Fifty years ago, Detroit was sharply divided by race. Newspapers still ran ads for "colored" apartments and Detroit police cars weren't integrated until late December of 1959. It wasn't until 1961 that a progressive new mayor, Jerry Cavanagh, promised to fight segregation in Detroit's neighborhoods and public institutions.
Against this unforgiving backdrop, the prospects of one young black man, Berry Gordy Jr., were less than stellar. Gordy had given up boxing (too violent), quit his Ford factory job (too boring) and failed as a record store owner. He sold songs to singer Jackie Wilson, but didn't make any money at it. At the age of 31, the divorced father of three was broke and out of a job.
Still, on Jan. 12, 1959, the Gordy family loaned Berry Jr. $800 from the family fund so that he could start a record company.
Fifteen years later, Motown Records had become the largest African-American-owned business in the United States, turned Detroit into a music mecca and made stars of Detroit-born talent like Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson.On Monday, Gordy and Universal Motown Records will launch the 50th anniversary of the iconic Detroit label, which includes an event Monday at the Motown Historical Museum featuring Duke Fakir of the Four Tops, city and state dignitaries and others. Monday will also be declared "Motown Day" by city and state officials.
Gordy sold Motown in 1988 for $61 million, but the energetic 79-year-old is still busy promoting and defending the company he founded. He's about to get busier. Along with launching Motown 50, he's overseeing a Broadway musical based on his life and a multi-part documentary film on what he did "and how I did it" at Motown, using extensive footage filmed during Motown's heyday. He's also emerging from retirement to manage a new singer, "one of the greatest I've ever met," whom he isn't ready to reveal just yet.
Gordy exudes the same confidence he did when building his music empire.
"I never had any big setbacks to knock my ego down, because I was confident almost to the point of being cocky," Gordy said, speaking by phone from his Los Angeles office. "People would say, 'what makes you so sure?' I'd say, 'I don't think it, I know it.'
Back in 1959, Gordy was blissfully unaware of how difficult a task was before him, launching a record company in a city still recovering from the '58 recession.
"I didn't know enough about economics to know," Gordy said. "I was involved in my stuff, and I took very little interest in anything other than my creative activities and the artists I worked with. I know the times were what they were, but I guess in those days I was more concerned about the whole social situation and the racial tensions. Now I'm a lot more aware of economics and how the whole thing works."
Motown launched immortal artists like Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder, but it was also a symbol of black achievement and a big part of Detroit's international image.
"People identify Motown with the city of Detroit, and the city of Detroit with Motown," said former Detroit mayor Dennis Archer.
They still do; the Motown Historical Museum is one of the region's most-visited tourist destinations, with visitors coming from as far away as the South Pacific.
Such an institution was built not only by Motown's stars, but by many people behind the scenes. One of Gordy's goals for Motown 50 is to point out the hard work of the unsung heroes, the secretaries, accountants and others.
"I had a philosophy and a work ethic that I had gotten from my father and my family," Gordy said. "But people like the Noveck brothers were also so important in my life."
Harold and Sidney Noveck were Motown's tax attorney and CPA, respectively. "I want them to be remembered," Gordy said. "They made me put money aside. Everybody was buying great cars, and I said, 'When can I buy a nice car?" The Novecks said, 'When you can pay cash for it.' "
Other people in the background, without whom there wouldn't be a Motown, were his very supportive four sisters, Gordy said. "They would tell people, 'My brother's a boxer, you have to see him.' Then when I was a songwriter, they said, 'My brother's a songwriter, you have to hear his stuff.' "
Fighter for civil rights
Gordy also praises the courage of his artists who traveled by bus through the South with the Motortown Revue in the middle of the volatile Civil Rights era. "They were shot at; they were the unsung heroes," Gordy said. "All I'm doing now is what I've done for the past 50 years, protect the legacy because people were trying to rewrite Motown history."
Those "people" include the producers of "Dreamgirls," the 2006 film that fictionalized Motown's early days.
"The truth can only win if you can afford to fight for it and are willing to fight for it, and I was," Gordy said.Gordy demanded -- and got -- an apology from "Dreamgirls" producers, who took out an ad that ran in the movie trades. What irritated him the most about the movie was the thuggish record company boss played by Jamie Foxx.
