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Motown 50: Berry Gordy, Jr., Speaks

Of the Oakland Press

Posted: Sunday, January 11, 2009

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The Sound of Young America settles comfortably into middle age this week.

On Jan. 12, 1959, Berry Gordy, Jr., already an established songwriter with a couple of hits for Jackie Wilson, borrowed $800 from his Detroit family's Ber-Berry Co-op fund to start his own record company -- which would allow him to make more money than merely royalties. With it he created Motown, setting up shop on West Grand Boulevard in a house that he prophetically dubbed Hitsville U.S.A.

As it turns 50, Motown remains a success story of massive proportions. Gordy and his cohorts gave us not only great entertainers and great music but also created the world's most prominent and successful black-owned company, a symbol and a cultural icon whose impact remains an inspiration around the world. "You heard song after song come out of there and just wondered how they were producing this kind of magic," notes the former Beatle Paul McCartney.

Motown is the company that put us on "Cloud Nine" and had us "Dancing in the Streets," "Going to a Go-Go" and hearing things through the grapevine. It brought the world the likes of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Martha (Reeves) and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder -- all of them enshrined along with Gordy in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and other vaunted institutions. Even Motown's "second tier" -- less consistent hitmakers such as the late Mary Wells, the Contours, Kim Weston, the Isley Brothers and Gladys Knight & the Pips -- were considered major stars by anyone who owned a transistor radio.

There is no simple or glib way to explain why Motown happened and why it was so successful. It was simply a convergence of the right people at the right time in the right place -- and of one man with a dream and the tenacity to make it happen, from the 24-7 recording that went on in Hitsville's legendary Studio A to company divisions that took care of everything from artist management to tour booking, choreography and etiquette training. And there were the famously intense Quality Control meetings each Friday where Gordy and the Motown brain trust decided which songs would be released.

As Motown star artist, writer and producer Smokey Robinson, who campaigned for Gordy to start a label, explains, "I guarantee you that all over the world, in every little township, every little village, every little city, every big city, there is an abundant amount of talent. But the difference in Detroit was that we did have Berry Gordy. We had a man there who had a vision, who had a dream, and he had whatever fortitude and whatever...it took to make a thing like that happen."

Save for his 1994 autobiography "To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown," the thrice-divorced father of seven -- who moved the company to Los Angeles in 1972 and sold it for $61 million in 1988 -- has largely been silent on the subject of Motown, granting only sporadic interviews. "I was too busy moving forward to answer anything," he says now. But Motown's 50th anniversary has brought Gordy, 79, who still resides in California, into the spotlight he once eschewed to talk about the enduring legacy of what he created in Detroit.

"He was everywhere. You could feel Berry Gordy's finger on everything that went on in the company, whether he was physically there or not." -- Barney Ales, Motown executive

So does it feel like 50 years or 50 minutes -- or 500 years?

Berry Gordy: (laughs) It certainly does not feel like 50 years, but I look at all that stuff that's happened and I don't know how we could've done all that in 50 years. It's almost like a dream to me that all that stuff was done, and I'm sure the reason is we were having so much fun doing it. For the first time I'm just now beginning to appreciate it.

Why just now?

Gordy: Because what happens is over the last 50 years we did it so fast and so good, and we did it with love and competition. And being a black kid from Detroit, and a black company, people tried to figure out reasons why it happened.

Like claiming you were tied-in to organized crime?

Gordy: That's right. They came up with all kinds of reasons why black kids came up with all this stuff and had all this success, and therefore we had all kinds of rumors throughout the country and the world about our successes. They didn't want to think that it was just the incredible talent of all these great people who come out of Detroit -- the Supremes, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight & the Pips and Smokey and the Miracles and Rick James, and then the unsung people like the Funk Brothers (Motown's studio musicians) and everybody who worked in the offices. It was teamwork and a team effort, and I'm so grateful to those people that followed me. That's why I've been fighting to protect the legacy for 50 years, and now it seems that at 50 years we can talk about the real deal, what really happened.

Take us back to Jan. 12, 1959, when you got the loan from your family.

