Mr. Motown's magical year and career

Berry Gordy Jr. received an award at the Songwriters Hall of Fame in June, one of several honors in what's been a good year for him.
Berry Gordy Jr. received an award at the Songwriters Hall of Fame in June, one of several honors in what's been a good year for him. (LARRY BUSACCA / Getty Images)

Berry Gordy to get Marian Anderson Award.

Posted: November 18, 2013

'My dream was to make some music and get some girls," says Berry Gordy Jr. "My bar was low. As I went on, new doors kept opening. I exceeded my wildest dreams."

He pauses for a moment. It's been a very good year for the founder of Motown Records, who will be 84 on Nov. 28.

Since his jukebox autobiography's debut on Broadway in April, Motown The Musical has made $45 million. In June, the Songwriters Hall of Fame honored him with its pioneer award. Earlier this month, he received Ebony magazine's Lifetime Achievement Award.

Crowning Gordy's miracle year is the Marian Anderson Award. On Tuesday, he will receive the prize at a Kimmel Center gala hosted by comedian Chris Tucker and featuring performances by onetime Motown artists Smokey Robinson and Boyz II Men.

"Guess I'm still exceeding those dreams," a pumped Gordy says by phone from New York.

The Anderson Award, named for the Philadelphia-born contralto (1897-1993) who fought for social justice, goes to artist-activists in her tradition, such as Bill Cosby and Elizabeth Taylor. The board's criteria include the requirement that nominees be "culture changers."

That's what Gordy is, says award chair Pamela Browner White.

Citing the crossover appeal of Gordy's Motown acts, including Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, and the Jackson 5, critic Margo Jefferson says, "No one else so brilliantly teamed up soul and pop. No one else gave black and white audiences the sense . . . that they were happily united."

Gordy was and is an inspiration to African American artists and entrepreneurs, says Kenny Gamble, who with Leon Huff wrote so many of the "Philadelphia sound" pop hits.

"Berry opened up avenues for black songwriters and producers in America and around the world," Gamble says. "Motown was the blueprint for Philadelphia International Records," the company Gamble and Huff founded.

Gordy's life began in Detroit. He was the seventh of eight children born to Berry Gordy Sr., a contractor, and his wife. Junior's plan was to become a prizefighter, the next Joe Louis.

"When you're boxing," Gordy says, "you've got to be faster, smarter, tougher. Boxing taught me what you needed to be a champion."

For two years, the high-school dropout fought as a featherweight. His record: 12 wins, three losses. In 1951, he saw I'll See You in My Dreams, starring Danny Thomas as tunesmith Gus Kahn and Doris Day as his wife. "I found myself wanting to be a songwriter," Gordy says.

He wrote a tune called "You Are You." He put it in an envelope addressed to "Doris Day, Hollywood, California." (He never heard back. Some 40 years later, he visited Day and learned she had never received his song. "I played it for her. We both cried.")

After a stint in Korea, he opened a record store.

"I was a jazz lover, didn't love the blues," he recalls of the store, which stocked Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sarah Vaughan. He had few customers. "The experience taught me what my father tried to teach me - namely, 'When they pay, they have the say.' "

His store's failure got Gordy to thinking - why not make music for everyone, music that incorporated blues, gospel, pop, and string lines from classical compositions? But a guy's got to make a living, and Gordy, by then married with three children, got a job on the assembly line at Lincoln-Mercury.

"I watched bare metal frames go into one door and come out another door as a fully assembled cars," he says.

He wrote songs such as "Lonely Teardrops" for Jackie Wilson, which made the top of the R&B charts and number seven on the Billboard Top 100. As he did, he "imagined a place where a kid could walk into one door an unknown and out another a star."

With the royalties from "Lonely Teardrops" in hand, he borrowed $800 from his family to go into independent production. He found a bungalow at 2648 West Grand in Detroit, shoehorned next to Sykes Hernia Control. He put a prophetic shingle up that read, "Hitsville."

Just as prophetic, one of his first hits was "Money (That's What I Want)," recorded by Barrett Strong. Gordy wrote it with his sister Gwen.

Where did he get the guts and gumption to be the man who ran things instead of the guy who worked for the man?

"We-e-e-l-l," he says with a laugh that seems to erupt from his belly, "I did want to work for the man, I just didn't get hired.

"I ran Motown like an assembly line," he says. There was Quality Control, ensuring that the songs had an identifiable beat and sound.

There were the peerless musicians, known as the Funk Brothers, to play on the danceable recordings.

There were the Friday meetings, during which recordings were voted on.

There was Artist Development, a charm school headed by Maxine Powell, a model with the drive of Henry Higgins, who gave deportment lessons to the Motown talent, many of whom had grown up in the projects.

And there was dancer Cholly Atkins, once the partner of Honi Coles, who choreographed stage entrances and moves.

And then there was the talent.

Smokey Robinson, producer, songwriter, and front man of the Miracles, brought in Motown's first million-seller, "Shop Around." Martha Reeves, originally a secretary in the Artists and Repertory department, fronted the Vandellas and scored with "Heat Wave" and "Dancing in the Street."

Marvin Gaye, Gordy's brother-in-law, began as a session drummer before recording hits such as "Can I Get a Witness" and "I Heard it Through the Grapevine." Others in the stable included the Four Tops, the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and, of course, the Supremes.

Before Motown, music and radio largely were segregated. Gordy changed that. As Tucker says, "All of these great artists came to his company and changed the world by telling the story of black America, which was a universal story."

Gordy courted disc jockeys white and black (including Georgie Woods in Philadelphia). He told them Motown music was for everyone. It isn't black music, he told them, it's music by black artists. In 1966, the company's "hit ratio" (the percentage of records that made the charts) was 75 percent, the equivalent of batting .750.

It was a competitive environment, Gordy admits: "Competition breeds champions." His acts played on American Bandstand and Soul Train, on Top 40 and R&B stations, in clubs and in swank venues in Las Vegas and New York.

"At concerts in the South, Motown groups literally brought people together, insisting that the ropes traditionally used to separate black and white audience members be taken down," President Obama noted at a 2011 White House salute to Motown.

In the 1960s, when Motown recorded the speeches of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil-rights activist told Gordy, "You are creating social and emotional integration while we are creating political and intellectual integration."

"I was flabbergasted," Gordy recalls.

When he moved to Los Angeles in the late 1960s to produce and direct movies ( Lady Sings the Blues, Mahogany, and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings), the music end suffered. In 1988, he sold the company. His $800 investment brought a return of $61 million.

"Motown crisscrossed generations, genres, and decades of race-based music rules," Jefferson says.

Its soundtrack of a generation became the audio wallpaper of the 1983 hit movie The Big Chill and the toe-tapping draw of Motown The Musical.

The title of its silver anniversary television special, aired in 1983, had it right: Motown 25 - Yesterday, Today, Forever.

With a legacy of culture-changing music and the Marian Anderson Award, the same can be said of Berry Gordy Jr.


Gala Concert, honoring Berry Gordy Jr.

8:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets. Preceded by cocktail reception and dinner.

Ticket information: 215-893-1999 or

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