Berry Gordy Jr. may only be five-foot tall in height but he left big shoes to fill when he sold Motown Records nearly 25 years ago.
As founder of the historic record company in 1960, which launched the careers of Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, and the groups The Temptations and The Supremes, Gordy, 82, said he had a vision to introduce Black singers to America.
“I knew there was talent beyond just white voices. There were soulful sounds being made by Blacks but no one could hear them because they had nowhere to go to produce the kind of music Blacks wanted to hear,” Gordy told an audience during a tribute to him at the Art Institute of Chicago.
“All I wanted to do was help Black singers recognize their talent and share it with the world.”
He added that he always took the unconventional route to success, regardless what the circumstances were. This was a man who, as a child, could not recite his alphabet from A to Z but could sound them off backwards. He recalled how he was once stopped in Los Angeles by police for suspected drunken driving and was let go after the officer told him to recite the alphabet backwards.
He also talked about what he had to do for the classic movie “Lady Sings the Blues” starring Diana Ross to get made and released by Paramount Pictures.
The movie studio had only budgeted $500,000 for what he said they described as a Black movie.
“I told them that this is not a Black film (but) a film with Black stars,” recalled Gordy.
These were some of the memorable stories he recalled during a PBS-TV taping where journalist Gwen Ifill interviewed him before a live audience. The History Makers, a non-profit organization in Chicago, hosted the tribute. The show is expected to air spring 2013.
Joining Gordy at the tribute was the Rev. Jesse Jackson; Suzanne de Passe, a former Motown Records executive; Los Angeles Sentinel and L.A. Watts Times Publisher Danny Bakewell; Gordy’s daughter Hazel Gordy and son Stefan Gordy.
Audience members were treated to a performance by two cast members of Gordy’s upcoming Broadway show, “Motown: The Musical.” The scene, he said, re-enacted Gordy (portrayed by Brandon Victor Dixon) and Diana Ross (played by Valisia LeKae) falling in love in Paris. The song: Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By.”
Entertainment at the tribute included a performance by singers Kem and Valerie Simpson, who performed “I’ll Be There,” originally sung by the late Michael Jackson and his brothers known then as the Jackson 5.
Berry had dropped out of high school to pursue a career as a boxer before finding his niche in music. Before pursuing music Berry was a lover of boxing. So he dropped out of high school to pursue a boxing career, which lasted until 1950 when the United States Army drafted him for service in the Korean War.
In 1953, he returned home from service and married Thelma Coleman.
In 2001, Berry Gordy established a relief fund for former Motown artists, musicians & writers who are down on their luck.
The Gwendolyn B. Gordy Fund assisted artists from the 60’s and 70’s with Gordy donating $750,000 in the name of his late sister.