"It's like, a black guy -- a kid -- in Detroit could not start a Motown unless he was a Mafia person," Gordy said, indignant. "It's like, a black man could not lead this country because he wasn't smart enough, but ... now one is."
"The Chairman," as Gordy is affectionately known by his artists, will be in Washington, D.C., next week for President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration -- with bells on.
It was Motown Records that released Dr. Martin Luther King's key Civil Rights speeches on records. It was Motown groups like the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas and the Temptations who insisted that the rope dividing their Southern audiences into black and white be taken down.
And it was Motown that provided a romantic soundtrack and black musical idols for white teenagers around the world, many of whom went on to vote for a black president in 2008.
Jerry Herron, dean of Wayne State's honors college, sees a direct link between what Gordy did in launching Motown and Obama being elected president. "It's like Martin Luther King standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, saying, 'I am claiming this space, I can be here, too.' "
Herron grew up in segregated Abilene, Texas, in the '60s, and his "Rosebud" memory from his youth is directly linked to Detroit and Motown.
"In 1966, at the high school dance, my girlfriend cooed into my ear as we were dancing, 'Baby love, my baby love ...' Something fundamental happened, if two white kids at an all-white dance in Abilene are dancing to Berry Gordy's music out of Detroit. It wasn't just my experience too, it was all the kids I knew. Gordy moved a kind of music around the world that we had not heard."
Gordy believes that "there could never be another Motown."
"To have another Motown you'd need another perfect storm," he said. "You don't have the '60s, the Civil Rights movement, Woodstock, a lot of things. It was a creative period in our history, that's why there will be other companies, other things, but another Motown? How are you going to duplicate a Marvin Gaye, a Levi Stubbs, a Smokey Robinson, a Gladys Knight and the Pips, a Rick James?"
There may not be another Motown, but Berry Gordy isn't done yet.
"One thing that shocks me a bit, is when I come to the Motown museum and see, 'This is where Berry Gordy lived,' and stuff like that. I want to say, 'Wait a minute, that's not me. I'm still a kid!' Because I'm still feeling really great, the life I live, with the inspirations I have, the Broadway show, a new artist I'm handling ... "
The music he's already produced isn't a museum piece either.
"It really is a rich record of what it felt like at that moment when things were beginning to change in the '60s," said Wayne State's Herron. "It's a part of 'I have a dream,' the marches, the boycotts. It's an anthem about us rising to the highest levels. Motown music has so much exuberance, people feel it in their bodies, they need to move around. I play Motown for my classes sometimes, and these kids in their teens don't have any geezer memories of it. Yet they still have to move when they hear it."
Berry Gordy on ...
Motown's legendary studio band, the Funk Brothers:
"I fought with them all the time trying to keep them from playing all the jazz things they wanted to do. They looked down on what they were doing at first, as did the great players from the Detroit Symphony ... until they really got it. But they were great; (drummer) Benny Benjamin and (bassist) James Jamerson, all the Funk Brothers were great."
When he first realized how great bassist James Jamerson was:
"When I knew I couldn't fire him. James would always defy me. I would say, 'James, this is not a jazz session, this is R&B, soul music, whatever it is.' He'd say 'OK, OK' because he really wanted the gig, we were the only game in town. So he would play it straight for a long time. Then he would throw in three or four jazz beats... but even though he defied me, I could never have gotten rid of Jamerson. He and I had this great relationship where he tricked me and defied me whenever he knew he could get away with it, because if it was something good, he knew I would leave it in. And I did."
The uniqueness of each
"All of them were talented, all of them were magical, because they were doing their own thing. Although we were using the same band, Marvin sounded nothing like Smokey, Smokey sounded nothing like Stevie, Martha sounded nothing like Diana. It came from the philosophy of being yourself, you are you. The first song I ever wrote was "You are You." They believed in that and they lived that and they're still living it today, still paying their taxes."
Autograph session with Motown stars
What: Martha Reeves of the Vandellas and Duke Fakir of the Four Tops will talk about their lives at Motown and will autograph Motown CDs and DVDs, including "Definitive Collection," "The Essential Collection," "Reach Out" (DVD). Motown 50 anniversary cake will be served following the discussion.
When: 7 p.m. next Friday.
Where: Borders Dearborn, 5601 Mercury Drive, Dearborn.
Call: (313) 271-4441