Gordy: It was tough, but I was pretty strong and firm and I sold my heart out. I had a record I wanted to make with Marv Johnson, "Come to Me." We had this family loan thing where everybody put in $10 a month, so part of it was my money, anyway, but they had never let anybody borrow anything from that before, and they felt if I borrowed anything it would open up the floodgates and everybody would use the savings club. But I pitched my thing. I said, 'I need this thousand dollars,' and I said, 'I'm gonna be rich, I'm gonna be famous and I'm gonna be the greatest thing in the world!' And they said, "Yes, but you've been a failure in anything you've ever done in your life!" But I had two sisters, Gwen and Ana, that were really in my corner. They said, "Give him the money. Give him the money!" And finally my mother looked at my father, and they looked at each other and they felt so sorry for me that they said, "We won't give you $1,000, but we will give you $800. But you've got to sign this IOU and sign your life away." So they made me promise whatever, and that was it. I made the record, "Come to Me," and the rest is history."

"$800 was a lot of money. I kept asking him ``How are you going to pay it back? You don't have a job.'' He had quit his good job, $85 a week, at the Ford Motor factory, on the assembly line. He had three children. My sister Gwen told him she knew he could write songs, and that she was going to pay his child support for a year to give him a chance to get going." -- Esther Edwards, Gordy's sister, Motown executive and founder of the Motown Historical Museum

What were the creative and business models you had for Motown? Were they separate ideas or intertwined?

Gordy: It was really one idea. My talent was looking at people and finding that magic, or talent -- I thought everybody had it -- and showing them how to bring it out. I was pretty cocky. I thought I could make a star out of anybody.

"When I met him, he was a young man, not much older than us. He always looked like he had a dream in the back of his eyes. But he always had a plan; all we had to do was what he told us, just cooperate. He had in his mind a show business that none of us even knew about." -- Martha Reeves

"Berry was the head, like a father, and we were like the children, It was very easy to follow him, his direction and guidance and whatever, because he wanted to become successful just as the artists wanted to become successful." Claudette Robinson, the Miracles

Calling the building Hitsville was gutsy -- but prescient.

Gordy: I named it Hitsville because I knew that hits were going to be made there, and I wanted to get a hip name. And those days, -ville was the cool thing to say, so I said, "OK, we're gonna call this Hitsville because that is where hits are gonna be made."

In the garage, too.

Gordy: Yes, it was a garage. We had makeshift everything there. We had an echo chamber in the bathroom, and it had wonderful sound. We would put a microphone up there and use it as an echo chamber, and we had many hits out of that studio with that echo chamber. And everything would always be going great until someone flushed the toilet, and then we'd have this big whoosh on the record, so of course we had to record a lot of records over.

The proverbial question, of course, is What is the Motown sound?

Gordy: Motown music was a combination of everything that I knew about. And when people ask me to define it -- "Define Motown! What is the Motown sound?" -- I would always say "rats, roaches, soul, guts and love." We came from this whole environment. It was all that stuff. The songs were built on truth. We wrote songs about who we were and not to try to figure out what somebody else would want to buy, which most people do. But who are we? We're normal people, so if we feel a certain way about something, a lot of other people in the world would probably feel that way, too.

You started with labels named Tamla and Anna, but where did Motown come from as a company name?

Gordy: I decided to call it Motor City first, because Detroit was called the Motor City, of course. And I thought "city" was a little too cold, because I always felt like Detroit has been a warm town. It was a factory town and everybody kinda liked everybody else, so it had this warmness to it. So I decided rather than Motor City, I would take Motor Town, and then I contracted it to just Motown. So that's what that Motown name means -- warmness. When people hear it today, they feel warm if you mention the word Motown. In all the different countries around the world that know Motown, there's something warm about it, and that's something I was very interested in. That's the legacy of Motown, and that's what I felt about Detroit.

"Motown is historical. It's a once in a lifetime musical event. On day one...Berry Gordy said 'We're going to make music for the world. We're not gonna make 'black' music; we're gonna make music that has great stories and great beats. That's what we started out to do, and we accomplished that." -- Smokey Robinson

Could you have envisioned the unifying force Motown's music became around the world?

Gordy: Well, it was music for all people. It's not about black and white, blue or green -- it's about people. That's what the Motown philosophy has always been. We're one people; we may have come over here on different ships, but we're in the same boat now. We just believed that people are the same everywhere, that we all want the same things, and we promoted that. It's the same philosophy we feel now even with Barack Obama being elected. The whole world seems that we are joined together, and it's the same philosophy we've had (at Motown) for years and years and years. I'm extremely proud; I never thought in my lifetime that I would see a black man as president. And knowing that Obama is a Motown lover, I would hope that some of his philosophical points came from that Motown-type of thinking.

