When Berry Gordy Jr. returned to his hometown on Oct. 21, he brought his latest venture, “Motown the Musical,” to the Fisher Theatre with him and as is the Gordy way, generated enormous buzz on the city’s entertainment scene.
On that same day a casting call went out for star-struck hopefuls to audition for the musical. Hitsville U.S.A. became ground zero for local talent, and the aspiring stars of tomorrow formed a line that extended down West Grand Boulevard as far as the James H. Cole funeral home.
Gordy, the man responsible for the Motown legacy and the commotion around town, caused another stir as he made his way through the throng of performers in Hitsville’s Studio A who came to place their fates in the legendary producer’s hands, just as Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder and many others had done in that same studio so many years before.
Beaming and buoyed by the energy of the crowd, Gordy talked with them in a tone as familial as a family member sharing a journey with relatives.
“There are a lot of things that happened in my life that were my motivations for so many of the things that I have accomplished. … This play is not only about what I did and how I did it, but why I did it,” said Gordy.
“For example, many people don’t know how important the Michigan Chronicle is to me. It’s where I got my first lesson as a young boy on the difference between Black and White when I was selling papers.
“I was a hustler and I sold a lot of papers in the Black neighborhoods, so I decided to expand to White neighborhoods and downtown. I just knew I was going to be rich, so I took my brother Robert with me the next day so he could share the wealth.
“But when we went downtown on Woodward Avenue we sold nothing. It turned out that one Black kid was cute, but two were a threat to the neighborhood.”
Success is in Gordy’s DNA and he applied the lessons learned from his youthful enterprise to build Motown. He was careful not to put Black faces on early Motown album covers, which instead included colorful illustrations and sometimes even White faces in order to get the music heard by larger audiences.
“On the Isley Brothers’ ‘This Old Heart of Mine’ cover I had blond lovers at the beach on the cover. The Marvelettes’ ‘Please Mr. Postman’ album cover had a mailbox on it, and on the Miracles’ ‘Mickey’s Monkey’ I had a big ape, but it was cute looking big ape,” he said with a laugh.
Gordy’s acute sensitivity to human behavior and emotions stands in striking contrast to his reputation for being a task master in the studio and pit bull in the boardroom. He isn’t averse to discussing intimacy and private moments in his life.
“All people have the same feelings. They get mad at the same things, they fall in love. They feel heartache and pain and happiness, and I wanted to express that in music,” he said.
Deeper examination of the Motown legacy reveals that the hitmaker’s formula for success was not complicated. He assembled talented people and encouraged them to freely share ideas about music making without the threat of being scorned or rebuffed.
“Anybody could have an idea. There were no stupid ideas. We were dreamers and I have not changed that over the years. I am still that same dreamer, running around Detroit. I am here and I am so proud to see the people of Detroit enjoying what they helped to stimulate,” Gordy said.
While music lovers and Motown fans have wondered about the perfect storm that created such a wealth of talent over that 13-year period from 1959 to 1972 (when the company moved to Los Angeles), it was the Gordy factor that gave rise to the record company that would revolutionize the music industry.
What Detroit had that Philadelphia, Chicago and New York didn’t was a visionary at the helm with a razor sharp eye for talent and a manufacturing mentality. And when Gordy got his second wind, we got the Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson.
“Motown the Musical” is as remarkably honest in its narrative as Gordy is in telling the story of his life and Motown, which to most observers appear to be the same. It is as scintillating as it is sentimental. From the Flame Show Bar to Gordy’s blazing love affair with protégé-turned-superstar Diana Ross to the controversial decision to move Motown to the West Coast, it’s all there.
“Motown the Musical” runs through Nov. 16. For tickets and show times visit http://www.broadwayindetroit.com/.