Gordy no longer presides over Motown. He sold the company in 1988 for $61 million to MCA and an investment banking firm. But he remains the man who introduced the world to Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Lionel Richie and the Commodores, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and so many other hit-making performers and songwriters that it would be easier to say that Gordy built one of the pillars of modern American culture. Motown is a place, a sound, a business and an era. It’s a form of diplomacy that crosses international, generational and racial boundaries.
Gordy, one of this year’s Kennedy Center honorees, created all of this based on a basic assumption about the universality of human emotions.
“I couldn’t understand anybody not feeling the way I felt,” says Gordy, who began his career in music as a songwriter. “I felt that people were way more alike than different and I really believed that … if they were like me, and I think I’m a good person, then whatever I write and whatever I believe in, they would believe.”
One of Gordy’s first songs, recorded by rhythm and blues singer Jackie Wilson, was a plaintive melody released in 1958 called “To Be Loved.” It is 2 minutes and 30 seconds of yearning.
Someone to care
Someone to share
And moments of despair
To be loved
To be loved
Oh what a feeling
To be loved
“To Be Loved,” written with his sister Gwen, is in many ways a Motown template. It’s romantic, wholesome and universal, but with a hint of urgency and the heat of desire. Before there was the soulful wailing of Adele, the crooning of John Legend and the synchronized two-stepping of Bruno Mars, there was Wilson, with his pompadour and heartbreaking tenor, singing Gordy’s song onto one of the earliest Billboard music charts.
That landmark helped Gordy lean into a future in the music business. He didn’t necessarily foresee his sweeping success in all its dollar figures and cultural resonance, but he knew he wanted a career in which he made people “weep with joy.” His Motown would ultimately have listeners crying, laughing and dancing, but also pondering their place in the world. As Martin Luther King Jr. is said to have told him: Motown spurred social and emotional integration.
But first, Gordy had to throw a few punches.
“I was a failure at everything I tried until I was 29,” Gordy begins.
He’s wearing gray slacks, a plaid sport jacket and a light blue shirt with barrel cuffs that have been embroidered with his initials. He’s cleanshaven with a bald pate. He’s lunching on the lanai of his Bel Air home. It sits high in the hills behind a gate, beyond his private tennis court and alongside his pool, which overlooks a magnificent cinematic view of Los Angeles. His house is not one of those contemporary glass boxes seemingly designed and decorated purely for the purposes of a spread in Architectural Digest. Instead, its restrained facade is stone; the interior is filled with warm wood trim. The furnishings are comfortable. There are no Lalanne sheep in evidence. This house has nothing to prove.
Gordy purchased this home more than 50 years ago from the radio-era comedian Red Skelton. All the folks he knew who were moving to California were staking their claim on a fancy place in the flats of Beverly Hills. But Gordy, put off by the low-hanging smog, wondered aloud about these houses up in the clear air. He was told the enclave was exclusive and quite expensive, Gordy recalls, which only focused his belief that Bel Air was exactly where he should be.
For a Black man who grew up in Detroit under modest circumstances, at a time when the city was segregated in real estate, employment and leisure, this house isn’t just a measure of personal success, it’s also a testament to how much Gordy and his generation forced this country to evolve. And it’s filled with mementos of acclaim and friendship, including the National Medal of Arts that President Barack Obama presented him in 2015 and photos with Muhammad Ali.
Gordy will tell you that his family made his success possible, and not just because of an $800 loan that helped him launch Motown. Much has been written about the lack of recognition bestowed on his sisters, Anna, Gwen, Loucye and Esther, who wrote and produced; styled and groomed; and kept a keen eye on the money. Adulation is difficult to apportion in any team effort and becomes an even pricklier matter when the success is outsize. But Gordy is quick to note that Motown would not have been possible without them.
“My sisters loved me and they thought I was somebody so special,” Gordy says. “They thought I was great even though I was a bum.”
He calls himself a bum because, for a time, he was adrift. His parents, transplanted Southerners, gave him a solid upbringing and his father was quick with an aphorism, one of which was about not overcomplicating things: “Pop was like, ‘Do what you know. Stick with what you know,' ” Gordy says. “If you can’t understand two and two is four and will always be four, then go to one and one is two. And if that’s too complicated go to one. One is you.” The message was know who you are. Know what you want.
Gordy wanted to be a businessman. He also wanted to write songs, get the girl, box. Gordy was inspired by Joe Louis’s victory in his 1938 heavyweight bout against Max Schmeling. “We were crowded around the radio listening to the fight: Left to the head, right to the head. Schmeling’s down.”
“Horns were honking. My father was crying. [Louis] made my mother and father cry with happiness,” recalls Gordy, who was about 8 at the time. “I thought, ‘What can I ever do in my life to make this many people happy?’ ”
At 126 pounds, Gordy was a featherweight when he dropped out of high school in the 11th grade and began boxing. The sweet science taught him never to underestimate his opponent. Over the next few years, he learned the importance of grace and grit. “I learned discipline. Self control before a fight. The thing that bothered me most you couldn’t uh, uh, have sexual stuff before a fight because it weakens you,” Gordy says. “It’s not just a myth. Because when I violated the rules, I was so scared. You get tired quicker.”