"You knew that here we are at a company that had a very different, special kind of vibe going for it -- so much so that when the company different, special kind of vibe going for it -- so much so that when the company closed at six o'clock, me and a few others would be there cleaning the floors, emptying the ash trays in the trash cans and getting ready for the next day for people to come back and work. Now, in most cases, you don't find artists doing something like that. But it was such a fun, loving place and with a family orientated kind of feel, you just went beyond the call of being an artist. You wanted to do whatever you could to make Motown become what it's become now." -- Otis Williams, the Temptations

The early days of the company were lean, weren't they?

Gordy: The way it worked was the distributors sold a lot of records, but there were other companies and they would have to pay everybody, so they'd pay the hottest company...So we would have to wait until after they paid the hot companies and, when our money was due, they would either be close to bankruptcy or not paying us, and we would take what we could get and hope for another hit record. And when we got another hit record we'd go in and demand the money, and if they could afford to pay us, they would. If we had any one year when we didn't make a big profit, we would have gone out of business, because we were going from record to record during that period. When "Please Mr. Postman" came, that was our first No. 1 record. It was what we called a "clean-up record."

"Hitsville was a unique place, because that's where we hung out. When we came off of a 50 one-nighter tour and you'd be dead tired, rather than going to home to get some rest...everybody went there, because we knew that everybody was going to be there. We hung out there because it was a wonderful place to be." -- Smokey Robinson

What impact do you feel the Quality Control process and the weekly meetings had on Motown's success?

Gordy: Well, when songs came out of there we knew they would be hits because we had these Friday meetings where we would argue over them. We'd have these long, hard-fought, debated sessions. But when we released the record out of that meeting, we knew it was a great record because everybody voted on it. We were pioneers, and no one knew it would be successful. And when they found out it was, then that's when the competition got very, very heavy.

The system pitted artists, writers and producers against each other, all vying to have their songs released. How did you pull that off without everything erupting into civil war?

Gordy: It was just a time and place where it was all about the music. We had fierce competition and fierce love, and even though people would compete in those meetings, the competitors would work on each others' records. It was the strangest thing. It was competing, but they had love, and Norman Whitfield would work on a Marvin Gaye session, and Marvin Gaye would play drums on a Supremes session, even though he had his records coming up against theirs. So it was unique. It's hard to duplicate that feeling in any company.

You were the boss. Did you ever just go with your own gut over the will of the majority?

Gordy: I was in charge but I made logic the boss, so people could argue with me, and if they had a more credible, more logical (argument) than me, they would be able to win. They would ask my opinion, and I usually didn't give 'em the major thumbs-up that other people did, but I wasn't. nearly as negative as some of the other people.

"Berry would listen to (the songs) all the way down, man. He'd turn his chair around and listen all the way through. And everyone would be on pins and needles, waiting to hear what he thought." -- William "Mickey" Stevenson, Motown executive, songwriter and producer

"Berry, being the songwriter and record producer he was, set a certain standard and I think everybody was aware of this standard and was reaching for that. He believed in the song having a good idea and a melody that was catchy, and putting those things together is what caused the songs to be as effective s they were." -- Eddie Holland, Motown songwriter

Were there any songs that didn't come out of that process that wound up being hits?

Gordy: "My Cherie Amour" by Stevie Wonder. That was on the B-side of a record called "I Don't Know Why I Love You," and we promoted it like mad. The few people who bought the record, they turned it over and played "My Cherie Amour" and started calling the radio stations trying to get them to play it. After a month or so we started promoting ("My Cherie Amour") and it became an international smash. And in the documentary we're doing we have (footage of) one of those meeting where we fought over (the Temptations') "My Girl." When you see the tape you'll see how many people didn't like it.

"I was only like nine years old when it started...And me having the wish, you know, that I could be a singer and being as fascinated by that sound that came out of a radio, how all that could happen. And obviously, within a matter of two years after that, I had the pleasure of meeting some of those great people that I never imagined that I would. So that was a great, a great thing." -- Stevie Wonder

Motown started, in many ways, with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. What was the genesis of that relationship?

Gordy: When I heard Smokey first sing was when I was a writer for Jackie Wilson. I had no company. I was just a writer, and I was in an office, writing a song for Jackie, and Smokey and (the Miracles) came in to audition for Jackie Wilson's manager, and I just happened to be sitting there...And after they sang three or four songs, they were rejected, and I thought they were just the cutest, the greatest, the most inspired...I left after them and talked to them in the hallway and told them how great they were. And when they found out I was Berry Gordy, Smokey had been studying Jackie Wilson, and I was a big star to him, and so I felt like I was somebody special. It was important for me to play the act of being more important.

