Stories. Berry Gordy has them.
Stories of Diana Ross, whom he once romanced, leaving Motown for $20 million. Stories of Stevie Wonder’s mother’s list of demands before she would allow her child to sign with the label, which included a washer and dryer. Stories of Rick James smoking ”Mary Jane” in the studio. And stories of Mickey Stevenson, Motown’s A&R executive taking … well, we’ll let Gordy tell it.
“Mickey Stevenson once took my car for a test drive and then he came back after the weekend, you know? And I was furious that I couldn’t fire him because he was too important, so I fined him $2,000 and took it out of his pay, and he was happy because he thought he was going to get fired,” said Gordy in an interview with The Root, adding, “I had to make him learn that way.”
Much of Motown’s roster was “too important” when they got out of line. So Gordy had to get creative in his punishments by targeting their payroll.
“I’m the kind of teacher that I don’t really teach, I make people learn,” said Gordy. “Some people you make them learn by fining them.”
A person could listen to Berry Gordy for hours. He likes recounting his life and the people he has worked with and loved. Stories of Michael Jackson, who was like a son; of Smokey Robinson (“He was so proud to be at Motown”), who is Gordy’s best friend and “was the soul of Motown.” Unfortunately, not everyone can get hours with Berry Gordy. The Root had to settle for 10 minutes. Everyone else will have to settle for maybe a seat at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., where the musical based on his life, Motown the Musical, is currently running for five scant weeks.
Gordy, a living legend, was in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Dec. 2, for the musical’s opening. It was written by Gordy and is based on his autobiography, To Be Loved. It’s a whirlwind of Berry’s experiences as Motown’s creator and head executive, set to a jam-packed soundtrack of the legendary record label’s most monstrous hits.
Fifty-nine songs are featured in total, from early Gordy-written hits “To Be Loved” and “Reet Petite” to classics like the Robinson-penned “My Girl” and “Shop Around.” They’re all featured around a storyline that follows Gordy from childhood to his romance with Ross to 1983’s Motown 25 concert, where acts like Jackson (both solo and reunited with the Jackson 5), the Temptations, Ross, the Four Tops and others returned to put on a show in honor of the label many had left behind for greener (and less restrictive) pastures.
Berry was notoriously controlling of the images of his Motown acts. He wanted them to have the right look, the right appeal, the right sound. When asked about modern acts and if they could have passed Motown’s rigorous standards, Berry—ever diplomatic—moves away from naming names.
“Well, it’s hard to say because I don’t know them. I don’t know their personalities. I don’t know this. I don’t know that. And it didn’t matter how good an artist was. They had to have other qualities because if you notice, all the Motown acts, they are beautiful people,” Gordy said. “They are beautiful people, even the crazy ones like Rick James, and Marvin Gaye was crazy but he was a genius, and Rick James was a genius and I loved them both.”
Still, Gordy likes a lot of modern music.
“I pay attention to all music. I love all music, from classical to jazz to rock to rap to R&B to hip-hop. I mean, I love music, period; it’s just that it needs to be good!” Gordy said.
The relationship with the artist was paramount for Gordy. At Motown, there was a lot of love there, but there also had to be respect.
“They knew I didn't take any sh … stuff,” said Gordy with a chuckle when reminiscing about Gaye and James in particular. “I mean, you know that was not proper. Because Rick James, he might be in the studio privately smoking a joint or something, and you know, when I would come in, he’d throw it away or whatever, and I’d walk in and I’d smell it and say, ‘Come on man, what’s going on?’ But he was so great and we were such good friends by that time. He was doing ‘Super Freak’ and he brought in Teena Marie, who I loved. Everybody was doing something, and they loved being at the studio day and night. You know, I could come in there 3 o’clock in the morning and somebody was in the studio doing something.”
It’s hard to find words that easily sum up the expansive musical and historical work of Gordy, the music mogul, but Charles Randolph-Wright, who is Motown the Musical’s director, has a suggestion.
“My goddaughter, when I was talking to her about Berry Gordy, she said, ‘I know his name, I know Motown [and] all that stuff, but explain to me who he is.’ And I went, ‘Steve Jobs.’ And she went, ‘Oh.’ He single-handedly changed the world. And that's who he is,” Randolph-Wright said.
Gordy the man, though, is humble, if not bemused by the suggestion. Motown, after all, was a game changer.
“I had a wonderful time, and not just me. We all had a wonderful time, and that’s why the Motown people cannot not love each other. I don’t care what we went through, what was happening,” Gordy said. “Even though many of them left me. Many left for more money. Diana [Ross] left for $20 million cash, you know, and I still love her to death. I talked to her yesterday, as a matter of fact. We’ve learned to really appreciate those days because none of us would have been where we are today without most of us.”