Berry Gordy: The Ultimate ‘Lifetime Achiever’

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It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the music industry — and perhaps even Detroit — had there been no Berry Gordy.

The Michigan Chronicle could not have made a decision any wiser than the one to present its 2013 Legacy In Motion Lifetime Achievement Award to the legendary Motown Record Corporation founder and former president.

The black-tie event takes place Dec. 7 in the Grand Ballroom of Cobo Center in Detroit.  Gordy will be there to accept the award.

Motown has the distinction of being the most successful Black owned record company in the history of show business. It is also the most written about record company of all time, White, Black or otherwise. There have literally been dozens of books written about Motown, several by the artists themselves.

But perhaps the most important one is Berry Gordy’s autobiography, “To Be Loved,” subtitled “The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown.”

The smash hit stage musical “Motown,” currently playing to packed houses on Broadway, is based on that book.

The impact of Motown was never more clear than when the NBC TV special “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever” aired on March 25, 1983.

THE RATINGS were through the roof, record sales increased, careers were reinvigorated, and the Motown Museum on West Grand Blvd. — not Motown’s Los Angeles headquarters — was deluged with congratulatory/memory sharing phone calls.

“I was comfortably seated in the balcony at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, waiting for the show to start,” Gordy recalled. “The show was one thrill after another…The topper to ‘Motown 25’ came a few months later in the fall of 1983 when the show was nominated for nine Emmy Awards.”

The special won the Emmy, the most prestigious award in television, in the Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Program category.

Many of the artists who had Motown to thank for their careers were there that night and the list was a lengthy one, including Smokey Robinson, the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Junior Walker, the Commodores, Mary Wells, Michael Jackson, the Jacksons, Martha Reeves, the Temptations and the Four Tops.

Those that were not present, such as Gladys Knight & the Pips and the Marvelettes, were seen in nostalgic film clips.

INTERESTINGLY, when he was a boy, Berry Gordy, Jr. sold the Michigan Chronicle. This followed a stint as a shoeshine stand operator.

There was always a strong entrepreneurial spirit in the Gordy family, cultivated mainly by the patriarch of the family, Berry Gordy, Sr., but also the matriarch, Bertha Gordy. They and their eight children — Esther, Fuller, Gwen, Anna, George, Loucye, Robert and Berry, Jr. — lived on the east side of Detroit.

“From the shoe industry, I turned to journalism, selling the Michigan Chronicle, Detroit’s top colored weekly newspaper,” remembered Gordy.

“One weekend I packed up some papers and went to sell them in the White neighborhood. I figured White people there would probably love to buy them if they got the chance.

“After all, you could always find them hanging out at the Black nightclubs, like the Flame Show Bar or those down in Paradise Valley. I felt that everyone in the world had a lot more in common than they realized.

“Well, I was a big hit and sold more papers in less time than ever before. I decided I could afford to share the wealth and brought my brother down with me the next weekend.

“We did not do well. We both got a hard, fast lesson in race relations. It seemed one precocious little Black kid was cute, but two were a threat to the neighborhood.”

BERRY GORDY started Motown with an $800 loan from a savings fund owned by the Gordy family. Along the way he was assisted and supported by a cavalcade of singers, writers, musicians, producers, executives, friends, family members and others.

Motown’s first million seller was “Shop Around” by the Miracles which debuted on the national charts in December of 1960, peaking at No. 1 on the R&B chart and No. 2 on the Pop chart.

Gordy has special feelings for the Motown Museum, the idea for which was conceived by his sister, Esther Gordy Edwards, a former Motown vice president. It is housed in what had been Motown headquarters (“Hitsville U.S.A.”) at 2648 W. Grand Blvd.

“THE MUSEUM could be the messenger of our history for generations to come,” wrote Gordy. “Not just a history of singing and dancing and building entertainers, but much more — a history of Black entrepreneurship that gave people an opportunity to reach their full potential.

“We had done that at Hitsville, where young people had learned to write, produce, perform, think, make choices. The choices they made and the dreams they followed all contributed to the magic that was Motown.”

Berry Gordy, who is also an accomplished songwriter with many hits to his credit, likened Motown to Broadway.

“I’ve discovered that Motown and Broadway have a lot in common — a family of wonderfully talented, passionate, hard-working young people, fiercely competitive but also full of love and appreciation for the work, for each other and for the people in the audience.”

For more information about the Michigan Chronicle Legacy In Motion event, including sponsorships, which will also present the Community Spirit Award and honor the Newsmakers of the Year and Company of the Year, please call (313) 963-5522 during regular business hours.

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