"Many people were not aware that the Miracles were the very first group ever to king a contract for Berry Gordy and Motown Records. We were the only group that was around at the time with Berry. The only other artist at the time was Eddie Holland. We're talking about 1957." -- Claudette Robinson, the Miracles

The irony of your particular affinity for the Supremes, and your subsequent romantic relationship with Diana Ross, is that you initially told them no.

Gordy: Diana's voice was not the greatest; she had sort of a little nasally sound. But...she was so inspired with it. I asked them what grade they were in, and she said she was in 12th grade, and they wanted to start singing right then. And I said, "No, go to school. Get your education. When you graduate, come back and see me." And that's what happened. They came back. And, yes, (Ross) was very enthusiastic about being a singer. She would just really work at it. She was willing to pay the price. She said she was a great secretary, and would I give her a job? And I did. I think she lasted about three weeks. (laughs)

"Ours was a close-knit family that helped each other to do what they were trying to do. Everybody that joined the company kind of became like a part of the family." -- Esther Edwards

"Motown was built on faith and trust and loyalty. It was a family." -- Raynoma Gordy Singleton, Gordy's second wife

Was it painful to be criticized by some of your artists who accused you of cheating them out of royalties or manipulating their careers?

Gordy: One thing about the people who are with Motown, they can not not love each other. Like any family, we get mad, we get happy, we get this and that, but that love will always stay. So even though I was in a lawsuit for 30 years with Holland-Dozier-Holland because they left the company and believed some of the stuff people were saying and they felt maybe they were cheated...Well, after 30 years of depositions and all that we all came together and they said, "Hey, we love you so much" and I said, "I love you guys." We had this misunderstanding and we had to thrash it out, and even though it took a long time they are my biggest supporters and I am theirs. And many of these people are my best friends today -- Smokey is my very best friend, you know? To look back 50 years later and find those same people I spent all that time and did all that work with talking about me and understanding me and loving me as much as they do, my goodness. Who wouldn't be thrilled with that? That's what I did it all for -- to be loved.

Do you ever wish you had taken a more active role in publicly addressing some of the controversies?

Gordy: I never liked the spotlight, never liked getting in front of the cameras to defend anything. Sometimes I think it was wise, and other times I think it might have been a mistake to not stop some of that stuff. But if I had, if I had taken the time to do that instead of working on the music, maybe Motown wouldn't have grown the way it did. But the truth only wins if you can afford to fight for it; otherwise people will re-write history. And so many people tried to do that on (Motown), but because of the loyalty of the artists and my determination to fight for the truth, we finally came over the hump of that.

After all this time, any lasting regrets?

Gordy: We would have been better off with the record thing if we had stayed in Detroit. There have been times when I felt it was stupid to come out (to Los Angeles) and get into something, even though we had successful movies like "Mahogany" and "Lady Sings the Blues." I wanted to be in the movie business and to do things out here and that was it. It was growth. So we gained the movie thing, but the record thing didn't go as well.

"There was a big outburst of tempers when the company moved. That hurt me because I had a new little baby, an infant son. But that didn't stop me, because I had instructions, the things I was taught at Motown." -- Martha Reeves

"I really don't think that Berry Gordy would have ever moved if he had known how important we were in Detroit. We had over 450 staff employees at one time when we were there, but there was no Chamber of Commerce, no city people, mayors or anybody recognizing that." -- Esther Edwards

You're planning a documentary about Motown. What's up with that?

Gordy: It's scheduled to come out in September, and It's a documentary on me and not only what I did and how I did it, but how I felt doing it and what it was I did, what it was that happened -- and from my standpoint. Then we also have a Broadway play, which is coming out in 2010, and we have long-form, multi-part videos, 'cause there's so much to tell. It's so much fun looking back at that stuff now and saying, "Wow..." I'm just thrilled that I'm here to enjoy now what I couldn't enjoy while I was doing it.

So you're enjoying the party.

Gordy: Oh, absolutely -- are you kidding? It's just a unique situation, and I'm the major recipient of that now because I can look back and...it's a different kind of enjoyment. I enjoyed making the records. I enjoyed dealing with the people. I enjoyed directing and hanging out and...now I can look at it a different way and say, 'OK, we did it. We really did it.' "

Web Site: www.classic.motown.com

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