A "shocking" discovery
From West Grand to Gordon Grand
Berry Gordy went to Yale.
Not to study, but to teach, on one notable evening 32 years ago. Those present heard revealing observations about Gordy’s life and work before they were synthesised into his autobiography in 1994.
It was cool, even chilly, outside the university’s Ezra Stiles Dining Hall on April 17, 1985, but there was warmth inside the room, as well as curiosity, generated by the predominantly young audience. For his business achievements, Gordy was being hailed at Yale as a Gordon Grand Fellow. He was the first music industry figure to be honoured; previous recipients came from Exxon, Citibank, IBM and McDonald’s.
The Motown founder’s talk was intended to inspire students on the eve of their careers, yet it was informal. He was not one for theatrical speeches or ringing rhetoric anyway, and during his company’s first twenty years, he had granted relatively few media interviews. (In 1969, when asked by a Detroit newspaper what gave him the most pride, Gordy spoke about his parents, who “had a lot of faith in me.” In particular, he seemed gratified to have met, or perhaps exceeded, his father’s expectations: “My father was a very wise old man, very wise, very sceptical, very cool, very strong, very hard.”)
At Yale, Gordy was paternally proud of the young singers and musicians he had brought through to stardom, and talked about that process. “I became obsessed with the deep creativity, the deep potential, of these people I was working with.” He also recalled an occasion when he was approached by “the most believable liar in the world.” He said to the unidentified man, or woman, that “you are an immense actor, you should take this negative and turn it into a positive. Because here’s what you’re going to do if you continue in this path” – implying an unhappy outcome – “but here’s what you can do in a positive way, because you are the greatest actor in the world.”
Each person has “inner thoughts, inner ideas,” Gordy told his audience. “Each person knows when they’re right. But [other] people can confuse them and make them think they’re wrong.” The new Gordon Grand Fellow said others “made me think I was wrong, because things had never been done before that I was doing.” In fact, he added, the lack of precedent was all the more reason why something untried should be done. “Because if that succeeds, you have no competition, and it goes fifty times as far as something that’s [already] been done over and over and over again.”
The results of Gordy’s own travel down an untrodden path were in plain sight in April 1985. The No. 1 song in America was USA for Africa’s “We Are The World,” written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. Moreover, the top 10 of the Billboard pop charts included the Commodores with “Nightshift,” mourning the deaths of Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson; DeBarge with “Rhythm Of The Night”; and Diana Ross with “Missing You,” another Richie composition.
But the most intriguing part of Gordy’s talk was an admission. “One day,” he said, “I had the shocking discovery, after working with these people, teaching them how to write songs and produce records and do all the things…that they were more talented than I was. Now for a person of my ego, that didn’t sit too well with me, so I didn’t tell them for a long time. But sooner or later, they found out that the master was in them. And they proceeded to take control of themselves, and move forward.”
For some of those artists, including the Jacksons, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross, moving forward eventually meant leaving Motown. When the Yale students were given question time, Gordy was asked whether there was anything he would do over again. “I would,” he answered, “probably have tried to figure out [how] not to have lost Diana Ross.”
The loss of Ross and others was, of course, used as curtain-raising drama in Motown The Musical. In March 1983, isolated in his Bel Air mansion, Gordy is portrayed as upset that the stars he created are reluctant to “return” for the taping of Motown’s 25th anniversary TV special. The crisis is averted in the musical, as it was for the television show, but it’s easy to believe that these feelings of ingratitude cut deep in real life.
Shortly before Berry Gordy went to Yale, Motown Productions’ movie, The Last Dragon, was released. “It’s really saying what I’m saying tonight,” he explained in the Ezra Stiles Dining Hall, “that is, ‘the master is inside of you.’ ”
He continued, “It’s our job at Motown to take basically new artists and people, and find out what is good about what they do, what is great about what they do, and then have them believe that that is what is great about them. They must believe it, that they are the master of themselves, not me. I can direct them, guide them, but it is them.”
That guidance and direction was responsible for many careers. To this day, Diana, Lionel, Smokey, Martha, the Four Tops, the Temptations and others schooled at Motown are capable of drawing crowds and selling concert tickets, knowing that their classic music is still magnetic. Not to mention Stevie Wonder, whose concert in London’s Hyde Park last summer attracted tens of thousands, all of whom could see that the master was in him.
Like his Motown compadres, Stevie had begun learning more than a half-century earlier, at a small, two-story building on West Grand Boulevard, Detroit – a fair distance from the hushed halls of Yale, but no less effective.