Berry Gordy: 'What Motown music did was to bring out the sameness'

Susan Whitall
Special to The Detroit News

We’re accustomed to seeing Berry Gordy’s big smile, but his grin on the occasion of the Kennedy Honors ceremony Dec. 5 was so broad that his face was in imminent danger of splitting in two.

The Motown founder, a crisp, sharply-tailored 92, seemed especially happy to be one of five people honored at the Washington, D.C., festivities according to his grandniece Robin Terry, chairwoman of the Motown Museum. Terry was in attendance, as were many other Gordy family members and Motown artists.

A telecast of the 44th annual Kennedy Center Honors, including highlights from the musical tributes, airs as a two-hour special 9 p.m. Wednesday, on CBS, and streams via the CBS app and Paramount +.

2021 Kennedy Center honoree Motown founder, songwriter, producer, and director Berry Gordy poses on the red carpet at the Medallion Ceremony for the 44th Annual Kennedy Center Honors on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, at the Library of Congress in Washington.

Also honored were singer/actress Bette Midler, “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels, opera singer Justino Diaz and singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell.

Terry described Gordy’s reaction at the ceremony: “It was an extremely humbling moment, and yet he was just elated by the honor and to be able to sit in that moment with so much love coming to the Motown legacy and to him, and to be able to say, ‘This is about all of the unsung heroes at Motown.’

“This is the highest honor that you can receive in this country for contributions to culture, so that wasn’t lost on him either,” Terry added.

As one would expect, the Motown music performed in tribute to Gordy was among the most happily received of the evening, with several of his key artists, including Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, on hand.

“All of the honorees were exceptional,” said Terry. “But it was the Berry Gordy tribute that literally had the entire audience on their feet. Everybody in that building (some 2,000 were in the audience) was on their feet, dancing.”

2021 Kennedy Center honorees, from left, Justino Díaz, Lorne Michaels, Joni Mitchell, Bette Midler, and Berry Gordy pose following the Medallion Ceremony for the 44th annual Kennedy Center Honors on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, at the Library of Congress in Washington.

That includes President Joe Biden, who was “enjoying the music and clapping along” in the presidential box, Terry reports.

Viewers will be able to see Gordy enjoy the musical tributes to him, as he sits bedecked with the medal and ribbons in the honorees’ tier.

That his honor takes place in a performing arts center named after President John F. Kennedy, who championed the arts, is especially meaningful, given how much the late president meant to him.

As Gordy recounted in his 1994 memoir “To Be Loved,” when news of Kennedy’s assassination started to trickle out on TV and radio on Nov. 22, 1963, he was in the midst of an argument with Marvin Gaye at the Motown offices at 2648 W. Grand Blvd.

Gaye felt his single “Ain’t That Peculiar” was being slighted in favor of records by other Motown artists, and Gordy was trying to calm him down. After the news broke, the argument subsided, and Gordy tried to come to terms with the tragedy.

“I believed him to be a great president who had embraced and created hope for black people in a way that had not been felt in modern times,” Gordy wrote. “A feeling of loss and shock hung over everything in those months of late 1963 and early ’64.”

Robin Terry, chairwoman of the Motown Museum

It prompted Gordy to write a song, “May What He Lived For Live,” and he named his son with Margaret Norton, born in March '64, Kennedy William Gordy.

The management philosophy that created a cultural movement out of a little house in Detroit has often been analyzed, and Gordy was happy to describe it from the Kennedy Center Honors podium.

 “We all loved each other, and we fought,” he said. “‘Competition breeds champions’ is something we would always say and feel. And we fought hard for the best records, for the best recording, for the best of everything. But we couldn’t let that get in the way of the love. And we all loved each other.”

The Kennedy Honors events (there was a dinner and other festivities as well) drew politicians as well as performers, and it was good visibility for the Motown legacy, particularly the Motown Museum, which is in the midst of a capital campaign and expansion (construction is currently in phase two, with the outdoor plaza well underway).

 “The tribute to Berry Gordy did a really wonderful job of not only celebrating all of the aspects of music and entertainment and culture that he’s contributed to, but it also gave a lot of love to Detroit and the Motown Museum,” museum chair Terry said, “so it’s something I’m encouraging folks to tune in to. A lot of our political leaders were present, and talking about the expansion and what we’re doing here.”

There probably wasn’t time for them to talk about it, but fellow honoree Joni Mitchell has a significant Motown connection. Mitchell lived in Detroit for several years in the mid-'60s with husband Chuck Mitchell. Chuck had “a Motown guy” he met in the clubs write up sheet music for her songs (most likely multi-instrumentalist Beans Bowles).

In his remarks at the awards ceremony, President Biden thanked Gordy for bringing the world “music that lifted us higher.” (That serves as a hint to the closing number, too). It may be old-fashioned, but Gordy’s message of crossover and inclusion –and that engaging grin—is a welcome sight and message in a tough year.

Motown, as Gordy once told me for a Detroit News story, was “Black-owned, but interracial. We had Blacks, Whites, Arabs and Jews working together when it wasn’t done.

He added: “I don’t like to call it Black music. I call it music with Black stars. Either it’s good or it’s bad. And everybody’s the same. White people are the same as Black people— we’re the same! We all want love, we all want happiness, we all want peace, we all want these things. Our problem is communicating, and being misquoted, and misinformation and gossip. You think I hate you, and I think you hate me.

“What Motown music did was to bring out the sameness — everybody wants love, everybody wants happiness. I felt that people were way more alike than different.”

The generations who grew up dancing to Motown — including a president — would agree.

Susan Whitall is a Detroit journalist and author. You can reach her at

44th annual Kennedy Center Honors

9 p.m. Wednesday

CBS, streaming on Paramount+ and the CBS app