Esther Edwards Gordy (right) circa 1967 with Smokey Robinson at the Motown offices (Photo: Getty Images)
Esther Edwards Gordy was known by many as the “Mother of Motown,” a longtime company executive who served in a variety of capacities and the founder of the Motown Historical Museum in Detroit.
“She was a very important person at Motown,” Smokey Robinson told Billboard. “She was a very intricate part of our company. She was tough. She was firm. And she was very thorough.”
Edwards, 91, died after a long illness on Wednesday night (Aug. 24) at home in Detroit, surrounded by family and friends.
In a statement (below), Berry Gordy saluted his older sister as “a top Motown executive, businesswoman, civil and political leader, who received numerous awards, commendations and accolades. She was the most educated in our family and was the go-to person for wisdom in business.
He added that, “Whatever she did, it was with the highest standards, professionalism and an attention to detail that was legendary. She always came out a hero. Esther wasn’t concerned with being popular. She was dedicated to making us all better — the Gordy family and the Motown family.
Stevie Wonder also issued a statement saying that Edwards, “meant so much to me as a human being….She believed in me — when I was 14 years old and many other people didn’t or could only see what they could at the time, she championed me being in Motown. I shared with her many of my songs first before anyone else. She was like another mother to me, she was an extension of that same kind of motherly love.”
Edwards was born April 25, 1920 in Oconee, Ga., and came to Detroit with her family in 1922. She was educated at Howard University in Washington, D.C. and at Wayne State University in Detroit, later partnering with brothers Fuller and George in the Gordy Printing Company before marrying Michigan state Rep. George Edwards in 1951. After pushing Berry Gordy hard to justify his family loan for $800 loan to start Motown, she went to work at the company as an artist manager, corporate secretary, Director of International Relations and a senior vice-president.
“She was a pioneering businesswoman without whom Motown as we know it may not have existed,” said Howard Kramer, a Detroit native who’s now a curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum in Cleveland. “She had the mind of a politician and the business vision of a hawk.”
Berry Gordy remembered his sister as “probably the toughest one of all of us there” at Motown, occasionally chaperoning the early Motortown Revue tours. But Edwards herself once said the hallmark of the company was “love — just love for each other, for the music, for what we were building and creating.” Wonder also noted that Edwards, “embodied the idea of never giving up. She was ever determined in everything she did, she was full of energy and her spirit will continue live on. She loved the idea of what we were creating in Motown.”
Sylvester Potts of the Contours called her “Berry’s right-hand man” and remembered Edwards as a particularly strict chaperone during Motown’s early package tours. “She was nice, but she had a way of making you understand that she was in charge,” Potts said. “We used to try to slip away from her and around her, but we couldn’t.”
Robinson also recalled, with a laugh, that “she kept the guys away from the girls. There was no hanky panky around her.” But he said another of Edwards’ habits proved to be even more valuable to Motown’s legacy.
“She was taking pictures from the time we started, every step we took as artists,” he said. “Every time we took a step, she would take a picture. We used to really think it was humorous — ‘She’s taking another picture!’ — but thank God for her. Because of her, we have our history.”
Edwards — who received a number of honors and ground-breaking appointments for African-Americans and women during her life -established the Motown Historical Museum in 1985 at the company’s former Hitsville USA headquarters on West Grand Blvd. “I want people to remember what we achieved here,” she once said, “not just the music but how these young, black people in the city of Detroit created a great company and a sound that’s known and loved all over the world.”
Berry Gordy noted that Edwards, “turned the so-called trash left behind after I sold the company in 1988 into a phenomenal world-class monument…She preserved Motown memorabilia before it was memorabilia, collecting our history long before we knew we were making it. She nurtured and held it together through the years, protecting the Motown legacy for generations to come.”
The Rock Hall’s Kramer, who used to hang around the Motown museum as a teenager, said that Edwards “was solely responsible for the Motown museum. It was her vision and execution of it. She leaves behind a tremendous legacy.”
Funeral arrangements for Edwards are pending. She is survived by: a son, Robert Berry Bullock; stepson the Hon. Harry T. Edwards; siblings Anna Gordy Gaye, Berry Gordy and Robert L. Gordy; three granddaughters; and six great-grandchildren.
Berry Gordy’s Full Statement:
Today our family mourns the loss of our beloved Esther Gordy Edwards.
Esther Gordy Edwards was a top Motown executive, businesswoman, civil and political leader, who received numerous awards, commendations and accolades. She was the most educated in our family and was the go-to person for wisdom in business.
Whatever she did, it was with the highest standards, professionalism and an attention to detail that was legendary. She always came out a hero. Esther wasn’t concerned with being popular. She was dedicated to making us all better-the Gordy family and the Motown family.
Esther turned the so-called trash left behind after I sold the company in 1988 into a phenomenal world-class monument where Hitsville started-The Motown Museum.
She preserved Motown memorabilia before it was memorabilia, collecting our history long before we knew we were making it. She nurtured and held it together through the years, protecting the Motown legacy for generations to come-which is only one of the reasons people all over the world will remember and celebrate Esther Gordy Edwards.
Despite my sorrow, I will proudly continue to honor and celebrate her. She will always be my big sister and she will forever live in my heart.