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Motown luminary Esther Edwards Gordy passes away

for Journal Register Newspapers

Posted: Thursday, August 25, 2011

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When Berry Gordy, Jr.'s family loaned him $800 in 1959 to start what became Motown, it did so under the condition that his sister Esther Gordy Edwards gave him the hardest time, pressing him about his plans and particularly about how he was going to repay the money.

"So my parents said to her, 'If you're so worried, then you go work with him and help him out," Berry Gordy recalled during Motown's 50th anniversary celebration in 2009. "She kept me honest. Whatever I did had to meet up to her standards."

Edwards, 91, who in addition to working for Motown also founded the Motown Historical Museum in 1985, died after a long illness on Wednesday night (Aug. 24) at home in Detroit, surrounded by family and friends.

In a statement, Berry Gordy saluted his older sister as "a top Motown executive, businesswoman, civil and political leader, who received numerous awards, commendations and accolades. She was the most educated in our family and was the go-to person for wisdom in business."

He added that, "Whatever she did, it was with the highest standards, professionalism and an attention to detail that was legendary. She always came out a hero. Esther wasn't concerned with being popular. She was dedicated to making us all better -- the Gordy family and the Motown family."

Stevie Wonder also issued a statement saying that Edwards, "meant so much to me as a human being....She believed in me -- when I was 14 years old and many other people didn't or could only see what they could at the time, she championed me being in Motown. I shared with her many of my songs first before anyone else. She was like another mother to me, she was an extension of that same kind of motherly love."

Smokey Robinson added that "because of her wisdom and foresight..we have a pictoral and itemized history of Motown, the Motown Museum, which allows people now and for generations to come to have a first-hand look at our legacy."

Edwards was born April 25, 1920 in Oconee, Ga., and came to Detroit with her family in 1922. She was educated at Howard University in Washington, D.C. and at Wayne State University in Detroit, later partnering with brothers Fuller and George in the Gordy Printing Company. She married Michigan state Rep. George Edwards in 1951, and worked as one of Motown as an artist manager, corporate secretary, Director of International Relations and a senior vice-president.

"She was a pioneering businesswoman without whom Motown as we know it may not have existed," said Howard Kramer, a Detroit native who's now a curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum in Cleveland. "She had the mind of a politician and the business vision of a hawk."

Berry Gordy remembered his sister as "probably the toughest one of all of us there" at Motown, occasionally chaperoning the early Motortown Revue tours. But Edwards herself once said the hallmark of the company was "love -- just love for each other, for the music, for what we were building and creating." Wonder also noted that Edwards, "embodied the idea of never giving up. She was ever determined in everything she did, she was full of energy and her spirit will continue live on. She loved the idea of what we were creating in Motown."

Besides her Motown history, was also the first African-American woman to be elected a Michigan Delegate-at-Large for the 1960 Democratic National Convention, was the first woman elected to the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce board of directors and the first African-American person and first woman on the board of Detroit's Central Business District Association. Edwards founded the African-American Heritage Association, was a trustee for the Interlochen Center for the Arts, a board member of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change, and the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, president of the Wayne State Fund and a co-owner of the Detroit Wheels football team.

Edwards also received a variety of awards from organizations such as the National Association of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, Wayne State University, PUSH and that National Society of Fundraising Executives. She also served on the Michigan Sesquicentennial Commission and the Michigan Historical Commission.

Edwards' greatest legacy, however, is the establishment of the Motown Historical Museum at the company's former Hitsville USA headquarters on West Grand Blvd. "I want people to remember what we achieved here," she once said, "not just the music but how these young, black people in the city of Detroit created a great company and a sound that's known and loved all over the world."

Berry Gordy noted that Edwards, "turned the so-called trash left behind after I sold the company in 1988 into a phenomenal world-class monument...She preserved Motown memorabilia before it was memorabilia, collecting our history long before we knew we were making it. She nurtured and held it together through the years, protecting the Motown legacy for generations to come."

The Rock Hall's Kramer, who used to hang around the Motown museum as a teenager, said that Edwards "was solely responsible for the Motown museum. It was her vision and execution of it. She leaves behind a tremendous legacy."

Funeral arrangements for Edwards are pending. She is survived by: a son, Robert Berry Bullock; stepson the Hon. Harry T. Edwards; siblings Anna Gordy Gaye, Berry Gordy and Robert L. Gordy; three granddaughters; and six great-grandchildren.

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