'To Be Loved' at 64
Berry Gordy starts shaping his story
To mark the occasion of the chairman’s 88th birthday on November 28, West Grand Blog revisits his home in the golden state.
The police-car sirens started early, wailing up from the horizontal spread of Los Angeles which lay outside my hotel room on Sunset. Perhaps they were in sympathy with the city’s assistant police chief, who had been publicly demoted the day before. I turned on the radio, apparently in tune with events, as Stevie Wonder was singing “Knocks Me Off My Feet.”
From the balcony, I could detect only a hint of autumnal smog. Which was presumably why the hotel elevator Muzak was playing “I Can See Clearly Now.” (I kid you not.)
In the Mondrian’s breakfast room, three business-suited men discussed a high-ticket hooker from the night before. According to one of them, the asking price was $300, but he bargained her down to $100 – only to find that his ATM card wouldn’t work when required. It seems that the deal was not consummated.
This was Monday, September 12, 1994, and I was in town to interview Berry Gordy.
To Be Loved, the Motown founder’s autobiography, was due to be published at the end of October, shortly before his 65th birthday. To promote the book, the chairman (as he likes to be called) was embarking upon an intense round of media interviews, the most he had ever done in his career. In particular, Billboard – my employer – was planning to devote a special supplement (in its November 5 edition) to the man whose enterprise had transformed the music industry.
It was a 30-minute drive to my destination, Gordy’s palatial home in Bel Air, but it had taken me a lifetime to arrive. Sure, I had met him before: some nine years earlier, when he gave a speech at Yale University. Then, we chatted informally. Now, I was to interview the man, to ask all the questions I had accumulated over time.
While building Motown, Berry Gordy allowed the occasional inquisition: the Chicago Daily News in 1965, the New York Times in 1966, the Detroit Free Press in 1969. Those were exceptions, not the rule. He was preoccupied with the music, the people, the business and everything else which fuelled Motown’s trajectory as “the Sound of Young America.” But, years later, he was advised that this low media profile gave others license to tell his story. “I still like it a little better behind the scenes,” Gordy admitted to an audience when he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in early 1988.
Six months later, after selling Motown Records, the chairman set about shaping the narrative himself: firstly in print with To Be Loved, and subsequently with Motown The Musical, based on the book.
Shortly before our interview, Gordy revealed anger at how his silence had allowed untruths to flourish. An article in Newsweek referenced Jackie Wilson and Mary Wells as Motown artists who had died broke. He reprimanded the magazine for its errors, noting that Wilson was never under contract to Motown, that Wells had been signed to five other record companies after she left Gordy’s, before her 1992 death. “You will not rewrite our history,” he fulminated in a published letter. “I will not allow it.”
Today, while preparing to write what you’re reading, I found my homework for that September 12 session: almost 30 pages of handwritten notes and questions. “Thelma Records?” was one scribble. “Lamont says you were very aggressive, very self-confident,” declared another. And, on the subject of rewarding his musicians, I had written an extract from an earlier conversation of mine with Earl Van Dyke: “If you didn’t come out of Motown with some money or some property, it wasn’t Berry’s fault.”
I also discovered the faxed map and directions to the hilltop mansion in Bel Air, from one of the Gordy Company staff. “Bear [sic] left and go to stop sign,” instructed one. “Make left into cul-de-sac.”
The house seemed about a half-mile from the electronically-gated entrance, where the sound of walkie-talkies came into hearing range. Ahead of my rented car, a security guard drove a black Lincoln. After passing through the generous sweep of the front door, I was introduced to Gordy’s loyal, longtime secretary, Edna Anderson, and shown to a large room where the Q&A was to take place. While waiting, I noticed a plaque with the following inscription: “You answered the bell when we needed you the most; from the spirit of Sugar Ray Robinson and the love of his wife Millie.” It was dated April 19, 1989, one week after the champ died.
In the designated interview room – lit by bright sunshine, I recall – there was a TV monitor and bottles of Evian in an ice-bucket. One of Gordy’s aides was present, as was a man I had not expected to see: Ewart Abner, the storied executive who had run VeeJay Records before joining Motown in 1967, and who later became one of Stevie Wonder’s closest advisors. I brought out my cassette recorder, while noting that two other pieces of hardware – one of them a video camera – were also being used to tape the occasion. No latitude for misquotes, then.
The chairman appeared, looking fit and sporting a wide, charming smile. He was clad in sportswear trousers and a blue T-shirt, and as we engaged in introductory small talk, he enthusiastically ate a large bowl of breakfast cereal.
Berry Gordy was engaging, candid, funny – and probably well-rehearsed. But I have no memory (or notes) of enquiries he wouldn’t answer, although my list ran longer than the time allotted. I had, of course, submitted those questions beforehand, in writing. To read them that morning, Mr. Gordy needed his No. 3 glasses. An aide obliged.
And so we began…