Features Mary Wells Book in an Interview with the Author titled "Peter Benjaminson Goes to Motown:"

Peter Benjaminson wrote the book on Motown. Well, at least the first book.

While serving stints as a newspaper reporter and as journalism professor at Binghamton University, New York University, and Columbia University, Benjaminson became an authority on Motown and after covering the history of the company, he has been focusing on individual stars. Today he talks to us about Motown and his new book “Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar.”

Music Tomes: You’ve written three books on Motown, including your newest one. When did you first fall in love with Motown?

Peter Benjaminson: Well, I first fell in love with the idea of writing books. This feeling hit me when I was a newspaper reporter in Detroit in the 1970's. In 1976, with David Anderson, I wrote the first ever how-to book on Investigative Reporting, titled, naturally, “Investigative Reporting.” It was very successful, so I started looking around for another subject that I could write about without extensive traveling. The first subject I saw was the auto industry, but that had already been done to death. The second subject was the Motown Record Company, and that hadn’t been done at all. Until 1979, when Grove Press published my book “The Story of Motown” not a single author in this country had written a book about Motown, even though Motown had been producing hits since the early 1960's. (Since then, at least 200 books have been published on the company and its artists, and I’m proud to have opened the floodgates.) Later on, I became entranced with the individual artists at Motown as well as with the company itself.

MT: What is it about Motown that inspires you to write about the music and the artists?

PB: Aside from the shock of realizing that as a book writer, I was standing alone in a cultural goldmine, I very soon realized that Motown was one of the very few well-known and successful businesses in America founded by a black man. That man, Berry Gordy, had been savvy enough to “whiten-down” black music, not enough to destroy it, but enough to make it saleable to whites as well as blacks. He also managed to found his company and make it a major success in what was essentially just a gap between two major Detroit race riots, one in 1943 and the other in 1967.

MT: This is the first work on Mary Wells. Can you speak to her cultural significance?

PB: She was among the many young participants in a Detroit Public Schools music program who were able to find an outlet for her talent at Motown Records. But she was much more than that. She did it by having the guts to write her own song and then at age 17 to confront a very busy Berry Gordy while he was supervising two Motown acts at a Detroit nightclub and basically demand that he allow her to sing it for him on the spot. As Martha Reeves noted, in doing this Mary Wells “stood for all the courage and perseverance that any female should need to enter into show business and have a place in it.” Gordy signed Wells to a Motown contract the next day and the song she wrote, “Bye Bye Baby,” became an instant hit, rising to #8 on the Billboard R&B chart and #45 on the Billboard pop Chart. She was among the vanguard of black vocalists who could not only sing in a black idiom — as she did in “Bye Bye Baby” — but was also able with great skill and emotional power to sing the “whiter” songs that became the big Motown hits. As Mary Wilson of the Supremes said, by doing this Mary Wells paved the way for the many successful Motown groups that followed. Most importantly, I think, Wells helped to create American popular music as we now know it: an amalgam of black and white musical styles.

MT: Aside from your music writing you’ve written on investigative reporting and on the newspaper format’s struggle for survival, both of which, in my opinion, affect music journalism to some extent. How do you feel the rise in digital self-publishing will affect music journalism and music literature in the future?

PB: On my first day in college, my first professor in my first class quoted an ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in an age of transition.” That curse impressed me then and impresses me now, but no previous transitional period compares in speed and tumultuousness with the rise of the web, which of course includes digital self-publishing .The internet has vastly altered the music and the publishing industries and will continue to do so for many years. All I can say is that the net allows anyone and everyone to express their opinion on music and musicians for a potentially huge audience. How this will shake out in the real world is totally unclear.

MT: What are you currently working on?

PB: I’ve written two books on female entertainers: “The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard” and the book we’re discussing, “Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar.” These books have been or are likely to be successful enough to encourage me to produce a third book about an even better known female entertainer: Farrah Fawcett. I’ve signed a co-author’s contract with Greg Lott, her off and on lover for much of her life, to write a full biography of that gorgeous and versatile entertainer, who became a serious credible actress through her own efforts. Amazingly enough, no such bio has even been attempted since 1977, and Farrah’s career continued until 2009. We’re now searching for a publisher.

MT: Can you recommend a few of your favorite music tomes?

PB: “Diana Ross” by J. Randy Taraborrelli, “Making Tracks” by Charlie Gillett, “Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme,” by Mary Wilson, “Hype & Soul: Behind the Scenes at Motown” by Al Abrams, “John Lennon,” by Albert Goldman, “Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter,” by Randy Schmidt, “Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne,” by James Gavin and “The Strangest Song,” by Teri Sforza. Obviously I like books about women and song.

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