for $61 million in 1988. As he put it in one hit he co-wrote: “Money (That’s What I Want).” (Random House, $24.95)

BOTTOM LINE: Supreme job

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