This brings us to the ladies. Ah, yes, the ladies. Gordy used to bemoan his mediocre dancing because the good dancers seemed to get the girls. He ultimately married three times and, by his own admission, wooed another woman while he was married. In his memoir, he makes no bones about his enduring love for Ross, with whom he shares a daughter. He was so devoted that he indulged Ross’s obsession with fashion by letting her design the ill-fated runway collection at the center of the gloriously melodramatic 1975 film “Mahogany,” which he directed. He still flirts. He also elevated women in business.
“It was probably not noticed at the time because it was so unprecedented that people weren’t checking for that,” says Suzanne de Passe, who was recruited by Gordy and eventually appointed president of Motown Productions. “I consider myself fortunate to have had him as my mentor — and tormentor.” De Passe is chuckling as she says this last bit, but she is also clear: Gordy was a tough boss.
“The climate was demanding because the stakes were so high,” says de Passe, who discovered the Jackson 5 and brought them to Gordy’s attention. “Most record companies function with the public’s money. Motown was wholly owned by him. When you’re betting on yourself to that extent, and on the people around you, it’s not a big stretch to wanting them not to be wasting money and continuing to do what made success possible.”
Gordy could have both the patience of Job and the impatience of an emperor. He used to refer to the legendary Supremes as the “no-hit Supremes” because he waited years before they had a single chart-topper. Yet he despised tardiness with such a vengeance that he locked meeting-room doors as the clock was still chiming the agreed-upon hour.
“You could dislocate an arm trying to get into that locked door,” de Passe says, laughing. “One of the first lessons I learned, while in his office in Detroit, he was going over his mail. And there was clearly an impressive letter because it was several pages on very expensive stock. He threw it away. He hadn’t finished reading it. And he said, ‘If people don’t care enough to spell your name correctly, that tells you who they are.' ”
She adds, “There was a lot expected and a lot given — opportunity being primary among those things.”
Detroit was as essential to the Motown story as any of its record-breaking artists. Early on, Gordy labored at a Lincoln-Mercury plant. He despised the drudgery, but the repetitive, manual work freed his mind to compose songs on the automaker’s time. The assembly line also inspired him to build a record company in which raw talent would roll through the door and a fully realized artist would emerge, after having been nurtured by in-house songwriters, producers, musicians and stylists.
“He called on outside sources as little as possible,” says Adam White, the co-author of “Motown: The Sound of Young America” along with Barney Ales, who for years worked alongside Gordy. Detroit wasn’t a fully formed music center like New York or Chicago, so Gordy created what he needed. The city’s isolation meant Gordy could experiment and no one noticed until Motown seemed to blossom, fully formed, on the national stage. Segregation forced a certain self-sufficiency, too. And the musical taste of Detroiters taught him something about populist appeal.
Gordy loved jazz; Detroiters did not. Before he launched Motown, Gordy ran a record shop devoted to it and had he been in a city like New Orleans, he might well be known today as the founder of 3D, a destination for the best in bebop and John Coltrane.
“In Detroit, people came from the South. They were earthy. They wanted the blues, which I thought was not something I wanted to learn about,” Gordy says. He wouldn’t deign to stock the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
“Once I went bankrupt, I figured maybe since I had the blues, I’d better get the blues. And so I got the blues in my shop, but it was too late.” He had to close the business. The lesson wasn’t lost on Gordy. The dreamer also had to be a pragmatist.
Gordy brought Black artists to a broad audience, but Motown was aspiring to be not so much a showcase Black business as a successful American one. To break barriers, Gordy availed himself of every hammer and saw.
“Filling it with the best people was what I wanted to do,” Gordy says. So he hired Ales, who died last year at 85.
“This guy was phenomenal,” Gordy recalls. “He was just so sharp. He was Italian. And he just had a whole lot of connections. And so I hired him from the distributorship. I said, ‘Look it, how would you like to come over here and be my top sales guy?’ He liked me and he liked my personality and said, ‘Okay.’ I had tried a couple of other people, but it just didn’t work out because they did not want to leave their White organizations or White companies to come work for a little Black record company.”
“There were Black promotion men that were really good, but nowhere near what I wanted at the time,” Gordy says. “I needed the top salesman I could find.”
To reach White audiences, Gordy pushed the Supremes to perform standards; he fought to book them at New York’s Copacabana nightclub, which once had a policy of not admitting Blacks. Inspired by the elegant clientele at Detroit’s Flame Show Bar, Gordy had his performers tutored in deportment.
Gordy responded to the times’ challenges with sly savvy, determination and cajoling. Just as Motown was an evolution in music rather than a revolution, Gordy was an economic bootstrapper rather than a hell-raiser.
“Gordy didn’t care what color you were,” says White from his home in London. “It was, ‘Can you do the job?’ It also meant he brought in people others might question. Much of the business aspect in the first years was in the hands of White men.”
Gordy wasn’t subject to the kind of cultural watchdogs that now surveil companies. He didn’t labor under the uncompromising expectations of outsiders. There was no Twitter.
“The ability to create in an atmosphere without intrusion or interruption from let’s call it the social media phenomenon doesn’t exist anymore,” de Passe says. “People feel entitled to offer an opinion on any and every thing whether it pertains to them or not.”
Gordy still has goals. And his latest might be the most challenging yet for a man accustomed to building, building, building. “I’m just trying to be happy with my happy life,” he says.
So after lunch, Gordy retires to the living room and sinks into a deep sofa. In this era of hip-hop, he has kind words for the music of Eminem and Tupac. But it’s his beautiful, beloved jazz that plays quietly in the background.