As Motown gathers to sing his praises, Berry Gordy announces retirement

Susan Whitall
Special to The Detroit News

If we can believe him, Berry Gordy danced his way into retirement Sunday night at Orchestra Hall, bopping to Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” after accepting the Hitsville Honor “Legacy Award.”

The gala was the centerpiece of Motown 60 weekend, and a fundraiser for the Motown Museum as well as a thank you to Gordy.

Motown Records founder Berry Gordy and his daughter, Sherry Gordy, applaud Sunday during remarks at the dinner.

Talking about the Motown Museum’s expansion, which will provide a venue for music education, Gordy said it will “inspire young people to go after their dreams, as I went after mine. I have come full circle, and it’s only appropriate that in the city where my amazing fairy tale began, that I should announce my retirement. For years I have dreamed about it, threatened it,” he laughed.

But finally, he reckoned, it’s time to spend the next 60 years “reflecting on how much I love all of you."

“I had this wonderful speech planned, but then I see you all and … love got in the way. There’s too much love here,” Gordy said, his voice breaking, as a man shouted out “We love you Berry!” from the audience.

Robin Terry, chairwoman and CEO of the Motown Museum, right, hugs Motown Record founder Berry Gordy, with Suzanne De Passe, left, as they enter on the red carpet. Hitsville Honors event at The Cube at Orchestra Hall in Detroit on Sept. 22, 2019.  
(Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

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Shelly Berger, a former executive who managed the Temptations and other Motown acts, drew laughter when he said there was nobody more frightening than Gordy in certain moods, and that even making Gordy godfather of his child didn’t help him any. Suzanne DePasse, a Hollywood mogul in her own right, said that she hasn’t worked for Gordy since the early 1990s, but… “I still work for him,” she admitted, laughing.

Both dePasse and Berger received awards Sunday night.

Lee Daniels, producer of TV series "Empire" about a family-owned black music company as well as the movie "Precious," told Gordy from the stage: “There would be no Lee Daniels without you. There would be no 'Empire' without you. There would be no 'Black Panther' without you.”

Daniels, who said Gordy's Billie Holiday biopic "Lady Sings the Blues" was what made him want to make movies, added that he is preparing his own film about the beloved jazz singer.

Gordy repeated one of his favorite stories, about how his one desire in life was to make people as happy as he saw his parents and other Detroiters when they danced in the street after boxer Joe Louis vanquished Max Schmeling in 1938.

Did he feel he accomplished that? “I don’t know, I guess so,” Gordy said in the lobby of Orchestra Hall as he arrived for the festivities Sunday. “I hope so.”

Rhonda Ross, the daughter of Gordy and Diana Ross, said she thinks her father feels appreciated, but for someone who’s turning 90 in November, “he does not look back.”

Guests on hand to celebrate included to U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell and former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, along with music royalty Otis Williams of the Temptations, Charles Davis of the Contours, Levi Stubbs Jr. and Claudette Robinson of the Miracles.

Other notables, including Edsel and Cynthia Ford, went right to the dinner inside the Cube Building on Woodward .

“Edsel used to go to Motown Mondays,” said Tom Schoenith, whose family owned the Roostertail, which hosted the Motown acts. “(His father) Henry II called and said to let him in, but don’t let him drink — he was 16!”

“It was so great seeing my brothers and sisters of song,” Robinson said of the alumni luncheon Saturday. “I am here to represent the Motown artists who are no longer with us, especially the Miracles, Bobby, Pete, Ronnie, and our guitarist, Marv Tarplin.

Marvin Gaye III was happy to talk about why his father’s music resonates so much with young people today.

“He was way before his time, Gaye said. "‘What’s Going On’ speaks to what’s happening today, almost to the lyric.”

Gaye said he still drives by some of the places associated with his family — his mother was Gordy’s sister, Anna Gordy Gaye — including their sprawling ranch house on Outer Drive, owned by Gordy before the Gayes lived there. “I have fond memories of living there.”

Berry Gordy acknowledges applause for him after he is mentioned in remarks at the dinner.

Earlier Sunday, Gordy; his great-niece Robin Terry, chairwoman of the Motown Museum; Gov. Gretchen Whitmer; Stabenow; Motown Records general manager Marc Byers; and other special guests gathered on West Grand Boulevard for a groundbreaking ceremony for Hitsville Next, which will add educational space and exhibits to the original Motown headquarters and studio.

Among other Gordy family members at the gala: Gordy’s youngest son, Stefan Gordy, known as “Redfoo,” the LMFAO rapper/singer; Gordy’s daughter Sherry Gordy; Motown songwriter/producer Iris Gordy, daughter of Fuller Gordy, the Chairman’s oldest brother; and her daughter (by Motown songwriter/producer Johnny Bristol) Karla Gordy Bristol.

Several Motown icons were unable to attend — Smokey Robinson had a previously scheduled gig in Las Vegas and Stevie Wonder is due for his kidney transplant surgery — but provided video comments.

“I hope that you will be remembered a million times 90 years for the great things you’ve done,” Wonder said, in his inimitable style. Remembering how he came to Motown in 1960, “that boy with the squeaky voice who played the harmonica,” he added: “Were it not for you, Berry, I wouldn’t have had a career.”

 Many present were the people who made the hit factory hum, including Temptations guitarist/music director Cornelius Grant; Brian Holland of the powerhouse Motown writing/producing team Holland-Dozier-Holland, and Louvain Demps and Jackie Hicks of the Andantes, Motown’s female backing vocalists.

Even the band performing Sunday was all in the Motown family, as Keith John, son of Little Willie John and a longtime backup singer with Stevie Wonder, sang “Money” to introduce the Chairman (and co-writer of that tune), as well as “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” To add to the Motown connection, John’s aunt Mable John was Gordy’s early assistant and a recording artist for the label in the early 60’s.

This 60th anniversary year has already seen the airing in April of “Motown 60: a Grammy Celebration,” the revival of Mosaic Youth Theater’s "Motown 1962: Now That I Can Dance" in August, and that same month, the premiere of the long-in-the-works, Gordy-produced "Hitsville" documentary on Showtime.

A Motown gospel concert was held at Detroit World Outreach Church Saturday evening.

On Monday afternoon, if rain doesn't interfere, Fakir will host a Motown golf outing at the Tam-O-Shanter Country Club in West Bloomfield Township.