What Bertha bequeathed to her family and, thus, to the rest of us
“Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it/And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!”
As a teenager in Detroit, Berry Gordy Jr. was influenced by “If,” the celebrated Rudyard Kipling poem from which those final lines are taken. Many years later, Gordy adapted its sentiments for a public message to his mother: “The world is yours and all that’s in it – For you have made me a man!”
On the same occasion, others paid tribute to family matriarch Bertha Ida Gordy. “Orchids and roses, baby,” declared her daughter Anna Gaye and son-in-law Marvin, “and anything else you want from us. You are our lifetime love, Mother Dear, and a very beautiful woman.” Harvey Fuqua and wife Gwen Gordy also offered congratulations “and hope that today, tomorrow and forever, life will be happy for you.”
What was that occasion, and what did it signify?
It was the evening of Saturday, May 2, 1964, at the storied Graystone Ballroom on Detroit’s Woodward Avenue. Bertha Gordy was being honoured by the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World; she was a long-serving Daughter of the Elks. More on that organisation in a moment, but first, here’s why the celebration mattered in a Motown context.
By 1964, “Mother Gordy” was deeply embedded in the entrepreneurial and political infrastructure of black Detroit. The onetime Georgia schoolteacher and her husband Berry (“Pop”) Gordy had moved twenty years earlier to the city, where soon she managed the grocery store and meat market which the pair established. She co-founded a mutual insurance business and sold real estate, became an active figure in the religious community, earned university diplomas with honours, and raised, with Pop, a family of eight children, imparting life lessons to all of them. This experience – the people Bertha befriended, the individuals and enterprises that she dealt with, those she helped and those who helped her – gave stature and influence to the Gordys in their adopted city.
It was not by accident that Berry Gordy Jr., and his siblings, acquired the determination, drive and acuity to build and succeed with “the Sound of Young America.”
The Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World was founded at the end of the 19th century in Cincinnati, Ohio, by black Americans who were denied membership in the white clubs affiliated with the original Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. The latter was formed in 1868 as a fraternal organisation; its bylaws were eventually changed to allow blacks as members. In 1972.
The women of the IBPOEW were known as Daughters, and still are. The testimonial event for Bertha reflected her dedication to the order, with many past and present members in attendance. She was initiated as a Daughter Elk in 1945, the same year that her 15-year-old son was given a copy of “If.” She worked tirelessly in charitable fundraising, and served two terms as a Vice Daughter Ruler. Once, she was selected as “Mother of the Day” by Eleanor Roosevelt; the former First Lady presented Bertha with an inscribed sterling silver tray.
The event at the Graystone included appearances by two talents signed to Motown Records. One was Liz Lands, whose version of the anthemic “We Shall Overcome” had been recorded at the ballroom only the previous September, produced by George Fowler and Clarence Paul. Fowler supervised the music for Bertha’s celebration.
The other Motown “artist” honouring Mother Gordy was Detroit resident Margaret Danner. She was one of two important black writers and poets – Langston Hughes was the other – who had recently recorded readings of their work for an album, Poets of the Revolution. (It eventually came out as Writers of the Revolution on Motown’s Black Forum imprint in 1970.)
Danner’s tribute flowed: “Bertha Gordy taught her children how to love one another/Bertha Gordy taught her children how to save/Bertha Gordy taught her children how to stick to sister and to brother/To stand united from the ‘cradle to the grave’.”
“I’ll tell you the message again/Think of the progress we’d gain/If as we ‘shop around’/More women could be found like Bertha Gordy.”
Danner’s poetry was printed in the night’s testimonial booklet, which offered still further insights into the Gordy family achievements. In addition to documenting Bertha’s role as a Daughter of the IBPOEW, it featured congratulatory messages from many sons and daughters of Detroit, religious and civic leaders as well as captains of entertainment. Among the latter: radio DJs Ernie Durham, Joe Howard and Bill Williams.
Motown’s backroom believers also hailed Mrs. Gordy, including vice president Barney Ales (who gave me sight of his copy of the Bertha brochure) and top salesmen Irv Biegel and Phil Jones; quality control queen Billie Jean Brown; Jobete Music supervisor/songwriter Janie Bradford; and Raynoma Gordy, Berry’s second wife. There were advertisements, too, for the Maxine Powell Finishing School (“Why wait to become Gracious, Well-Groomed, Charming, Attractive, Polished, Fascinating and Efficient?”) and the James H. Cole Home for Funerals. The funeral parlour was a Hitsville U.S.A. neighbour, located at 2640 West Grand Boulevard; the business still exists on the Boulevard today, as visitors to the Motown Museum will notice.
Another salutation came from Leo Gooden, a music entrepreneur from East St. Louis. He owned the popular Blue Note nightclub there, and Leo’s Five was its well-regarded house band in the early 1960s. Gooden was eccentric, a wide-girthed man said to have a constant appetite for mashed potatoes, which he would eat from a large bowl. More memorably, he wrote, co-produced and released Albert King’s “Worsome Baby” on an offshoot of his own label, LG Records, in 1965. Perhaps there’s a Gordy/Gooden connection as yet undocumented.
Naturally, the music factory which Bertha begat through her son was well represented in the booklet, including a final page offering best wishes from the Motown Record Corp. for “your outstanding contribution to Elkdom and the world.” Below that, a line of tiny type revealed whose presses had produced the brochure: “Gordy Printing Co., Detroit, Michigan.”
A decade later, Mother Gordy received even greater tributes. She died at age 75 in Los Angeles on January 31, 1975, and the 1,000-plus mourners at the Bethel AME Church funeral service in Detroit heard mayor Coleman Young call her “an institution in her own right.” Another powerful speaker was civil rights titan Rev. Jesse Jackson, while the Temptations peerlessly performed “The Lord’s Prayer” – a cappella, no less – and David Ruffin sang “The Impossible Dream.” Melvin Franklin of the Temps told a journalist afterwards, “Man, it was warm in there and quiet. I mean quiet.”
Respect, it was, for a gifted Daughter of Detroit. The world was hers, and all that’s in it.