Berry Gordy Jr. on Kennedy Center honor: It 'will be forever in my heart'

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

The man who put Motown music on the map is now getting his own Kennedy Center award.

Berry Gordy Jr. is one of five artists who will be recognized at the highly regarded 44th Kennedy Center Honors in December, the center announced Wednesday. Other honorees this year include "SNL" creator Lorne Michaels; singer and actress Bette Midler; singer Joni Mitchell; and opera singer Justino Diaz.

Gordy, 91, said he's thrilled to be part of the Kennedy Center Honors.

"Throughout the years, I've been blessed with many wonderful memories, but this — the Kennedy Center Honors — is one that will be forever in my heart," said Gordy in a statement the Kennedy Center posted on Twitter.

Berry Gordy is being recognized as not just as Motown's founder, but a songwriter, producer and director.

Kennedy Center honorees are recognized for their contributions to American culture through the performing arts — whether in music, dance, theater, opera, motion pictures, or television — and are confirmed by the Executive Committee of the Center’s Board of Trustees.

Relatives and Motown alumni applauded the recognition for Gordy on Wednesday, saying the honor is well-deserved.

"I'm incredibly proud for my great-uncle Berry Gordy to receive this recognition from the Kennedy Center, one of our nation's great institutions honoring arts and culture, for his role in transforming the music industry as the founder of Motown," said Robin Terry, chairwoman and CEO of the Motown Museum. "It's so meaningful for his impact and the legacy of Motown to be celebrated alongside other iconic cultural individuals and movements that continue to resonate and hold a place in history now and for generations to come."

In 1959, Gordy founded Motown with an $800 loan from his family. He'd failed at other jobs — boxer, record store owner, assembly line worker and a tour in the U.S. Army during the Korean War — until he found entertainment, according to the Motown Museum.

A high school dropout, Berry Gordy Jr. took an $800 loan from his family in 1959 and with that, developed Motown into the most successful black-owned label in history. Here stands on the front lawn of ''Hitsville USA,'' the location of Motown Records as well as his home for a time, at 2648 West Grand Blvd. in Detroit.

"Growing up in Detroit, I was not only Black but the 'black sheep' of my family," said Gordy in the statement on Twitter. "I was a failure at everything I did until I was 29 years old, while my younger brother Robert was not only a family favorite, but strangely, a favorite of mine as well."

Determined to use some of the same production principles he'd learned in the auto plant, Gordy wanted to create a process in which "a kid could walk in one door an unknown off the street and come out the other a polished performer," according to the museum.

He established some of biggest names in music: the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and Martha and the Vandellas.

Martha Reeves said she'd like to attend the Kennedy Center Honors and sing Gordy a song from her 1976 album, "The Rest of My Life." It's called "Thank You." Reeves wants to modify the lyrics to say, "Thank you, Berry."

"That has all of the words of praise and accolades I'd want to say to Berry," said Reeves. 

Motown Records left Detroit for Los Angeles in 1972 but its legacy lives on. The small house on West Grand Boulevard where magic was made is now the Motown Museum, which is in the midst of a major expansion.

Gordy and all of the honorees will be honored on Dec. 5 with a program broadcast on CBS with personalized tributes and performances that are kept secret from the honorees. Organizers plan to have a full capacity audience, though masks will be required.