September 9, 1992

Off The Record‑‑Motown By Master Number, 1959‑1989, Volume 1: Singles.  By Reginald J. Bartlette.  Ann Arbor, MI: Popular Culture, Ink., 1991.  xxxv + 508 pp., illus., $55 plus postage from Popular Culture, Ink., P.O. Box 1839, Ann Arbor, MI 48106. (Phone: 800‑678‑8828).  ISBN 1‑56075‑004‑9.

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

Off The Record is an apt title for this peculiar discography of one of the major pop labels of the ’60s and ’70s.  It seems odd that such a hefty and supposedly “definitive” opus on a still‑extant label would be compiled with no assistance from the label itself, and no access to its files.  However that is the case here; virtually everything in Off The Record was literally copied off the labels (and wax areas) of issued discs.  As a result, with few exceptions you will find no recording dates, no unissued takes, and no session personnel listed here.  This is essentially a giant index to titles issued by Motown and its 50 or so affiliated labels, on single 45s, showing only what appears on the label (an LP volume will follow).  The only additional data routinely provided is release date.

There are approximately 6,400 entries, covering the company’s output from 1959 until it was sold to MCA in 1988.  The first 225 pages list releases by matrix number.  This gets quite complicated as Motown used a plethora of matrix series, with various prefixes and suffices. Often two or more matrix numbers appear on the same disc.  Fortunately the author gives us four easy‑to‑read indexes, which the reader will use constantly: by title, performer, label and catalog number, and release date.  He has also created handy “listing numbers” of his own which make it easy to find any entry referenced in the indexes.

Off The Record also contains appendixes listing odds and ends including picture sleeve and color vinyl issues, “Yesteryear” series reissues, and various special codes found on some discs (including the “Delta Numbers” used by a West Coast pressing plant, which have proved particularly useful in dating discs.)  A lengthy introduction explains all the numbering systems, and helpfully summarizes the histories of each of Motown’s many affiliated labels.  Interspersed throughout the book are many black & white label illustrations.

Not everything found on the labels is included here.  The most significant omission is the name of the session producer, which was often listed on Motown labels.  It would have been nice to have had an index of recordings produced by label owner Berry Gordy, Jr., Smokey Robinson, star producers Holland & Dozier, and others.  Song composers are not shown either, and while less critical in a label discography they do have significance as much of Motown’s material was written in‑house.  Beyond that, Off The Record’s listings appear to be quite complete and accurate.  When I compared the book’s entries with several dozen discs only a few anomalies turned up.  A few second matrix numbers were not listed, including those on some pretty big sellers (e.g. “I’ll Be There” by the Jackson 5, “Beechwood 4‑5789” by the Marvelettes).  “I’ll Be There” also seems to have a date scratched into the wax (“8‑14‑70”); Off The Record gives a release date of August 28, 1970, for the disc, but does not indicate what the date in the wax represents.  Nor is there any reference to the name “Bell Sound” which is embossed in the wax of several discs I have seen; was this perhaps a recording studio used?  Perhaps most amusing, according to Off The Record the codes on my copy of “The One Who Really Loves You” by Mary Wells indicate that side one is a first pressing, while side two is a second pressing!

Overall, given the limitations of its sources‑‑normally we expect discographies to add to what we can find on the label‑‑Off The Record is quite well executed.  In terms of comprehensiveness in listing all Motown issues it gets an “A.”  It contained all the Motown family discs I had, and everything I found in a spot cross‑check with Ken Clee’s comprehensive label list, The Directory of American 45 R.P.M. Records, and Jerry Osborne’s more recent The Complete Library of American Phonograph Records‑‑save for one.  (The latter two references have partial data for Gordy 7004, while Off The Record has none; I don’t know who’s right on that.)   With 6,400 entries, how much could it have missed?

The book is physically well‑produced, with sturdy binding and clear typefaces.  It reflects the excellent production quality we have come to expect from Popular Culture, Ink., which has published some three dozen reference books in the rock field.  Off The Record may not be the “definitive bible for all Motown fans everywhere,” as the foreword enthusiastically claims, but it is certainly a good start.  Now if someone can just get into the company’s files…


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