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First lady of Motown celebrated with songs, words

for Journal Register Newspapers

Posted: Wednesday, August 31, 2011

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DETROIT -- Several speakers at the funeral for Esther Gordy Edwards, a former Motown Records executive and Motown Historical Museum, touched on the fact that she could be a little long-winded.

"She could wear out anyone by out-talking them," her stepson the Hon. Harry T. Edwards told mourners who packed the sanctuary on Wednesday (Aug. 31) at Detroit's Bethel AME Church. Smokey Robinson added that "Esther would talk, and every now and then I'd get a chance to say 'yeah.' " And even Motown Berry Gordy, Jr. confessed that his older sister -- who died on Aug. 24 at the age of 91, following a long illness "had great wisdom (but)...many times I would fall asleep between words."

Thursday's service, which stretched to nearly four hours, reflected that proclivity. But it was an appropriate tribute, a celebration delivered in music, words and pictures that provided a worthy send-off for someone many considered to be the first woman of Motown.

Stevie Wonder, who's credited Edwards as an early supporter when he was a teenager, praised Edwards "for her commitment to love" and "for what she did for my life and the many lives she touched" and noted that "if we all had a mother or sister or cousin or aunt or niece that celebrated our family and cheered our families as much as she did hers, we'd have a world unity." He then performed the spiritual "His Eye is On the Sparrow" -- interpreting lyrics as read by Motown museum CEO Audley Smith -- and his own "Sweetest Somebody I Know," which he said is "so much about her," along with a bit of "Isn't She Lovely?" with the lyrics altered to refer to Edwards.

Wonder later accompanied the silent reading of Edwards' obituary with "If It's Magic," again changing the lyrics in tribute to her.

Other musical moments included early 60s Motown artist Carolyn Crawford's inspired version of Randy Crawford's "Everything Must Change" and Martha Reeves' impromptu rendering of the Lord's Prayer, while songwriter-producers Brian and Eddie Holland reprised a song they wrote especially for the 2005 Motown museum gala that honored Edwards.

"She was a strong personality, but she was very gentle," Eddie Holland said. "She had a way of talking to you, smiling, you just had the feeling that you wanted to do what she said. Once in awhile I would get into a little argument or conflict with Berry, 'cause Berry was one of the boys. But when Esther spoke it was whatever she said."

The service was filled with warm memories, anecdotes and salutes to Edwards' business acumen and accomplishments as a black woman in male- and white-dominated industries. "I'm 5-(foot)-9 and she's five feet, and I looked up to her every day," noted U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick said during the service. But many of the comments praised her role in establishing the Motown museum in 1985 at the company's old Hitsville U.S.A. headquarters on Detroit's West Grand Boulevard.

"When I was leaving Detroit, I was going around and throwing away stuff, and Ether was coming right around behind me, picking it up," Berry Gordy noted. "Little did anyone know that one day that 'stuff' would become a world-class museum, a gift she left to the world, a legacy of hers and Motown's that will live forever. Smokey Robinson, meanwhile, said that Edwards had the foresight to feel that Motown was going to make history.

"She had that thought in her mind all along -- we are going to make history...so she began to gather our history," he explained. "She had our backs. She knew we re going to make history. She started gathering stuff and saving stuff right from the beginning."

Berry Gordy, whose large wreath of pink and red roses resided next to his sister's coffin throughout the service, also called Edwards "the glue that kept us on the right path" and called the service "probably the most wonderful funeral or celebration of life I've ever been to, and it's because I know most of the things you've heard here today have been expressed to Esther while she was alive, and she loved it."

Other speakers at the service included Edwards' three grandchildren -- Motown museum Executive Director Robin Terry, Elesha Cherry and Gwen Wimberly, her son Robert Bullock, niece Iris Gordy, Emmett Moten on behalf of Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and Motown etiquette coach Maxine Powell, who spoke of meeting Edwards while she was still running the Gordy Printing Company prior to Motown.

State Rep. Fred Durha, Jr., representing the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus, announced that he and his colleagues are "working on" a $400,000 funding grant for the Motown museum, while CEO Smith said the museum is planning a special day to honor Edwards in the near future.

The service was attended by many other Motown artists and former staffer, including the Four Tops' Duke Fakir, the Spinners' Henry Fambrough as well as Detroit singer Geno Washington. Before the ceremony, Rosalind Ashford-Holmes of Martha & the Vandellas recalled that Edwards "helped us out, just like a second mom. She made sure we stayed on track and on the straight a narrow." She said Edwards used to go shopping for stage costumes for the group, adding with a laugh that, "Some of the outfits she used to purchase we didn't like, but we had to wear them She wanted to make sure we looked like ladies."

The Contours' Joe Billingslea said that if not for Edwards, "a lot of stuff wound not have been accomplished" at Motown. "She was a true leader of Motown and a real friend of the artists."

Edwards was buried following the ceremony at Detroit's Woodlawn Cemetery.

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