Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, Jr. drew knowing laughs at the funeral for his sister -- former label executive and Motown Historical Museum founder Esther Gordy Edwards, who died Aug. 24 at the age of 91, after a long illness -- when he acknowledged her proclivity to be a bit long-winded.
"Esther could talk," said Gordy, who was among several speakers to touch on that subject on Wednesday at a packed Bethel AME Church in Detroit. "She had great wisdom [but] ...many times I would fall asleep between words."
Thursday's service, then, was an apt tribute, stretching to nearly four hours. But no one was zoning out of the warm and loving memorial, which feted the accomplished businesswoman -- who -- with music, words and photos that provided a worthy send-off for someone many considered to be the first woman of Motown.
Remembering 'Motown's Mother:' Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Stefan 'Redfoo' Gordy of LMFAO, Others on Esther Gordy Edwards
Stevie Wonder, who's credited Edwards as an early supporter when he was a teenager, declared that "if we all had a mother or sister or cousin or aunt or niece that celebrated our family and cheered our families as much as she did hers, we'd have a world unity." He sang the spiritual "His Eye is On the Sparrow" -- interpreting lyrics as read by Motown museum CEO Audley Smith -- and his own "Sweetest Somebody I Know," which he said is "so much about" Edwards, along with a bit of "Isn't She Lovely?" with the lyrics altered to refer to her. Wonder later accompanied the silent reading of Edwards' obituary with "If It's Magic," again changing the lyrics in tribute to her.
Other musical moments included early '60s Motown artist Carolyn Crawford's inspired version of Randy Crawford's "Everything Must Change" and Martha Reeves' impromptu rendering of the Lord's Prayer, while songwriter-producers Brian and Eddie Holland reprised a song they wrote especially for the 2005 Motown museum gala that honored Edwards.
"She was a strong personality, but she was very gentle," Eddie Holland said. "She had a way of talking to you, smiling, you just had the feeling that you wanted to do what she said. Once in awhile I would get into a little argument or conflict with Berry, 'cause Berry was one of the boys. But when Esther spoke it was whatever she said."
The service was filled with memories, anecdotes and salutes from family members and Detroit dignitaries, who praised Edwards' business acumen and accomplishments as a black woman in male- and white-dominated industries. But many of the comments focused on her role in establishing the Motown museum in 1985 at the company's old Hitsville U.S.A. headquarters on Detroit's West Grand Boulevard.
"When I was leaving Detroit, I was going around and throwing away stuff, and Ether was coming right around behind me, picking it up," Berry Gordy noted. "Little did anyone know that one day that 'stuff' would become a world-class museum, a gift she left to the world, a legacy of hers and Motown's that will live forever.
Smokey Robinson, meanwhile, said that Edwards had the foresight to feel that Motown was going to make history. "She had that thought in her mind all along -- we are going to make history...so she began to gather our history," he explained. "She had our backs. She knew we re going to make history. She started gathering stuff and saving stuff right from the beginning."
Berry Gordy, whose large wreath of pink and red roses resided next to his sister's coffin throughout the service, also called Edwards "the glue that kept us on the right path" and called the service "probably the most wonderful funeral or celebration of life I've ever been to, and it's because I know most of the things you've heard here today have been expressed to Esther while she was alive, and she loved it."
Michigan State Rep. Fred Durha, Jr., announced during the ceremony that the state legislature was "working on" a $400,000 funding grant for the Motown museum, while CEO Smith said the museum is planning a special day to honor Edwards in the near future.
The service was attended by many other Motown artists and former staffers, including the Four Tops' Duke Fakir, the Spinners' Henry Fambrough as well as Detroit singer Geno Washington. Before the ceremony, Rosalind Ashford-Holmes of Martha & the Vandellas recalled that Edwards "helped us out, just like a second mom. She made sure we stayed on track and on the straight a narrow." She said Edwards used to go shopping for stage costumes for the group, adding with a laugh that, "Some of the outfits she used to purchase we didn't like, but we had to wear them She wanted to make sure we looked like ladies."
The Contours' Joe Billingslea said that if not for Edwards, "a lot of stuff wound not have been accomplished" at Motown. "She was a true leader of Motown and a real friend of the artists."