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Berry Gordy Jr. surprises Hitsville Honors even with retirement announcement
DETROIT -- Berry Gordy has long said he started Motown in the name of love
On Sunday night, Sept. 22, however, he said it's time to stop.
Accepting the Motown Legacy Award at the Motown Museum's Hitsville Honors ceremony at Orchestra Hall -- part of a weekend of events celebrating the famed Detroit entertainment company's 60th anniversary -- Gordy announced that he would be retiring from working life. Ending a genially rambling 35-and-a-half-minute speech, Gordy, who turns 90 in November told an audience of family, friends, Motown alumni and other dignitaries that, "As I stand here I'm back where I started. I have come full circle, so it is only appropriate that...I should announce my retirement."
After some laughs and then a warm ovation, Gordy -- a songwriter who borrowed $800 from a family trust fund in 1959 to start the label after working for Ford and trying his hand as a boxer and record store owner -- continued that, "For years I have dreamed about it, talked about it, threatened it and tried to do it. In fact, this has gone on for so many years that those trying to help me retire (have) retired themselves. It is time for me to spend my next 60 years reflecting on how fortunate I am, how much I appreciate and love all of you and how wonderful my life has been, and will continue to be."
Though Gordy sold Motown in 1988, he's remained active in creative and business concerns, producing the Tony Award-nominated "Motown: The Musical" in 2013 and staying involved with management of the Jobete song publishing catalog, now administered by Sony/ATV, and with reissues of vintage Motown material. He recently made a $4 million donation to the museum's expansion fund.
Gordy's surprise announcement hijacked the main headline from an eventful three-and-a-half hour marathon love-fest that included performances by Motown alumni and contemporary artists as well as five other awards chosen by the museum's board of trustees. Groundbreaking former Motown executive Suzanne DePasse received the Game Changer Award, while Motown 60 Hitsville Honors were presented to artist manager Shelly Berger, who's still handling the Temptations, and acclaimed arranger Paul Riser. Singer and current Motown vice-president Ne-Yo took home a Spirit of Motown Award, while the Esther Gordy Edwards Award of Excellence, named for the late Gordy sister and Motown executive who founded the Motown Museum during the early 80s, was presented to BET chief Debra Lee.
Gordy's decision to retire was perhaps telegraphed during an emotional speech Sunday morning, during the groundbreaking for the first phase of the Motown Museum's anxiously awaited $50 million expansion -- though he ended by promising that he "will continue to work and continue to do this thing together." On Sunday night, however, he spoke about being "overwhelmed" by his return to Detroit, including a Motown alumni luncheon on Saturday, Sept. 21, at the museum. "The love I'm getting from being here is different than anything I've ever gotten in my life," said Gordy, who also acknowledged his sister Esther and the many "unsung heroes" were were part of Motown. "People always ask me 'What does the legacy of Motown mean to you?' The answer is simply love.
"The Motown legacy remains the music we made for all people that reminds us that we are all the same, that music has no color. It gives voice to honest feelings and helps us understand each other."
Rhonda Ross, Gordy's daughter with Motown star Diana Ross, said earlier in the evening that the company's 60th anniversary hit her father differently than previous milestones. "Sixty's a lot of years and they go quickly," she said, "and I think he is amazed they've one this quickly...and that it's still standing and it still matters and what he did's still inspiring to this day."
Robin Terry, the museum's chairwoman and CEO and Esther Gordy Edwards' granddaughter, added that, "I think this is a special time in his life where he's really cherishing hometown, hometown friends and this moment and 60 years of Motown, and reflecting what that's meant to him. I think it just got to him."
Gordy's vision and achievements were certainly the emphasis of the evening, and indeed the entire weekend of activities, which included a gospel concert on Saturday night and a Soul in One golf tournament on Monday, Sept. 23. Scores of alumni, many sporting special commemorative gold LP-shaped medallions, turned out for the series of events, along with dignitaries at the Hitsville Honors such as U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow and U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, plus visitors like singer Al B. Sure! and Detroit-born singer Freda Payne. Even absent icons such as Stevie Wonder, who's preparing for a kidney transplant, and Smokey Robinson, who's in the midst of a Las Vegas residency, weighed in via video contributions -- including during a tribute for Gordy.
"It's great to be part of something that has become so immortalized, the Temptations' Otis Williams said before Sunday's show. ”Motown and Motown music have been known to go certain places that certain politicians can't. I can attest to that because I've seen it. I've been part of it. It's great to be part of something that's so monumental."
Williams and the Temptations performed three of their biggest hits during the Hitsville Honors -- hosted by actor and Detroit native Hill Harper of ABC's "The Good Doctor" -- executing sharp dance steps through "The Way You Do the Things You Do," "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" and "My Girl." Kem and "The Voice" finalist Beth Griffith-Manley, the daughter of Motown Funk Brothers keyboardist Johnny Griffith, opened the night with the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell version of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," while Ne-Yo, declaring that "without Motown there would be no Ne-Yo, point blank," delivered a medley of hits that included "Because of You" and "Goodman."
Other Motown alumni performances included Martha Reeves & the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street," the Velvelettes' renditions of "He Was Really Sayin' Something" and an extended "Needle in a Haystack" and the Four Tops, with sole founding member Abdul "Duke" Fakir, romping through "Reach Out I'll Be There," "Standing in the Shadows of Love" and "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),"
Rapper Doug E Fresh -- who freestyled during the Hitsville Honors afterparty -- delivered a mix-tape style singalong medley focused on Motown's 70s hits from the Commodores, Rick James, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross, then turned in a ferocious beat box jam with French harmonica ace Frederic Yonnet, joined later by gospel singer Tasha Page-Lockhart. Detroit rapper Big Sean dedicated his "One Man Can Change the World" to Gordy, explaining that "Motown is the foundation we stand on. You gave us a face. There would be no rap, no hip-hop without you."
And after Gordy's speech most of the cast reassembled for a long rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours," with Gordy returning to join the party.
Though filmed, there are no plans to broadcast the Hitsville Honors show in any way according to museum officials.
The Hitsville Honors program also gave the audience a first look at the expanded Motown Museum via a video depicting a multi-level glass and steel structure, mostly to be constructed on the souths side behind the company's original Hitsville USA headquarters on West Grand Boulevard. Terry said the first phase of expansion -- Hitsville Next, for arts and entrepreneurial education -- should be open by late summer of 2020.
With major funding from the Ford Motor Company Fund, Ford UAW and others, plus $1 million from Ariel Investments announced during Sunday's pre-show dinner, Terry said the museum had raised just over $25 million for the expansion and will continue its campaign to raise the other half of the money needed.
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