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Saga of the black pop-music empire

Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound, by Nelson George. New York: St. Martin's Press. 250 pp. $17.95. ``When the Temptations needed a breakthrough hit in 1964,'' writes author Nelson George in ``Where Did Our Love Go?'' ``[Berry] Gordy and Smokey [Robinson] battled to see who'd provide it. Driving back from a concert at the Apollo [Theater] in New York, Bobby Rogers and Smokey composed a song while taking turns at the wheel. When they got back to Detroit, they found Berry gloating over his song. A week later the contest was held . . . Smokey and Bobby Rogers's `The Way You Do the Things You Do' [won].''

Cooperation. Competition. Hard work. That's what Motown, the name of both the black pop music sound and the industry that created that sound, was all about, according to Mr. George, Billboard magazine's editor of black music.

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Motown was created by ex-boxer-turned-songwriter Berry Gordy in 1959. Wanting to give black artists more control over their material in the white-dominated music industry, he set up his own recording company and talent agency. Paterfamilias Gordy presided over his brood of talented teens as they cranked out such No. 1 pop hits as ``I Heard it Through the Grapevine,'' ``You're All I Need to Get By,'' ``Heat Wave,'' and ``Stop! in the Name of Love.'' His prot'eg'es -- Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Dozier-Holland-Dozier, and many others -- were groomed to have poise and style and were expected to give their all, as he did.

With the hits rolling out of this small Detroit building aptly named Hitsville, it was an exciting time. And it was ruthless. Motown became an empire of black pop music that fought its way to power. By 1974, it had lost its grip -- the victim of The Beatles' ``British invasion,'' corporate fat, bitter lawsuits, and the loss of independent labels to corporate control.

Mr. George's engaging style makes the backstage world come to life. Those who grew up with these songs will find it intriguing to find out about how they came to be written, the grueling road tours these now-famous artists endured, and the small but significant events that made one performer a star and left another equally talented one behind.

George has researched thoroughly, interviewing hundreds of players, relatives, musicians, administrators. The reclusive Gordy was not available, however, and there's a thread of bitterness about the man from the writer and many of the performers. But overall, the book is a clear-eyed, sometimes affectionate look at a remarkable man and his company that so fit the times. ``Where Did Our Love Go'' is much more than a record industry book. It shows Motown to be an anthem of black pride and the sound of an era.

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